Tag: j. e. irby

On the superfluity of camels

“Some days past I have found a curious confirmation of the fact that what is truly native can and often does dispense with local color; I found this confirmation in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon observes that in the Arabian book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were a part of reality, he had no reason to emphasize them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab, was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab without camels. I think we Argentines can emulate Mohammed, can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color.”

—Jorge Luis Borges in his essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” as translated by James E. Irby

Borges isn’t trying to give advice to falsifiers and tourists here, but I think what he says also applies to fiction writers trying to write outside our own experience.

By the way, sorry for the blasphemy, Muslims. (Or is it blasphemy to call Muhammad the author of the Quran? A good atheist ought to know these things. Anyway, googling the question hasn’t yielded anything.)


Short story: “Inferno, I, 32”

Inferno, I, 32,” by Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by James E. Irby (online here and here; read aloud on YouTube)

293 words in English

Intensely satisfying.

On literary precursors

“In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors.”

—Jorge Luis Borges in “Kafka and His Precursors,” as translated by James E. Irby

Fictional essay: “The Library of Babel”

“The Library of Babel” (“La biblioteca de Babel”), by Jorge Luis Borges

From El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths); translated apparently by James E. Irby here and here

2,902 words in this translation

One of Borges’ wonderfully strange thought experiments. Before the internet era, he was writing lines like “The universe (which others call the Library)” and describing all things as forms of information.

When speculative fiction spends long passages describing a nonexistent world, it’s usually a hard sell. But Borges isn’t worldbuilding, he’s idea-building. The hexagonal chambers aren’t a setting, they’re the structure on which to hang philosophical speculations, or parodies of philosophical speculations. Which is probably a hard sell for some readers too, but whatever.

On a more prosaic note, did anyone else notice that Borges equips his library with bathrooms but no cafeterias? Not even a vending machine. I like to think of it as the sort of otherworld where no one needs to eat or drink. The bathrooms exist only to stop snarky or scatological-minded readers from asking Borges where everybody goes to the bathroom. (Edited to add what occurred to me later: there is a place to dispose of corpses, but no place to bear children.)

Short story: “Everything and Nothing”

“Everything and Nothing,” by Jorge Luis Borges

Translated here (by Mildred Boyer) and here and here (by J. E. Irby)

627 words in Boyer’s translation

A remarkable piece. It’s a sort of joke about the scholarly obsession with knowing the “real” identity of Shakespeare, also an anti-character study, also a meditation on what identity and character even mean and what it means to be a creator, all crammed into three longish paragraphs.