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[659] Fictions II: Artifices – Jorge Luis Borges

1borges

” But then, all our lives we postpone everything that can be postponed; perhaps we all have the certainty, deep inside, that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do everything, know all there is to know. ” (From Funes, His Memory)

The collection of 9 stories in Artifices continues what Borges has subversively started in The Garden of Forking Paths: a sort of preternatural sense of the power of seemingly-endless hypertextuality. The writing is dense, with obscure allusiveness to literature, culture, philosophy and politics. His reality, real life-based or invented, are hinted at and cross-referenced constantly (sometimes it can be challenging to read), so that reader imagines a macrocasm of metaphysical possibilities existing just beyond the text.

In adultery, there is usually tenderness and self-sacrifice; in murder, courage; in profanation and blasphemy, a certain satanic splendour. Judas elected those offences unvisited by any virtues: abuse of confidence and informing. (From Three Versions of Judas)

Funes, His Memory is about a young man who, after a head injury, acquires a peculiar talent to remember everything. He can perceive every detail with unbearable precision. The story is highly ironic for it calls for generalization and abstraction to thoughts. The Shape of the Sword raises provocative questions about identity, betrayal, and memory. In telling the story of how an Irishman acquired his huge crescent-shaped scar on his face, Borges plays the trick on reader by taking the role of both narrator and protagonist. The Theme of the Traitor and Hero takes the form of a mystery, in which a biographer investigates a century-old crime, the murder of a conspirator. Although the evidence unearthed leads to a final resolution, the outcome is still shocking. It shows how history is both arranged and rewritten for the benefit of itself. Riding on the motif of symmetry of time and space, Death and the Compass is a detective story about a mysterious series of murders that seems to follow a kabbalistic pattern. Borges reverses the convention of a detective story by reversing the roles of criminal and detective. The sense of time is warped in The Secret Miracle, as an imprisoned Jew, undergoing psychological delirium, asked God for a reprieve so he can complete his book. The slipping into dreams, transcendence into spiritual conversations via prayer all melt together into a blur. Three Versions of Judas is provocative because it’s not theological. Judas #1, in fear of death, wishes to be elevated upon most high. He is portrayed as Christ’s reflection. Judas #2 mortifies his spirit the same way that Judas mortified his flesh, in exultation of God. Judas #3 is the true vessel through which God carried out his sacrifice. The End and The South are both duel, knife-fight stories that have embedded meaning for the Argentine intellectual circle during Borges’s lifetime. The Cult of the Phoenix is sort of a prank. The cult is bound by a secret, a ritual even forbidden to its members. Borges circumvents around such secret knowledge, supplying only fragmentary clues taken from literature of all times and nations, clues that are disconnected and out of their place. Which brings back to the idea that only limited knowledge is available in an infinite labyrinth.

There’s no denying that Jorge Luis Borges is an amazing writer and his erudition plays a big part in his stories. But much like other authors of the same calibre and intellect like Umberto Eco and Nabokov late in his life, his work seems to abound in references and allusions, some of which I caught and some I felt completely escaped me.

52 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

5 Responses

  1. Nice review. Sounds a bit like Kafka as well – some brilliance mixed with vague and prose personally meaningful (to the writer) ultimately tough to get through.

    • You’re pretty spot on. He writes, or starts to write, about subject matter than pertains to our usual, realistic sense of the world, but quickly subverts what we perceive as common knowledge and gets off the tangent to something imaginary and infinite. Ironies abound.

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