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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