” Morell leading uprisings of Negroes that dreamed of hanging him . . . Morell hanged by armies of Negroes that he had dreamed of leading . . . it pains me to admit that the history of the Mississippi did not seize upon those rich opportunities. Nor, contrary to all poetic justice (and poetic symmetry), did the river of his crimes become his tomb. ” (From The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell)
Borges’s debut collection of short stories in 1935 is a re-creating of stories about international criminals from the Orient, the Islamic world, the Wild West, both historical and fictional. Although Borges mentioned these stories were just meant for light entertainment, and for me provide access to his early dabbling, they combine high seriousness and a wicked sense of fun. There are numerous signs of what is to expect of his later works: mirrors, elusive identities, hoaxes, duels, manipulations, decoys, serendipity, and most significantly and prominently, irony.
He therefore gave up the notion of likeness altogether. He seemed that this was no fraud, for no fraud would ever have so flagrantly flaunted features that might so easily have convinced. (From The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro)
Handled with fecundity and class, perfidious individuals from history and legend stride through the pages. Lazarus Morell is an amoral entrepreneur who charges salves to help them escape their masters only to resell them at a profit. Tom Castro convinces a rich woman that he’s her long-lost son despite the fact that he bears no resemblance to him. A widowed lady commands a sizable pirate fleet and fights against the Chinese imperial navy twice. Monk Eastman roams the street of New York and wreaks havoc. Bill the Kid kills for amusement in New Mexico only to be rewarded with whores and free whiskey. The Ronin plot to avenge their lord’s death by killing the teacher of imperial etiquette who insulted him, even though they know that they will be put to death. A heretic of Islam teaches that mirrors and sex are evil because they multiply humanity. A theologician teaches salvation is by faith and not by works of love and charity. A king forces his way into a forbidden tower where a ghastly inscription awaits him. A man who journeys to Persia to find fortune after a dream convinces him to leave home finds a serendipitous outcome. A priest who learns black magic from a wizard is given an even greater lesson on gratitude, and the lack of. An ink blot turns into a mirror that shows violence.
The narrative voice is smooth and delightful. Granted the collection is no more than a regurgitation of some of the world’s most dreadful villains and their stories, Borges writes with elegance and an economy of words. The merit lies in the skill with which he tells the stories. He won’t tell you someone is betrayed, murdered or dumped into the river. This collection is a great preamble to what is to be deemed masterpiece.
64 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]