Thursday, September 30, 2010

368. Silk – Alessandro Baricco

History: Published in 1996, it was translated into English in 1997.
Plot: The novel tells the story of a French silkworm merchant-turned-smuggler named Hervé Joncour in 19th century France who travels to Japan for his town's supply of silkworms. In 1861, the journey to obtain silk was a treacherous one. Due to an epidemic that infected most of the European stocks of silk worms the men who buy the eggs of the worms were forced to travel further from home to replenish their stock.
Hervé Joncour is a buyer and seller of silk worm eggs for the silk mills in the French city of Lavillediea. Every year his travels take him away from home to Egypt and other African ports to buy the stock of his trade. Because of the epidemic, he is forced to undertake a dangerous and desperate journey over half the known world to buy healthy eggs from Japan. It is a dangerous and desperate trip. Travel, since the Suez Canal has not been completed, takes months to get to Japan from France. Once there, Joncour is smuggled into the country as Japan’s ports are not yet open to foreigners. The price he will pay if caught taking silk worm eggs out of Japan is his death.
There he meets a woman, the mistress of his host. They do not touch, they do not speak to each other, and he can not read the letter that she gives him. Once Joncour hears what it says, “Please return or I will die”, he becomes a man possessed. When in France with his wife Helené, Joncour is a man changed by the Orient. While in Japan he is trying to find ways to meet his host’s mistress without raising the suspicions of the townsfolk, and their lord. Over the course of several years, and several visits to Japan, he establishes some contact, but she never speaks to him. In the end, after the last visit to Japan in which he finds the village in ruins from war, the baron, Hara Kei, holds him at gun point, tells him to go home. His wife, Helene, tricks him with an erotic letter that he thinks is from the Japanese woman, but it really isn’t. Helene dies, and he continues to make a fortune from the silk worm trade.
Review: Silk is an enthralling love story. It is haunting in it’s telling of two star crossed lovers fated to meet but never to act upon their love. It is told with simplicity and a moving plot that transports its readers to France in the late nineteenth century.
Opening Line: “Although his father had pictured him for a brilliant career in the army, Herve Joncour had ended up earning his crust in an unusual career which, by a singular piece of irony, was not unconnected with a charming side that bestowed on it a vaguely feminine intonation.”
Closing Line: “Occasionally, on windy days, he would go down to the lake and spend hours in contemplation of it because he seemed to descry, sketched out on the water, the inexplicable sight of his life as it had been, in all its lightness.”
Quotes: “His life was as rain before his eyes, a vision of piece.”
Rating: Good.

367. Ficciones - Jorge Luis Borges

History: Ficciones the most popular anthology of short stories by Borges. In 1944 the anthology Ficciones is published, including the 1941 volume as its first half.
Part One: The Garden of Forking Paths -
"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940) - the story was first published in the Argentine journal Sur, May 1940. The "postscript" dated 1947 is intended to be anachronistic, set seven years in the future. The first English-language translation of the story was published in 1961.
In the story, an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of Orbis Tertius, a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world known as Tlön. One of the major themes of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is that ideas ultimately manifest themselves in the physical world and the story is generally viewed as a parabolic discussion of Berkeleian idealism — and to some degree as a protest against totalitarianism.
In the course of the story, the narrator encounters increasingly substantive artifacts of Orbis Tertius and of Tlön; by the end of the story, Earth is becoming Tlön.
The story unfolds as a first-person narrative by a fictive version of Borges himself. Events and facts are revealed roughly in the order that the narrator becomes aware of them, or becomes aware of their relevance. The bulk of the story is from the point of view of 1940, the year the story was written and published. A postscript is from the point of view of the same narrator, anachronistically writing in 1947. The timing of events in Borges's first-person story is approximately from 1935 to 1947; the plot concerns events going back as far as the early 17th century and culminating in 1947.
In the story, Uqbar initially appears to be an obscure region of Iraq or of Asia Minor. In casual conversation with Borges, Bioy Casares recalls that a heresiarch (leader of a heretical sect) in Uqbar had declared that "mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men." Borges, impressed with the "memorable" sentence, asks for its source.
