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Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges, was the October book for the World Literature Goodreads Group.
As I was very fond of Borges in my teens, I thought this was a good opportunity to (re?)read it. I started with the group, but wanting to go more in depth, I was not able to read it all in October. And then, I had the very time consuming readalong of The Satanic Verses in November.
So I’m finally back to it, and decided to actually share my comments here.
So for today, let’s talk about the first story:
TLÖN, UQBAR, ORBIS TERTIUS
Some of the following will be obvious to you if you who have read the story, but I also mean to have these notes for myself. So just ignore them if you find them boring.
In the Prologue, the author writes:
The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary. Thus proceeded Carlyle in Sartor Resartus. Thus Butler in The Fair Haven. These are works which suffer the imperfection of being themselves books, and of being no less tautological than the others. More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.
It perfectly illustrates the type of metafiction Borges relished writing.
Borges does not write just smart and dry stories.
Some passages are full of lyricism, such as:
Other objects are made up of many elements—the sun, the water against the swimmer’s chest, the vague quivering pink which one sees when the eyes are closed, the feeling of being swept away by a river or by sleep.
Others contain humor, like these passages:
My father and he had cemented (the verb is excessive) one of those English friendships which begin by avoiding intimacies and eventually eliminate speech altogether.
Or “mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of man.”
Having now read The Invention of Morel, I find it fascinating to see so much the image of mirrors in these stories. Borges said that Casares’s novella was one of the best pieces in literature. Did they talk about mirrors together in real life? Did one influence the other with their use of it? I can see a few scholarly papers have been written on exactly that question, but there’s no free access to them. So please share if you know more about this.
The narrator of the story is curious about the origin of this latter sentence and tries to find out in which book it was written. A friend of his (Bioy Casares – of course a real author, who wrote for instance The Invention of Morel) tells him he has read this sentence in the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, in the chapter about Uqbar.
But when they consult the book, the sentence is not there, nor in any other books on Uqbar. The next day, the friend finally finds it in another edition of the Cyclopedia. Uqbar ends up being an obscure region in the Middle East, and it has literature taking place in the mythical worlds of of Mlejnas and Tlön.
In the second part, as the narrator much later remembers, his father had a friend who passed away. The narrator ended up inheriting the 11th volume of an encyclopedia entirely devoted to Tlön. A strange expression Orbis Tertius is stamped on it. Thanks to this volume, the narrator learns more about Tlön’s culture, especially its language with unusual grammar and structure.
The postscript of the story focuses on Orbis Tertius, a secret society made up of intellectuals studying hermetics. Their first goal was to create the country of Uqbar, and then a whole new world, Tlön, and to write an encyclopedia about it. By the end of the story, in the mid 1940s, the narrator’s current world is slowly morphing into Tlön itself.
I enjoyed this story and all its themes focusing around language and its links with culture. And also how a language can influence and impact our view of the world to the point of even modifying it.
Having read a lot of Murakami books, I sometimes felt the same ambiance, where you never quite know if you are in reality or not, just at the edge of it. Actually Murakami did say that Borges was one of his literary heroes, see the article Borges and Murakami: Philosophy in Fiction.
Passages about perception of time were fascinating:
One of the schools in Tlön has reached the point of denying time. It reasons that the present is undefined, that the future has no other reality than as present hope, that the past is no more than present memory.
I also liked the mix of fiction and nonfiction, for instance with the presence of Bioy Casares. And in all the works mentioned in the story, it’s not easy to figure out which ones are real and which ones are not. I guess that’s the whole point!
I have read at least a couple of other books inserting the author himself in fictional narratives (come to mind right now Anthony Horowitz in his Hawthorne and Horowitz Mystery Series, and Joël Dicker in L’Énigme de la chambre 622.
There are many other themes, most of which I probably didn’t even catch.
Just like another brilliant mind of our time, Salman Rushdie, Borges’ erudite style is both challenging and fascinating, as there’s always so much to discover in it.
Seeing when the story is supposed to be taking place, the end of the story is an obvious allusion to the dangerous rise of Nazism.
To go more in depth, I can only recommend the Course Hero page on this book.
Come back on Wednesday for my thoughts on the second story: The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF IT,
OR OF THIS STORY?