Tag: jorge luis borges

Flash fiction story or fictional essay or perhaps personal essay: “Borges and I”

“Borges and I” (“Borges y Yo”), by Jorge Luis Borges or “I,” translated by various

Appeared in Borges’ collection The Maker (El Hacedor), 1960; anthologized in the 1981 book The Mind’s IAntonios Sarhanis’ translation online here

345 words

A brilliant examination of personal and authorial identity. It makes me think (forgive me) that “Everything and Nothing” is autobiographical. The last line could be the last line of a horror story.

Antonios Sarhanis’ takedown of Andrew Hurley’s translation is interesting. I don’t agree with every choice Sarhanis makes, but I admire the translation and the thought he’s put into it.


Short story: “Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology”

“Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology,” by Theodora Goss

Appeared in Lightspeed Magazine in July 2014; there’s also a YouTube recording of the author reading it aloud at Readercon (the audio isn’t very good)

7045 words, according to Lightspeed

A fantastic riff on a theme by Borges (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”).

I love failed Pygmalion stories, and this one doubles as a failed imperialism story, which only makes it more delicious.

On how genius is made; or, on how a self is made

“[W]e tend to think of, say, Borges or Nabokov as geniuses, but really what we’re seeing is people who from an early age had access to knowledge that is completely off the table in schools. The presumption is that children couldn’t possibly cope with all this. We don’t even give them the chance. We decide on their behalf what we will dole out to them. The self is a product of choices and individualisms, but there is actually a very narrow range of choices. One does not have the chance to choose, and yet one is meant to invest so much into the path that one has chosen among this very small number of paths.”

—Helen DeWitt in an interview with Mieke Chew of BOMB Magazine (found via Language Hat)

On the irrelevance of the reader

“As far as writing something is concerned, the reader really doesn’t exist. The writer’s business is somehow to create in the work something which will stand on its own and make its own demands; and if the writer is good, he discovers what those demands are, and he meets them, and creates this thing which readers can then do what they like with. Gertrude Stein said, ‘I write for myself and strangers,’ and then eventually she said that she wrote only for herself. I think she should have taken one further step. You don’t write for anybody. People who send you bills do that. People who want to sell you things so they can send you bills do that. People who want to tell you things so they can sell you things so they can send you bills do that. You are advancing an art—the art. That is what you are trying to do.”

—William Gass (here)

Compare Borges in “The Secret Miracle”:

“He did not work for posterity, nor even for God, of whose literary preferences he possessed scant knowledge.”

Short story: “Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel”

“Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel,” by Shaenon K. Garrity

Found here in Strange Horizons, October 17, 2011;  their 2011 Readers’ Poll gave it fifth place in the Best Story category; also nominated for a BSFA Award

4,101 words

A great homage to Borges’ “Library.” You don’t really need to read that piece first, either, since the opening sums it up. I love the bittersweetness of the ending, with its suggestion that this story could only be recounted by a failed librarian, someone left behind. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

The characters are fairly flat, sketched out just enough to support the plot and philosophical musings. Their names are nicely chosen. We all know what to expect from a Bev, Carol, or Ted who works at an obscure library in suburban Ohio.

Best line ever: “As you know, we did not work at an infinite library where every other book is Stephen King’s Cujo. That library is in El Paso.”

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.

Short story: “The Shape of the Sword”

“The Shape of the Sword” or “The Form of the Sword” (“La forma de la espada”), by Jorge Luis Borges

Wikipedia says this first appeared in La Nación in July 1942 and was collected in Ficciones in 1944; found Donald A. Yates’ translation here

1,906 words in the translation linked above

One thing that impresses me about Borges, again and again, is the psychological astuteness that shines through his best intellectual games:

“Then I realized that his cowardice was incurable. I begged him, rather awkwardly, to take care of himself, and left. I was ashamed of this frightened man, as if I were the coward, and not Vincent Moon. One man’s deeds are like the deeds of all mankind. This is why it is not unfair that one disobedience in a garden should contaminate the human race; this is why the crucifixion of a single Jew should suffice to save it. Perhaps Schopenhauer is right: I am others, any man is all men. Shakespeare is, in some way, the miserable John Vincent Moon.” (From another translation; quote found online here.)

