(Photo: Alicia D’Amico)
Sometimes I find that my reading becomes stagnant. Whether it is because I’m busy, because I’m reading a book that I’m not enjoying, or because I’m enjoying other media more, I find it’s not always possible to read at the rate I’d like to. Which is okay. Everything in moderation, even for a bookworm.
However, I always find that short stories are the best way to overcome these periods. I’ve written of the value of the short story in the past, and Jorge Luis Borges is, for me, absolutely the unequivocal master of the short story. In the space of 3 pages, he develops ideas that would take other writers 300.
His background in poetry, essays, and book reviews is very much at the forefront of his writing, and it lends itself to a very unique style that centres on philosophical themes. Fictions, his most iconic short story collection, is above all a fun read. Of course, there are interesting and profound things to be said about each short story, and the ways they link, but on the surface it’s simply incredible to see the techniques that Borges employs to tell a story. You can almost tell how enjoyable these stories must have been to write.
Any of these stories is a standalone masterpiece. The Circular Ruins is an interesting short story about the infinite, circular nature of dreams. I believe some have posited that the relatively recent blockbuster Inception may have taken inspiration from Borges’ work. And alone, this story is thrilling and thought-provoking. But it truly becomes delightful when taken in the context of the whole collection of stories.
“One of the stories (not the best) hints at two plots; the reader, blinded by vanity, believes that he himself has come up with them. From the third story, titled ‘The Rose of Yesterday,’ I was ingenuous enough to extract ‘The Circular Ruins,’ which is one of the stories in my book The Garden of Forking Paths.”
– Jorge Luis Borges, A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain, Fictions
The meta (or self-referential) quality here feels so fresh and original. It works so well, and Borges even uses footnotes in his stories that reference characters from earlier stories. It’s not done to add a sense of authenticity or believability – to me, it is Borges showing off what can be done in fiction, and specifically the short story. He is flaunting his skill, and challenging others to experiment and match it. It’s playful, and adds another layer to his stories.
And of course, if we delve slightly deeper, we encounter themes that Borges wants to explore. There is a huge amount of philosophical material in Fictions, some of which I am sure went over my head. As a result, when I first finished it I resolved to read it again soon. Even so, there are moments that are memorable, and uncomfortable.
“I know that it was a terrible thing to do. I did not do it for Germany. What do I care for a barbaric country that has forced me to the ignominy of spying?…No – I did it because I sensed that the Leader looked down on the people of my race – the countless ancestors whose blood flows through my veins. I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies.”
– Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths, Fictions
In these few words, Borges conveys the pain, desperation, and misguided conviction that leads people to act against their best interests, and support tyrannical regimes. The protagonist inspires sympathy, rage, and exasperation in less than 10 pages. It’s a dizzying experience, in the best possible way.
I’m a big fan of short stories, and I cannot recommend this collection enough. It is easily my favourite and in my opinion, Jorge Luis Borges represents the apex of the short story form.