Bioy Casares refers him to an encyclopedia article on Uqbar in the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, described as "a literal if inadequate reprint of the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1902." It emerges that Uqbar is mentioned only in the closing pages of a single volume of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, and that the pages describing Uqbar appear in some copies of the work, but not in others.
Borges, the narrator, is led through a bibliographical maze attempting to verify the reality or unreality of Uqbar. He is particularly drawn to a statement in the encyclopedia article that "…the literature of Uqbar… never referred to reality, but to the two imaginary regions of Mlejnas and Tlön."
A brief and naturalistic aside about Borges's father's friend Herbert Ashe leads to the story of Borges inheriting a much more substantial related artifact (one of several increasingly substantial and surprising artifacts that are to appear in the course of the story): the apparent eleventh volume of an encyclopedia devoted to Tlön. The volume has, in two places, "a blue oval stamp with the inscription: Orbis Tertius."
At this point, the story of Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius expands beyond the circle of Borges and his immediate friends and acquaintances, as scholars such as Ezequiel Martínez Estrada discuss whether this volume could have been written in isolation or whether it necessarily implies the existence of a complete encyclopedia about Tlön. The proposal emerges to attempt to reconstruct the entire history, culture, and even languages of that world.
This leads to an extended discussion of the languages, the philosophy and, in particular, the epistemology of Tlön, which forms the central focus of the story. Appropriately, the people of the imaginary Tlön — a fictional construct within a fictional story — hold an extreme form of Berkeleian idealism, denying the reality of the world. Their world is understood "not as a concurrence of objects in space, but as a heterogeneous series of independent acts." One of the imagined languages of Tlön lacks nouns. Its central units are "impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs." Borges lists a Tlönic equivalent of "The moon rose above the water": hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, meaning literally "Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned".
In a world where there are no nouns — or where nouns are composites of other parts of speech, created and discarded according to a whim — and no things, most of Western philosophy becomes impossible.
The narrator learns that as the society's work began, it became clear that a single generation wasn't sufficient to articulate the entire country of Uqbar. Each master therefore agreed to elect a disciple who would carry on his work and also perpetuate this hereditary arrangement. However, there was no further trace of this society until, two centuries later, one of its disciples was the fictional Ezra Buckley. Buckley was an eccentric Memphis, Tennessee millionaire who scoffed at the modest scale of the sect's undertaking. He proposed instead the invention of a planet, Tlön, with certain provisos: that the project be kept secret, that an encyclopedia of the imaginary planet of Tlön be written, and that the whole scheme "have no truck with that impostor Jesus Christ" (and therefore none with Berkeley's God). The date of Buckley's involvement is 1824. In the early 1940s — still in the future at the time Borges wrote the story — the Tlönic project has ceased to be a secret, and is beginning to disseminate its own universe. Beginning "about 1942", in what at first appears a magical turn, objects from Tlön begin to appear in the real world. While we are later led to see them as forgeries, they still must be the projects of a secret science and technology. Once the full, forty-volume First Encyclopaedia of Tlön is found in Memphis, the idea of Tlön begins unstoppably to take over and eradicate the existing cultures of the real world.
(As an aside, the eleventh volume of this full encyclopedia is not quite the same as the earlier, isolated eleventh volume: it lacks such "improbable features" as "the multiplying of the hrönir." "It is probable," writes Borges, "that these erasures were in keeping with the plan of projecting a world which would not be too incompatible with the real world." Material reality may be subject to reshaping by ideas, but apparently it is not entirely without resistance).
While the fictional Borges and his academic colleagues pursue their interesting speculations about the epistemology, language, and literature of Tlön, the rest of the world gradually learns about the project and begins to adopt the Tlönic culture, an extreme case of ideas affecting reality. In the epilogue set in 1947, Earth is in the process of becoming Tlön. The fictional Borges is appalled by this turn of events, an element in the story that critics Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Alastair Reid argue is to be read as a metaphor for the totalitarianism already sweeping across Europe at the time of the story's writing. As the story ends, Borges is focused on an obsession of his own: a translation of Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial into Spanish. Arguably it is no more important than Tlön, but it is at least of this world.
