Monday, August 3, 2015

Review of Borges's Ficciones

Ficciones (Fictions) by Jorge Luis Borges, 1953. Read in Spanish. 3.5 out of 10.

Most of the short stories contained in this book are thought experiments. What if a group of people created an encyclopedia about an imaginary world? What if a middle-aged writer who read Don Quijote once in childhood succeeded at recreating parts of it word-for-word decades later? What if the lottery came to rule a country?

Unfortunately I found Borges's treatment of all of these questions seriously boring. The main thought provoked in me by Ficciones was "how could it have become so popular?" Well, it very loudly, though implicitly, claims to be profound. Yet it's all easy to understand. That's not a bad combination, marketing-wise. And Borges peppered his stuff with numerous learned and obscure references and even academic-looking bibliographies. You would expect an expert plumber of epic depths to constantly talk about how this or that reminded him of what Schopenhauer said about Kantian categories. It flatters people that they can understand the gist of arguments that are decorated in this way.

One of Borges's hypotheticals is simply a novel that describes different outcomes of the same event in different chapters. And these different outcomes later bifurcate in the same way. Lots of junior high school nerds must have come up with this breakthrough on their own in the 1980s while planning their first computer games.

The shocking thing is that this theme of a novel with bifurcating story lines then recurs in another story in the same book. As do a few others of Borges's themes. It's a tiny little short story collection, and he still had to be repetitive in it?

The story called The Sect of the Phoenix contains a Secret. It's natural for those who've read it to want to compare with each other how fast they figured it out. I reached the end without a clue, but then remembered that in the preface Borges wrote a few explanatory sentences about several of the stories. I went back, reread what he wrote about the Phoenix and immediately got the joke. But what did cork, wax and gum arabic have to do with it? A web search revealed that that was another joke. Unfortunately neither of them was funnier than his thought experiments were profound.

In the same preface Borges wrote that a story called The South was probably his best. I was surprised to agree with this. Unlike most of the others it deals with a realistic character who does plausible things in the real world. And the characterization, the setting, the emotions and the ending weren't even badly done. So he could have been an entertaining writer. He just had to have been born a little earlier or been a little less conformist and pretentious.

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