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In which Netty is a little bored by Borges …

October 3, 2012

This one was my fault. I’ve been pushing to get Argentine short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges (or Hor-hay! Luis! Baw-hess!, as my partner in crime, words and a drink or 20 (correctly) likes to call him) into the Reading Challenge for a couple of years now, after he was effusively recommended to me by a chick at my regular bookstore (possibly the very same chick who effusively recommended him to Andy when he rocked up at the counter of the same bookstore to purchase his copy!).

So Andy finally acquiesced this year, but in retrospect I kind of almost wish he hadn’t. As is bleedingly obvious to anyone who regularly checks into this blog, the books that make the cut here are, by nature, difficult (otherwise it would be a Reading Breeze, not a Challenge! Ba boom!) And yes, Borges’ work is difficult – but hell, so is nine-tenths of what we read for this blog, most of which I end up raving about and being oh-so-glad that I finally got around to. As a contrary type of gal, I kind of even enjoy ‘difficult’. But that wasn’t the problem here for me. Quite simply, I found most of Borges – well – a little uninteresting, a little dreary, and a little dull.

Collected Fictions is the tome we tackled – nine volumes, 500 pages, spanning some 50 years (not to mention the 40-odd pages of addendum notes, which I started out faithfully reading in conjunction with their aligned stories, but gave up about halfway through). Did I mention previously that I am a contrary type of gal? To wit, I actually read Collected Fictions backwards – starting with the 1983 volume Shakespeare’s Memory and concluding with A Universal History of Iniquity (1935), which I have to admit I barely skimmed through, having by that stage had more than my fill of Borges, much like a four-year-old kid hepped up on too much sugar at a birthday party, barfing in the back seat of the car on the way home.

Look, in defence of Borges, there is no doubt he is a very important writer. Names like Mario Vargas Llosa, Umberto Eco and John Updike (ahem) scatter the margins of my deluxe edition, singing the guy’s praises to the sun. I went into this knowing next to nothing about Borges bar that he has an almighty literary reputation.  I certainly wasn’t expecting realms upon realms of what is basically historical fiction – Borges’ take on events that may or may not have happened in various South American countries in the 1800s and 1900s. I perked up considerably when he mined what was obviously the personal, which mostly occurs in his later stories; hence why I started the collection bursting out of the blocks and ended it limping towards the finish line.

A word here on this volume, originally published in 1998. These translations were done by Andrew Hurley, an American academic and now-retired professor best known for his work on Borges, but with a raft of other translations of Spanish, Mexican, and central and South American writers to his credit. As noted previously in the annals of this blog, a good translator is worth his or her weight in gold – I am thinking of Edith Grossman, whose interpretations of the aforementioned Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are exemplary; so, too, Jay Rubin’s work with the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (more on him from Andy later this month). My grasp of a couple of foreign languages is rudimentary at best and downright shoddy at worst, so I have nothing but respect for someone with not only a command of another language so advanced that they can translate, but the skills to craft someone else’s words. So my hat goes off to Mr Hurley to have even contemplated such a massive task as that presented here.

So although I didn’t care too much for the historical fiction – which, err, makes up the majority of the tome – there is no doubt that some of these short stories are crackers. There are numerous pages scattered throughout the latter half of my copy of the book where I have turned down the corners to denote some clever phrase or other that tickled my fancy. There is some terrific metafictive stuff here that reminded me of Paul Auster; thought-provoking, often witty mediations on mortality penned in the author’s latter years (he died in Switzerland in 1986, at the age of 86). Short stories with a stinging twist in their tails; concepts breathtaking in their originality; some clever plotting, some memorable characters. Andy nailed it on the head when he referred to Borges as a ‘writer’s writer ‘– you can go through a roll-call of great authors to the present day who are obviously well-versed in, and owe a debt, even if small, to Baw-hess (ba boom!) It is just that for me, these instances were too few and far between – and I felt like I had to dig through a mountain of coal (too harsh? Perhaps) to get to the diamonds. And seeing that my favourite stories were those that comprised the final book, Shakespeare’s Memory – which was the first that I read, in keeping with my back-to-front method – my disappointment is perhaps understandable: it could only go downhill for me from there.

So at the end of the day, I freely admit it is not Borges’ fault that his stories largely failed to pump my ‘nads; that I spent large tracts of this book with a yawn suppressed at the back of my throat and with my eyes frequently glazing over. For me, Borges is best summed up in a couple of sentences from a story called The Other Death, in the 1949 volume The Aleph.  I quote:

“Down in the basement of Mitchell’s English bookshop, I came upon Patricio Gannon one afternoon, standing before the eleven delectable volumes of the works of Emerson. I asked him how his translation of ‘The Past’ was going. He said he had no plans to translate it; Spanish literature was tedious enough already …”

That is all.

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