"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim": It first appeared in 1936 in the book History of Eternity (Historia de la eternidad), and then was included in Ficciones, as an addition to part one. The story is a review of an imaginary work, The Conversation with the Man Called Al-Mu'tasim, which is the second (and inferior) edition of a book called The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim, by an Indian lawyer named Mir Bahadur Ali. Al-Mu'tasim means "he who goes in quest of aid."
The book that Borges "reviews" is essentially a detective story about a law student in Bombay. After unexpectedly committing a murder during a riot, he becomes an outcast among the lower classes of India. Through his dealings with people he infers the existence of a "perfect man", whom he calls Al-Mu'tasim. He believes Al-Mu'tasim has indirectly influenced other people for the better, through a number of intermediaries. The student becomes obsessed with finding and meeting Al-Mu'tasim.
"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote": The story is written in the form of a review or literary critical piece about (the non-existent) Pierre Menard, a 20th century French writer. It begins with a brief introduction and a listing of all of Menard's work.
Borges' "review" describes Menard's efforts to go beyond a mere "translation" of Don Quixote by immersing himself so thoroughly in the work as to be able to actually "re-create" it, line for line, in the original 17th century Spanish. Thus, Pierre Menard is often used to raise questions and discussion about the nature of authorship and interpretation.
"The Circular Ruins" (original Spanish title: "Las Ruinas Circulares") is a fantasy short story. Published in el Sur in December 1940, It has an epigraph from Chapter 4 of Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll reading "And if he let off dreaming about you..." which refers to the passage in which Tweedledee points out the sleeping Red King to Alice, and claims she is simply a character in his dream. The short story deals with themes recurring in Borges's work: idealism, the manifestation of thoughts in the "real world", meaningful dreams, and immortality.
An experienced wizard retreats from the world to a location that possesses strong mystical powers: the circular ruins. There, the wizard tries to create another human being from his own dreams. Sleeping and dreaming longer and longer each day, the magician dreams of his young man becoming educated, and wiser. After time, though, the wizard can no longer find sleep, and he deems his first attempt an inevitable failure. After many sleepless nights, the wizard dreams of a heart; vaguely at first, but more and more clearly each night. Years pass and the wizard creates the boy piece by piece, in agonizing detail. The wizard calls upon the god Fire to bring his creation to life. Fire agrees, as long as the wizard accustoms his creation to the real world, and that only Fire and the wizard will be able to tell the creation from a real human. His creation is sent to a distant temple of the god Fire, and becomes famous as, because it is not real, it can walk through fire unharmed. The wizard hears of this, but at length he awakes to find the ruins ablaze. As he ultimately walks into the flaming house of Fire, the wizard notices that his skin does not burn. "With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another."
"The Babylon Lottery" (1941): The story describes a mythical Babylon in which all activities are dictated by an all-encompassing lottery, a metaphor for the role of chance in one's life. Initially, the lottery was run as a futuristic lottery would be with tickets purchased and the winner receiving an unspecified reward. Later, punishments and larger monetary rewards were introduced. Further, participation became mandatory for all but the elite. Finally, it simultaneously became so all-encompassing and so secret some whispered "the Company has never existed, and never will."
A further interpretation is that the Lottery and the Company that runs it are actually an allegory of a deity or Zeus. Like the workings of a deity in the eyes of men, the Company that runs the Lottery acts, apparently, at random and through means not known by its subjects, leaving men with two options: to accept it to be all-knowing and all-powerful but mysterious, or to deny its existence. Both theories have supporters in this allegory.
In many other books, Borges dealt with metaphysical questions about the meaning of life and the possible existence of higher authorities, and also presented this same paradoxical vision of a world that may be run by a good and wise deity but seems to lack any discernible meaning. This view may also be considered present in The Library of Babel, another Borges story.
Borges makes a brief reference to Franz Kafka as Qaphqa, the legendary Latrine where spies of the Company leave information.
