Thursday, 7 April 2011

Top 5 Borges stories

Borges has long been my favourite writer, ever since I began reading fiction seriously. I will never forget the sensation of discovery I felt after scampering through the woods at night, locating a rock opposite a lake and beginning Fictions.

Every Borges story is a challenge. To this day, there are some I can't really get my head around; after reading something like, say, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertuis I can feel my brain aching fervently.

Borges' mythologised worlds of recurrent and cyclical time, of doubles, dreams-within-dreams, rooms filled with sand are without equal in my other reading endeavours.

I think that reading his stories in Spanish far excels the translations. In some cases the lexicon will be too much for me and I'll have to read certain stories in English. But I really do urge you to hunt out the original copies, no matter how poor your mastering of the language is.

In this post I will order my favourite Borges stories into a list. Other Borges stories I really, really like that aren't included here are The Garden of Forking Paths, Funes the Memorious, The Zahir, The Death and the Compass, The Book of Sand and The Other.

Sorry about the different fonts.

5. The Immortal

In London, in the first part of June 1929, the antique dealer Joseph Cartaphilus of Smyrna offered the prince of Lucigne the six volumes in small quarto (1715-20) of Pope's Iliad. The Princess acquired them; on receiving the books, she exchanged a few words with the dealer. He was, she tells us, a wasted and earthen man, with grey eyes and grey beard, of singularly vague features. He could express himself with fluency and ignorance in several languages; in very few minutes, he went from French to English and from English to an enigmatic conjuction of Salonika Spanish and Macao Portuguese. In October the Princess heard from a passenger of the Zeus that Cartaphilus had died at sea while returning to Smyrna, and that he had been buried on the island of Ios. In the last volume of the Iliad she found this manuscript. 3. The Secret Miracle

No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe sink into the sacred mud, but in a few days there was no one who did not know that the taciturn man came from the South and that his home had been one of those numberless villages upstream in the deeply cleft side of the mountain, where the Zend language has not been contaminated by Greek and where leprosy is infrequent. What is certain is that the grey man kissed the mud, climbed up the bank with pushing aside (probably, without feeling) the blades which were lacerating his flesh, and crawled, nauseated and bloodstained, up to the circular enclosure crowned with a stone tiger or horse, which sometimes was the color of flame and now was that of ashes. This circle was a temple which had been devoured by ancient fires, profaned by the miasmal jungle, and whose god no longer received the homage of men. The stranger stretched himself out beneath the pedestal. He was awakened by the sun high overhead. He was not astonished to find that his wounds had healed; he closed his pallid eyes and slept, not through weakness of flesh but through determination of will. He knew that this temple was the place required for his invincible intent; he knew that the incessant trees had not succeeded in strangling the ruins of another propitious temple downstream which had once belonged to gods now burned and dead; he knew that his immediate obligation was to dream. Toward midnight he was awakened by the inconsolable shriek of a bird. Tracks of bare feet, some figs and a jug warned him that the men of the region had been spying respectfully on his sleep, soliciting his protection or afraid of his magic. He felt a chill of fear, and sought out a sepulchral niche in the dilapidated wall where he concealed himself among unfamiliar leaves.

On the night of March 14, 1939, in an apartment on the Zelternergasse in Prague, Jaromir Hladik, author of the unfinished tragedy The Enemies, of a Vindication of Eternity, and of an inquiry into the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Boehme, dreamt a long drawn out chess game. The antagonists were not two individuals, but two illustrious families. The contest had begun many centuries before. No one could any longer describe the forgotten prize, but it was rumored that it was enormous and perhaps infinite. The pieces and the chessboard were set up in a secret tower. Jaromir (in his dream) was the first-born of one of the contending families. The hour for the next move, which could not be postponed, struck on all the clocks. The dreamer ran across the sands of a rainy desert - and he could not remember the chessmen or the rules of chess. At this point he awoke. The din of the rain and the clangor of the terrible clocks ceased. A measured unison, sundered by voices of command, arose from the Zelternergasse. Day had dawned, and the armored vanguards of the Third Reich were entering Prague.

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one's fecal necessities. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite ... Light is provided by some spherical fruit which bear the name of lamps. There are two, transversally placed, in each hexagon. The light they emit is insufficient, incessant.

On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me, for I realised that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series. The universe may change but not me, I thought with a certain sad vanity. I knew that at times my fruitless devotion had annoyed her; now that she was dead, I could devote myself to her memory, without hope but also without humiliation. I recalled that the thirtieth of April was her birthday; on that day to visit her house on Garay Street and pay my respects to her father and to Carlos Argentino Daneri, her first cousin, would be an irreproachable and perhaps unavoidable act of politeness. Once again I would wait in the twilight of the small, cluttered drawing room, once again I would study the details of her many photographs: Beatriz Viterbo in profile and in full colour; Beatriz wearing a mask, during the Carnival of 1921; Beatriz at her First Communion; Beatriz on the day of her wedding to Roberto Alessandri; Beatriz soon after her divorce, at a luncheon at the Turf Club; Beatriz at a seaside resort in Quilmes with Delia San Marco Porcel and Carlos Argentino; Beatriz with the Pekingese lapdog given her by Villegas Haedo; Beatriz, front and three-quarter views, smiling, hand on her chin... I would not be forced, as in the past, to justify my presence with modest offerings of books -- books whose pages I finally learned to cut beforehand, so as not to find out, months later, that they lay around unopened.


Amber said...

I came accross a piece of secondary criticism on Borges which stated that Borges had once said, 'I think the reader will find in 'The Challenge' a full explanation of my feeling for the subject of knives, knife fighters, courage and so on...' However, I am unable to find this story anywhere and even though I am informed that it should be within the book 'The Aleph and Other stories' I simply cannot find it. Have you read it yourself? Being a Borges fan I thought you may have and if so how did you come accross the text?

Simon King said...

Funny you should say that now! I had never read the text until yesterday, when it was assigned for a class. We discussed it in a seminar today. Up 'til now I wasn't familiar with it. Possibly you sent that post the instant I was reading it - talk of Borgesian themes!

I'm afraid I'm not sure which book it originates from. It was very readable, though, and interesting.

Simon King said...

I think it's called 'The Meeting.' Anyway, I searched for it and it's in this book (I'm unfamiliar with it):