The philosophical tangent arises naturally from the character’s feelings.

When I first reached the ending, I felt for a moment that the scene quoted above had lost its charm for me. It had become too literal, Moon’s sense of the blurring of identities seemed less meaningful, and it made Moon as narrator seem more calculating. But on reflection I see that the ending merely rewrites that scene. Now the scene is no longer about Moon’s companion feeling vicarious shame. It’s about Moon sensing his companion’s awkwardness and understanding exactly what lies behind it.

Short story: “The Secret Miracle”

“The Secret Miracle” (“El Milagro Secreto”), by Jorge Luis Borges; the version I read was translated by Harriet de Onís

Collected in Labyrinths, probably anthologized all over; a version without translation credits in PDF

My current estimate is 2,500 words in English

I like this so much. On a reread, I notice that Hladík is not described as a remarkably good or hardworking writer. Up until that final miracle, he seems both mediocre and undisciplined. One of Borges’ witty throwaways demands to be quoted:

Like all writers, he measured the achievements of others by what they had accomplished, asking of them that they measure him by what he envisaged or planned.

Which makes his redemption (or whatever it is) all the better. Hladík is apparently nobody special, and neither he nor we can understand God’s motives for choosing him. Maybe it’s like humoring a child who wants you to check for monsters under the bed just one last time before going to sleep—God’s way of comforting someone who is beyond rational comfort.


  • Hladík’s torment as he waits for the appointed day is entirely believable. I wonder if Borges was thinking of Dostoyevsky.
  • Borges very logically makes his writer a formal-verse poet. A prose writer, or a writer of free verse, would have a lot of trouble trying to take advantage of this miracle, unless he happened to have Funes’s memory.
  • I like the epigraph here better than the one on “The Circular Ruins,” but that may be because I’ve never read the Koran. If it were as familiar to me as Through the Looking-Glass, I probably wouldn’t find this excerpt so strange and lovely.

Short story: “The Circular Ruins”

“The Circular Ruins”  (“Las Ruinas Circulares”) by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby and others

Wikipedia says this first appeared in Sur; Spanish text found online here; an uncredited translation very similar to Irby’s, though not identical, found online here (edit: here’s another and another to make up for the broken link)

2,201 words in the translation linked

It took me a ridiculous amount of time to realize that the title and setting are not just awesomely evocative. The story itself is circular. The ruins are “a temple, long ago devoured by fire,” destined to be burnt again. “For what was happening had happened many centuries ago.” I love the title for that reason.

But the best part of this story is its vision of a tremendous, prolonged creative effort. (Worth noting: Borges never wrote a novel.)

He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality. This magical project had exhausted the entire content of his soul; if someone had asked him his own name or any trait of his previous life, he would not have been able to answer.

These lines are themselves a magic spell. Later, the failure of the main character’s “dialectical” efforts rings true to a certain type of creative failure. His first draft was going fine for a while, the main character was taking shape, but somehow the momentum died. He had to start over from a completely different angle (from the heart outwards, instead of from the outside in).

Although the story suggests an endless cycle of magicians, each passing on life and forgetfulness to his son, it also suggests a single magician who renews himself, phoenix-like, again and again. Characteristically of Borges, linear time is already destined to be cyclical, making the difference unimportant.


I wonder if anyone has psychoanalyzed this story as being about womb envy. Lots of womb-like imagery (the enclosing ruins, the touching of every surface of the heart) and an unbroken chain of womanless fatherhood. From that perspective, the tragedy of the ending is that the man is cut off not only from reality but from his own feminine potential for true creation. I was half joking when I started this paragraph but now I guess I’m mostly serious?

I learned the word “lustra” (plural of “lustrum,” a five-year period) from Irby’s translation. (Presumably the exact English equivalent of the “lustros” of the original.) An odd term to use, unless Borges meant to invoke what it meant in ancient Rome, a ritual purification.

The epigraph is a little too obvious, I think. I would have omitted it. But I’m no Borges.