"An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain" (1941): The "story" is simply a description of the literary works supposedly written between 1933 and 1939 by a deceased Irish author named Quain. The review of fictional books is a favorite device of Borges.
• The God of the Labyrinth (1933), a detective story in which the solution given is wrong, although this fact is not immediately obvious
• April March (1936), a novel with nine different beginnings, trifurcating backwards in time
• The Secret Mirror, a play in which the first act is the work of one of the characters in the second act
• Statements (1939), eight stories which are deliberately calculated to disappoint the reader; The Circular Ruins is supposedly an extract from the third story, "The Rose of Yesterday"
The piece is amazingly similar in tone and method to Vladimir Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, a full-length novel published in the same year, although the writers were then unaware of each others' existence.
"The Library of Babel" (1941): Borges's narrator describes how his universe consists of an endless expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival—and four walls of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just a few basic characters (letters, spaces and punctuation marks). Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for many of the texts some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of a vast number of different contents.
Despite — indeed, because of — this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair. This leads some librarians to superstitions and cult-like behaviour, such as the "Purifiers", who arbitrarily destroy books they deem nonsense as they move through the library seeking the "Crimson Hexagon" and its illustrated, magical books. Another is the belief that since all books exist in the library, somewhere one of the books must be a perfect catalog of the library's contents; some even believe that a messianic figure known as the "Man of the Book" has read it, and they travel through the library seeking him.
"The Garden of Forking Paths" (1941): The story takes the form of a signed statement by a Chinese professor of English named Dr. Yu Tsun who is living in the United Kingdom during World War I. Tsun is a spy for the Germans, as he discloses in the first paragraph of his statement. As the story begins, Tsun realizes that the British officer pursuing him, Captain Richard Madden, is in the apartment of fellow spy Viktor Runeberg and has presumably either captured or killed him. Tsun surmises that his own arrest is next. He has discovered the location of a new British artillery park and wishes to convey that knowledge to his German masters before he is captured, and hits upon a desperate plan in order to achieve this.
In passing, Tsun states that his spying was not for the sake of Germany, which he considers "a barbarous country." Rather, he says, he did it because he wanted to prove to his German commander that an Asian man was intelligent enough to obtain for them the information they needed; as an Irishman in the employ of the English, Tsun suggests, Capt. Madden's dedication might be similarly motivated.
Taking his few possessions, Tsun boards a train to the village of Ashgrove, narrowly avoiding the pursuing Capt. Madden at the train station, and goes to the house of Dr. Stephen Albert. As he walks up the road to Albert's house, Tsun reflects on his great ancestor, Ts'ui Pên, a learned and famous man who renounced his job as governor of Yunnan in order to undertake two tasks: to write a vast and intricate novel, and to construct an equally vast and intricate labyrinth, one "in which all men would lose their way." Ts'ui Pên was murdered before completing his novel, however, and what he did write was a "contradictory jumble of irresolute drafts" that made no sense to subsequent reviewers; nor was the labyrinth ever found. Tsun describes his own experience of reading the unfinished novel. He arrives at the house of Dr. Albert, who himself has evidently been pondering the same topic. Albert explains excitedly that at one stroke he has solved both mysteries—the chaotic and jumbled nature of Ts'ui Pên's unfinished book, and the mystery of his lost labyrinth. Albert's solution is that they are one and the same: the book is the labyrinth.
Basing his work on the strange legend that Ts'ui Pên had intended to construct an infinite labyrinth, as well as a cryptic letter from Ts'ui Pên himself stating, "I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths", Albert realized that the "garden of forking paths" was the novel, and that the forking took place in time, not in space. As compared to most fictions, where the character chooses one alternative at each decision point and thereby eliminates all the others, Ts'ui Pên's novel attempted to describe a world where all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously, each one itself leading to further proliferations of possibilities. Albert further explains that these constantly diverging paths do sometimes converge again, though as the result of a different chain of causes; for example, he says, in one possible time-line Dr. Tsun has come to his house as an enemy, in another as a friend.
