Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro


Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

I know little about modernist literature and less about Latin American literature. Even so, this month I undertook a naive reading of the short story collection titled Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina, 1899-1986), translated into English by Anthony Kerrigan and others. The first edition of the collection was published in Spanish in 1944, and the first English translation, of its second edition, appeared in 1962. Most of the stories were written during World War II. The stories are generally speculative or fantastic. A few are in the mystery tradition of Edgar Allen Poe; some deal with themes of World War II; others with ancient traditions or mythological times.

The first story, titled "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940), involves the narrator's discovery of information about Uqbar, a supposed ancient country of the Middle East; he presumes that Uqbar is fictitious but cannot be quite sure. A similar discovery occurs, of a book describing an inhabited planet called Tlön. Its denizens are immersed in what appears to be a parody of the school of philosophy known as idealism. Then things become really strange.

I immediately spotted the similarities in elements and tone to Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966): variations in printed books, especially in pirated copies; secret anarchist societies; the phrase "projecting a world." I was startled. I had always wondered how The Crying of Lot 49 (which, as readers may recall, I like a lot) had been crowned as Literature rather than dismissed as pulp; I guess it matters of whom one is derivative. I do give Pynchon credit for visualizing the connections between this story's elements and other elements strewn across the rest of Ficciones, and creating an American-set novel of the consequences. (I also noted that Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem found his true home on the plane Tlön.)

Some of the stories of Ficciones are exclusively intellectual, as "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is, and other exclusively supernatural; others are strange variations on the mystery genre. One of the latter is "Death and the Compass" (1942), which is closer to today's peculiar and sophisticated detective-thriller movies than to Poe.

Yet the stories I found most compelling are ones I would describe as the most believable, or that I found sufficiently believable, in some cases combining the intellectual, the supernatural, and recognizable genre elements. I was caught up in these stories just as was presumably intended.

One of these was "Funes the Memorious" (1942), in which the narrator describes his encounters with a crippled villager who has a super-memory. I would have found it plausible as a true story. We are generally familiar nowadays with autistic savants, such as the one fictionalized in the movie Rain Man, and with otherwise normal people with superior memory capabilities. I was reminded of The Mind of a Mnemonist (1968) by Russian psychololgist Alexander Luria. But Borges' story takes on a life of its own...

Copyright © 2008 by Heidi Boudro