“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.
“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.
“To omit a word always, to resort to inept metaphors and obvious periphrases, is perhaps the most emphatic way of stressing it.”
—Stephen Albert in Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths” (translated by Donald A. Yates here)
Compare Orson Scott Card’s teacher’s advice.
“I could live under a table reading Borges.”
—Roberto Bolaño Ávalos
“The Library of Babel” (“La biblioteca de Babel”), by Jorge Luis Borges
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.)
“Funes the Memorious” or “Funes, His Memory” (“Funes el memorioso”), by Jorge Luis Borges
Wikipedia says this first appeared in La Nación in June 1942; English translation in PDF here
? words (I swear I’ll come back to this)
I will never understand why Borges’ fictions are all generally considered short stories. This one, like “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and “The Library of Babel,” strikes me as a fictional essay. None of Borges’ essays make much pretense at plot, and the characters are static. What develops as they go on is not plot or character or theme as I understand it, but something else, something they have in common with excellent science fiction. They take a strange idea and work out its implications so thoroughly that it begins to seem familiar (though still strange) and to have relevance to real life. “To think is to forget differences” (Pensar es olvidar diferencias)—yes, of course, why didn’t we realize that before? The fact is that these pieces work, never mind whether they work as essays or as stories, so I may be the only one who cares about the distinction. (And the fact that there are so few fictional essays as good as this must make it tempting to lump them all in with stories. I imagine it’s doubly difficult to make fiction interesting without the carrots of suspense and character identification.)
An especially uninformed opinion (I can barely read Spanish): I think the best translation of the title would probably be “The Vast Memory of Funes.” “Funes the Eidetic” would be okay, except that apparently the word refers mainly to visual memory, and anyway is relatively obscure.
None of this anal-retentive blather does justice to the piece, but I expect to write many more posts on Borges before I’m done here.