Though trembling with gratitude at Albert's revelation and in awe of his ancestor's literary genius, Tsun glances up the path to see Capt. Madden approaching the house. He asks Albert to see Ts'ui Pên's letter again; Albert turns to retrieve it, and Tsun shoots him in the back, killing him instantly.
Although Tsun is arrested and sentenced to death, he claims to have "most abhorrently triumphed", as he has successfully communicated to the Germans the name of the city they were to attack, and indeed that city is bombed as Tsun goes on trial. The name of that city was Albert, and Tsun realized that the only way to convey that information was to kill a person of that name, so that the news of the murder would appear in British newspapers associated with his name.
Part Two: Artifices
"Funes the Memorious" (1942): tells the story of a fictional version of Borges himself as he meets Ireneo Funes, a teenage boy who lives in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, in 1884. Borges's cousin asks the boy for the time, and Funes replies instantly, without the aid of a watch and accurate to the minute.
Borges returns to Buenos Aires, then in 1887 comes back to Fray Bentos, intending to relax and study some Latin. He learns that Ireneo Funes has meanwhile suffered a horseback riding accident and is now hopelessly crippled. Soon enough, Borges receives a note from Funes, requesting that the visitor lend him some of his Latin books and a dictionary. Borges, disconcerted, sends Funes what he deems the most difficult works "in order fully to undeceive him".
Days later, Borges receives a telegram from Buenos Aires calling for his return due to his father's ill health. As he packs, he remembers the books and goes to Funes's house. Funes's mother escorts him to a patio where the youth usually spends his dark hours. As he enters, Borges is greeted by Funes's voice speaking perfect Latin, reciting "the first paragraph of the twenty-fourth chapter of the seventh book of the Historia Naturalis" (by Pliny the Elder).
Funes enumerates to Borges the cases of prodigious memory cited in the Historia Naturalis, and adds that he marvels that those are considered marvellous. He reveals that, since his fall from the horse, he perceives everything in full detail and remembers it all. He remembers, for example, the shape of clouds at all given moments, as well as the associated perceptions (muscular, thermal, etc.) of each moment. Funes has an immediate intuition of the mane of a horse or the form of a constantly changing flame that is comparable to our (normal people's) intuition of a simple geometric shape such as a triangle or square.
In order to pass the time, Funes has engaged in projects such as reconstructing a full day's worth of past memories (an effort which, he finds, takes him another full day), and constructing a "system of enumeration" that gives each number a different, arbitrary name. Borges correctly points out to him that this is precisely the opposite of a system of enumeration, but Funes is incapable of such understanding. A poor, ignorant young boy in the outskirts of a small town, he is hopelessly limited in his possibilities, but (says Borges) his absurd projects reveal "a certain stammering greatness". Funes, we are told, is incapable of Platonic ideas, of generalities, of abstraction; his world is one of intolerably uncountable details. He finds it very difficult to sleep, since he recalls "every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which [surround] him".
Borges spends the whole night talking to Funes in the dark. When dawn reveals Funes's face, only 19 years old, Borges sees him "as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, anterior to the prophecies and the pyramids".
Later Borges learns that Funes died of natural causes a couple of years after their meeting.
"The Form of the Sword" (1942): An Irishman, now living near Tacuarembó in Uruguay, recounts his experiences in the Irish War of Independence and how he received the large scar on his face.
Borges starts the story narrating as himself as he is forced to stop in a small town run by the unnamed Irishman, who is known as strict but fair. Borges ingratiates himself with the Irishman, and they go out to drink together on the patio. Borges gets drunk and asks about the origin of a crescent-shaped scar on the Irishman's face. His story is as follows:
The Irishman describes the war and the introduction of a new comrade, John Vincent Moon, into their band of rebels. He explains that the new comrade was a coward, that he was arrogant about his mental capabilities but terrified of getting hurt. He describes how he himself saved John Vincent Moon's life when they were attacked by soldiers. John Vincent Moon was scraped by a bullet as they escaped, but the wound was only superficial.
He and Vincent Moon fled together to a general's house, where they stayed for ten days. The ninth day, he went out to avenge the death of some comrades. Vincent Moon always stayed at the house, pleading his injury. When the Irishman returned on their last day in the house, he heard Vincent Moon on the phone, selling him to the police.
