Monday, February 02, 2009

Book Look: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Book Look: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges: The seminal collection of short stories from one of the founding fathers of modern Latin American literature. I have previous discussed the opening story, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (second entry), which is the best of this collection and one of the finest short stories ever written. The remainder of the stories vary in quality from stunning to passable.

Borges stands out for his unmatched imagination. A list of the topics covered by some of the stories here (besides Tlon, above) will give you a good idea:

"The Babylon Lottery" -- imagines a civilization where all facets of life are left to the chance of lottery drawings. The history of the lottery is described wherein it becomes more and more prevalent and more and more secretive until it takes on the aspect of God.

"The Library of Babel" -- an unimaginably large library of hexagonal rooms filled with books of an identical length. The books contain every possible combination of 25 characters (22 letters, space, period, comma). As such, although the vast majority of them are total gibberish, they also they must contain every concept that it is possible to express and every bit of knowledge that can be known.

"The Garden of Forking Paths" -- A Chinese spy in England in the employ of the Kaiser in WWI is the descendant of a man who wrote strange book with no apparent logical structure -- characters die only to reappear later, events show little causal continuance. The spy happens to cross paths with a man who has determined that his ancestor was writing a single story but following the different ways it could have played out. Each decision made by a character opened a new thread of reality. Interestingly, this corresponds to, but predates and presages, the many-worlds theories of quantum mechanics by a decade. (Don't dig into it without clearing your schedule.)

"Funes the Memorious" -- the story of a young man who remembers everything in exact detail. He passes the time by reconstructing a full day's memory, an act which takes him a full day.

You get the picture. Borges existed at the intersection of speculative fiction, metaphysical epistemology, and literature. He was well ahead of his time in that respect, but to the modern reader some of this can seem unimpressive simply because imitators have done it to death over the ensuing years. Borges prose can be very dense and, to my eye, it is oddly parsed but that may be the result of translation more than anything else. If your taste is of an imaginative turn, Ficciones is a good book to keep handy. The stories are short and it's good to dive in at any point as a kick-starter for your neurons.