Thursday, March 25, 2021

Book review: COLLECTED FICTIONS by Jorge Luis Borges


Book review:
COLLECTED FICTIONS (1999) by Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentinian writer. Several of his short stories have proved immensely influential.

This big book collects his published short stories in English translation, from the 1930s and onward.

There are recurring themes in his fictions:

- The history of the author's country, its peculiar customs and legendary historical characters (several of the stories refer to the bloody civil wars of 19
th century South America).

- Violent men whose
machismo leads them to a violent end.

- Fantastic places and characters, magical objects.

- Mysteries, sometimes with a twist, sometimes without any explanation or answers.

- Labyrinths or other places where the characters get lost.

- The blurring of reality and fiction.

- The author sowing doubt whether the events depicted are in fact real, doubt in official ”history” or personal accounts of events.

- Metafiction; stories about other stories or about the nature of fiction itself.

- Human beings encountering abstractions that have taken on a physical form, for example mathematical infinity (most famously used in Borges' story ”The Library of Babel”) or things which are logically impossible.

    As highbrow as this all may seem, I couldn't find anything obviously pretentious about Borges' writing. His narrator's voice comes off (at least in this translation) as detached, fragmentary, ironic, sometimes mocking itself. You often get a sense that he's not telling you everything, and he admits it.

    In his stories about Argentinian history, Borges can be caught playing a sly game – even as he elaborates on legends, and the tendency to paint historical figures as clear-cut villains and heroes, he undermines the certainty of history. If there is a ”message” to be found – and I'd be a killjoy if I said there definitely was – it's perhaps that stories should be enjoyed as stories while the ”truth” remains elusive.

    Of all the stories, one stands out as quite different from the rest: ”Deutsches Requiem.” Written in the 1940s after World War II, it tries to look deeper into the warped thinking that led apparently ”cultured” Germans to embrace Nazism. It's a rare peek into an abyss of the mind.

    I enjoy being mystified by a good story, and I really did enjoy most of Borges' fictions, but I can imagine he's not everyone's cup of tea.

    COLLECTED FICTIONS is highly recommended for lovers of short stories and fantastic, unusual fiction. This is a literary box of chocolate pralines – don't try to eat all of them in one sitting. Savor them one at a time, and read them again.

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Monday, March 08, 2021

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Saturday, March 06, 2021

Book review: THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle


Book review:
THE LAST UNICORN (1968) by Peter S. Beagle

During a book circle meeting we discussed THE LAST UNICORN, and someone commented that modern Fantasy literature went in two directions with C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien...

Lewis allowed for inconsistencies, whimsy and ”flights of fancy,” and used the ”magic portal” trope to connect the fantasy world to reality – like fairy tales do.

Tolkien, on the other hand, did away with the ”magic portal” and created an imaginary world to exist independently of reality (sort of).

THE LAST UNICORN definitely falls in the category of ”whimsical” fantasy. It's self-referential, ironic and inconsistent. It seems to point forward to works like THE PRINCESS BRIDE and SHREK (or even the film TIME BANDITS).

The plot is fairly simple: A magical unicorn, hearing that she is the last of her kind, goes on a quest to find other unicorns. She meets a failed wizard, they have various adventures (some of them comical), explore a cursed castle, and eventually the story ends ”happily” but on an ambiguous note.

Despite its whimsy, irony and self-awareness, this book is well written – often beautifully so. I enjoyed it not so much because of its originality, but because the writing was good. Also, the story's lack of self-importance felt refreshing in an era of pompous ”epic” fantasy books. It didn't pretend to be ”important” or ”weighty.”

THE LAST UNICORN is an early example of the ”postmodern” fairytale which is now commonplace in popular media. I recommend it as light entertainment for all ages.

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