He recounts his chase of Vincent Moon, how he cornered him and marked a moon-shaped scar on his forehead just before he was captured by the police.
Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944): Theme Of The Traitor And The Hero "That history should have imitated history was already sufficiently astonishing; that history should imitate literature is inconceivable. . . ." Plot Summary & Historical Background: Settings - The Narrative is set in Ireland in 1824. However Borges is only using this as an example. He says " The action takes place in a oppressed and tenacious country: Poland, Ireland, The Venetian Republic, some South American or Balkan state". This universalises the story of Kilpatrick and the experience of Ryan showing it has happened everywhere. It ends with Ryan deciding to keep silent the discovery that his great-grandfather was a traitor to the same cause to which history had deemed him a hero. The wants to preserve his heroic image and people's passion for the rebellious cause. Ryan decides to keep quiet and be part of Kilpatrick's story. Borges observed that his readers would find parallel between the story and that of Julius Caesar. Consequently, he is trying to show that it is not a coincidence, and that every event in history has its parallel in Literature and vice-versa. History is a combination of repeating themes. Nothing like free will. We are all just characters acting based on what has been predetermined.
Death and the Compass (1942): Lönnrot is a famous detective in an unnamed city based upon Buenos Aires. When a rabbi is killed in his hotel room on the third of December, Lönnrot is assigned to the case. He quickly determines that the murder was not accidental based on the cryptic message left on the rabbi's typewriter "The first letter of the name has been uttered." He connects this with the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter, unspeakable name of God. He further connects it with his criminal nemesis, Red Scharlach.
Exactly one month later, on the third of January, a second murder takes place with the message "The second letter of the name has been uttered" left at the crime site. Predictably, the same thing happens on the third of February, with the message this time reading "The last letter of the name has been uttered."
However, Lönnrot is not convinced that the spree is finished, as the Tetragrammaton contains four letters, two of them being the same letter repeated. Furthermore, according to the Jewish calendar, the murders actually took place on the fourth of December, January, and February, respectively. He predicts that the next month will see one, final killing. In the mean time, the detective's office receives an anonymous tip to view the map locations of the murders, which coincide to the points of an equilateral triangle. Using these points he constructs a rhombus, recognizing that the southern end of the city has yet to be terrorized (the South is of particular symbolic importance to Borges). The location is the chateau Triste-le-Roi.
Lönnrot arrives at the site a day in advance, prepared to surprise the murderers. He is grabbed in the dark by two henchman and Scharlach emerges from the shadows. Scharlach reveals that Lönnrot killed his brother and he swore to avenge his death. Killing the rabbi was indeed accidental, but Scharlach used Lönnrot's over-intellectualizing (as well as the police report in the newspaper that he was following a kabbalistic pattern to track the criminals) to lure Lönnrot to this very spot. It was Scharlach who suggested that the police view the map locations to discover the spot of the final act. Lönnrot becomes calm in the face of death and responds that Scharlach made his maze too complex, instead of a four sided square it should have been but a single line of murders, with each subsequent murder taking place on the halfway point (A 8 km from B, C 4 km from each, D 2 km from A and C). Lönnrot says that philosophers have been lost on this line, so a simple detective should feel no shame to do the same (reference to Zeno's Paradox). Scharlach promises that he will give him this simpler labyrinth in their next "incarnation," and shoots him.
"The Secret Miracle" (1943): The main character of the story is a playwright named Jaromir Hladík [1], who is living in Prague when it is occupied by the Nazis during World War II. Hladik is arrested and charged with being Jewish as well as opposing the Anschluss, and sentenced to die by firing squad.
Although he at first experiences simple terror at the prospect of death, Hladík's main concern soon turns to his unfinished play, titled The Enemies. His previous works he feels to be unsatisfactory, and wants to complete this play, which he feels to be the one by which history will judge and vindicate him. With two acts left to write and his death sentence to be carried out in a matter of days, however, it seems impossible that he could complete it in time.
