Ficcciones by Jorge Luis Borges is about 170 pages in Spanish; the English translation of the same book is about 120 pages (within Borges’ Collected Fictions). Why, then, has this book taken weeks to get through?
Borges’ writing style is powerful. In some sense, I’m glad I struggled through Borges just to get a feel for his different style. But unlike Nabokov’s powerfully written stories, Borges’ well-written stories are weird. I seriously can’t think of any other word to describe them. I overall did not like them, and I will never read more Borges.
Author Yann Martel, who is more literary than I am, explains Borges to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in this way:
These stories are intellectual games, literary forms of chess. They start simply enough, one pawn moving forward, so to speak, from fanciful premises-often about alternate worlds or fictitious books-that are then rigorously and organically developed by Borges till they reach a pitch of complexity that would please Bobby Fischer. Actually, the comparison to chess is not entirely right. Chess pieces, while moving around with great freedom, have fixed roles, established by a custom that is centuries old. Pawns move just so, as do rooks and knights and queens. With Borges, the chess pieces are played any which way, the rooks moving diagonally, the pawns laterally, and so on. The result is stories that are surprising and inventive, but whose ideas can’t be taken seriously because they aren’t taken seriously by the author himself, who plays around with them willy nilly, as if ideas didn’t really matter.
Here are a few notable stories with my summaries that may help you understand why “weird” is the only word I can think of to describe Borges.
- “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” A man discovers a reference to the odd country of Uqbar in an Encyclopedia and tries to find out more information about it. In the course of the next few years, the world becomes obsessed with this country, which has been invented on an invented planet, and begins to live as if the world of Orbis Tertius is the reality. This was the first story I read and was the most challenging to read.
- “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Writing a critical review of Menard’s life, the narrator explains how Menard’s best work, although unknown, was his rewrite of Don Quixote. Menard rewrote Quixote from memory, living as if he were Cervantes.
- “The Circular Ruins.” A man washes up on the shore outside of circular ruins. Over the next year, he dreams a man into creation, and sends his begotten son into the world. This was probably my favorite story, weird as it was: to think that he dreamed a person into being, from the heart to each hair on his body. Great twist at the end, too.
- “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In a subtle mystery, during the end of WWII a man travels by train to escape his murderer and to deliver a message. It was quite confusing to me.
- “Funes, His Memory.” A young man named Ireneo Funes developed a collective memory of everyone and everything.
- “The Shape of the Scar.” The story of how an Irishman got his scar. This was also one of my favorites as it was the least weird.
- “Death and the Compass.” A detective is trying to solve the mystery of three murders and he thinks he has the solution.
Reading in Spanish
I had started reading Borges’ stories in Spanish. I studied Spanish in high school and college, and would like to not forget all the things I studied. This was to be a refresher.
But I would read a paragraph and try to translate it, feeling frustrated. My preliminary thought was always “I don’t get it!” I read the first story (“Tlon”) twice in Spanish before I determined to find an English translation. To my surprise, I read it in English and felt similarly confused. I still didn’t get it.
I read that first story about four times before I started to appreciate it as the bizarre philosophical whatever that it is. I do now think it is rather interesting. But I’d suggest reading it in your first language from the beginning.
In the midst of struggling to read the second story in Spanish, I read Yann Martel’s letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper:
Upon rereading Fictions I was as unimpressed this time around as I remember being two decades ago. …
Now why am I sending you a book that I don’t like? For a good reason: because one should read widely, including books that one does not like. By so doing one avoids the possible pitfall of autodidacts, who risk shaping their reading to suit their limitations, thereby increasing those limitations. The advantage of structured learning, at the various schools available at all ages of one’s life, is that one must measure one’s intellect against systems of ideas that have been developed over centuries. One’s mind is thus confronted with unsuspected new ideas.
Which is to say that one learns, one is shaped, as much by the books that one has liked as by those that one has disliked.
I can certainly appreciate that logic: that reading something you don’t like can still teach you something. But I still determined not to spend all the extra time required to read the book I don’t like in a foreign language.
Where It Fits
I read Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges primarily for my personal HTR&W challenge, in which I’m reading through Harold Bloom’s list of short stories, poems, plays, and novels.
Borges’ Fictions was just 120 pages in English; I was determined to finish it. But if I didn’t have my personal HTR&W challenge, I may have given up.
Do you read books that you don’t like? How much do you read, not liking it, before you give up?