Date finished: March 26th 2017
Considered one of the fathers of the magical realism movement, Borges’ collection of short stories is infinitely imaginative and mind-bending, from the boy who remembers all things to the man who rewrites Don Quixote word for word. Fictions is full of strange, ephemeral tales on the brink of breaking into other worlds, yet always rooted in a bizarre simulacra of reality.
Borges is dense, frightfully so. His boundless imagination draws deeply on the wellspring of philosophical, literary and psychological analysis of the time, making the frameworks for his fictions somewhat impenetrable to the lay observer. One would need at least a passing education in these topics to gain all there is to be gained from these stories as Borges’ style necessitates that his work is rather opaque to those not versed in these topics. This somewhat diminishes the pleasure. Borges is someone you need to study, but one has to wonder if it’s worth it when each five page story requires intense knowledge of a different set of subjects.
Death and the Compass probably stands out as the best story in the collection, combining Borges propensity for literature, detective fiction and labyrinths in one meticulously balanced tale. The bizarre philosophical thought-experiment of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius proves an intriguing one; likewise the ramifications of an infinite library containing all possible books in The Library of Babel and the labyrinthine circularity of The Garden of Forking Paths culminates in a clever revelation.
There’s no doubting Borges talent as an original and thought-provoking intellect in short fiction, but too often his experimental stories miss their mark, never crossing the line to eureka moments, merely remaining experiments. Borges eschews narrative to an extent that diminishes his ability to tell a story. That is, of course, the point, but that doesn’t mean it’s always enjoyable to read. The second half, Artifices is better than the eponymous first half which all too often focuses on fictionalised literary criticism of impossible works. These are intriguingly different but too academic to be good reads.
Nevertheless, Fictions is a compelling work of influential world-building, shades of which are easily detectable in other authors I enjoy: China Mieville, Jose Saramago, Philip K Dick and many more. Borges’ importance in literature is indisputable, but the extent to which his work can resonate is highly variable from story to story, person to person, time to time.