On the last night before his death, Hladík prays to God, requesting that he be granted one year in which to finish the play. That night, he dreams of going to a library, where one of the books contains God within a single letter on one of the pages, which the old, bitter librarian has been unable to find despite looking for most of his life. Someone returns an atlas to the library; Hladik touches a letter on a map of India and hears a voice that says to him, "The time for your labor has been granted".
The next day at the appointed time, two soldiers come for Hladík, and he is taken outside and lined up before the firing squad. The sergeant calls out the order to fire, and time stops. The entire world freezes motionless, including Hladík himself, standing in place before the firing squad; however, although he is completely paralyzed, he remains conscious. After a time, he understands: God has granted him the time he requested. For him, a year of subjective time will pass between the sergeant's order and the soldiers' firing their rifles, though no one else will realize that anything unusual has happened - hence, the "secret miracle" of the story's title.
Working from memory, Hladík mentally writes, expands and edits his play, shaping every detail and nuance to his satisfaction. Finally, after a year of labor, he completes it; only a single epithet is left to be written, which he chooses, and time begins again and the volley from the soldiers' rifles kills him.
"Three Versions of Judas" (1944): The story begins as a critical analysis of works of a fictitious writer Nils Runeberg. Nils Runeberg lives in the city Lund, where he publishes two books: Kristus och Judas (1904) [Christ and Judas] and his magnum opus Den hemlige Frälsaren (1909) [The secret Savior]. Borges analyses these two works (three if the revised edition of Kristus och Judas is counted separately) and discusses their heretical conclusions without providing the "dialectic or his (Nils Runeberg) proofs". The story ends with the death of Nils Runeberg. He dies a death of anonymity which was undeserved considering the controversial nature of his texts.
"The End" (1953, 2nd edition only): "The End" is a response to the Argentine epic Martín Fierro, which Borges had discussed in a long essay published earlier that year.[1] In the story, a man who presumably has had a crippling stroke winds up half seeing and half hearing a definitive fight between a "negro" who has been dwelling in the man's store and a mysterious stranger which the negro had been waiting for. The story ends ambiguously and leaves the readers with a question which only they can answer: does Fierro succeed in leaving his violent past behind him, or has he rather come to fully embrace his true nature?
Literary scholars debate on the interpretation that Fierro is a Christ-like figure. He himself has faced a myriad of trials and tribulations, and now has to face them. Additionally, Martin Fierro is actually years old, the same as Jesus Christ. Also, the reader is to presume that Fierro dies in his one final battle.
"The Sect of the Phoenix" (1952, 2nd edition only): Borges gives an enigmatic description (or at least, assertion of the existence) of a secret society dating back to ancient times, the members of which "resemble every man in the world" and whose membership consists simply of the performance of a strange ritual.
Essentially the story is an extended riddle, the mysterious description referring to a commonplace fact (as Borges points out in the prologue to Artifices). The probable and common answer is that the riddle refers to sexual intercourse, and Borges himself confessed as much. However, in relation to the debate on Borges' sexual orientation, it is argued by some that the secret Borges had in mind was, more specifically, homosexual intercourse or homosexuality in general; to support this, they point to such clues as “scattered across the face of the earth, only one thing — the Secret — unites them and will unite them until the end of time”, which do not fit well with the hypothesis of sexual intercourse in general. Against this reading, however, one might observe the story's claim that "the history of the sect records no persecutions", which cannot be true if the 'Secret' is homosexual intercourse. Moreover, the name of the sect associates it with the mythological Phoenix, suggesting regeneration and renewal of life: the more obvious analogy, therefore, would be with procreative (that is, heterosexual) intercourse.
"The South" (1953, 2nd edition only): Johannes Dahlmann was a minister in an Evangelical Church. Juan Dahlmann, one of his grandchildren, is a secretary in an Argentine library. Although of German descent, he is proud of his Argentine maternal ancestors. He has a number of artifacts from his forefather: an old sword, a lithograph photo, and a ranch home in southern Argentina he has never found time to visit.
In February 1939, he obtains a copy of the Arabian Nights. He takes the book home, and -- eager to examine it -- rushes up the stairs and gashes his forehead against a recently painted beam. The wound Dahlmann suffers forces him to lie bedridden with a very high fever. After a few days, his doctors move him to the hospital. On his way there, Dahlmann feels that perhaps the move will do him good. At the hospital, however, Dahlmann's treatment for his injury causes him great pain and discomfort, causing him to feel humiliation and self-hatred, almost as though he were in hell.
(An interpretation of the story could be that what follows is an explanation of his idealized death -- the one Juan Dahlmann fabricates and stages in his mind -- in order to pass into the next life in an honorable manner.)
After days in the hospital he is suddenly told that he is recovering, after almost having died of septicemia. Juan Dahlmann sets off to his ranch to convalesce. The story shifts locations to a train station, where Dahlmann is waiting for a train to travel to his ranch. He regards the city sights with great joy, and he decides to go to a restaurant for a bite to eat. In the restaurant he notices a cat, the mythical creature who, in many cultures (for example Egypt), is associated with eternity and the gods.
After his meal, Dahlmann boards the train, and rides out of the city into the countryside. He begins to read the 1001 Arabian Nights, but then closes the book to enjoy the scenery. The train conductor enters his compartment and notifies him that the train will not be stopping at his destination, but at a previous station. Once the train reaches the deserted station, Dahlmann steps off into a small countryside town. He makes his way through the dusty streets and finds the only restaurant. He sits down, orders food, and begins to read the 1001 Arabian Nights.
Three rowdy ranch workers sitting at a table nearby throw a bread crumb at him; this he ignores. However, after a short while, they begin again. This time, Dahlmann stands up in order to exit the establishment. The shopkeeper (calling him by name) anxiously asks Dahlmann to pay them no heed, saying they are drunk. This prompts Dahlmann to do the opposite, to face them. One of the ranch workers brandishes a knife. Seeing the situation getting out of hand, the shopkeeper calls out that Dahlmann does not even have a weapon. At this point, an old man in the corner, a gaucho (which to Dahlmann represents the essence of the South as well as the past) throws a knife to Dahlmann. It lands at his feet. As he picks up the knife, Dahlmann realizes that it will not be of any use to his defense. He knows he has never wielded a knife in his life and that if he fights he is going to die. However, he feels that his death in a knife fight is honorable, that it is the one he would have chosen when he was sick in the hospital, and he decides to go. The story ends with Dahlmann and the farmer exiting the bar and walking into the streets as the setting sun blazes behind them.
The events of the story are semi-autobiographical: Borges also worked in a library. At New Year's 1939, Borges suffered a severe head wound and nearly died of blood poisoning. Borges considered "The South" to be his best story.
Review: Borges's fiction is best taken in small doses. I found that reading too many of them at once causes them to sound gimmicky and contrived rather than mysterious and magical. the little tricks that Borges plays: his obsession with labyrinths, his fiddling with reality, his confusing and unnecessary erudition.
On the other hand, when Borges is on, he's on. His stories are an endless fountain of ideas. He never develops any of them fully, but within one story he'll reel off concept after concept that lesser writers would try to base their life works on. And, although his truly great stories are few and far between, when they come up they're truly gems, to be remembered forever.
Unfortunately, that's all his stories are good for: ideas. When there aren't any cool ideas in them, or when there is only one idea being communicated, his stories fall flat. And none of them really speak to "the human condition," or provoke any sort of real emotion. Instead, his stories feel like puzzle boxes; sometimes they're pretty lame, sometimes pretty neat. He's inventive.
The translations in Ficciones are somewhat inconsistent; I think Borges's Collected Fictions is supposed to be much better in terms of style, since all of the stories there are translated by a single person.
Opening Line: “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.”
Closing Line: “Firmly clutching his knife, which he perhaps would not know how to wield, Dahlmann went out into the plain.”
Quotes: "He walked toward the sheets of flame. They did not bite his flesh, they caressed him and flooded him without heat or combustion......”
Rating: Poor. I did not understand the stories, or the ideas.