“Ficciones” by Jorge Luis Borges

The volume “Collected Fictions” contains pretty much all of Borges’ short stories, but I just read the 15 or so stories that make up 1944’s “Ficciones.”  I’d heard a lot about Borges and how influential he was for many authors, particularly sci-fi (and I see why now).  Also heard that “Ficciones” contains his best work, so I wanted to read at least that.  I liked about half the stories I read – some cool ideas – but the rest were hard to understand or kind of boring.  Both reactions are probably due to my lack of knowledge of Borges’ contemporary Argentine authors or some other culture gap.

So anyway, Borges was kind of a disappointment to me after looking forward to reading him for a while.  But like I said there were some of the stories I liked.

  • Lottery in Babylon – a normal lottery, over time and subtlety, by degrees, expands to a system where positively everything is determined by chance.
  • A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain – reviews the books of a fictional author.  One book starts with the final chapter.  The following three chapters could each precede the first chapter – different ways the first chapter could have come about.  The final nine chapters each present possible predecessors to chapters 2 – 4.  So in the end there are nine different stories (of nine different genres) which all end in exactly the same way.  Kind of a reverse many-worlds situation – convergence rather than divergence.
  • Library of Babel – a (seemingly) infinite library contains all possibly permutations of characters to make every possible book.  Librarians living (stuck?) in the library wander and wonder about the meaning.  (As many others have pointed out, the library is not infinite, just very very big.  I thought it would be fun to show off my combinatorial chops and calculate the number of books and rooms in the library.  I’m not the first – the wikipedia article has a synopsis and someone even wrote a book about it!  Anyway….  there are 20 shelves per room, 32 books per shelf.  Each book has 410 pages, each page has 40 lines, and each line has 80 symbols.  There are 25 possible symbols (including punctuation and space).  Therefore there are 410*40*80 = 1,312,000 symbols per book.  All possible permutations of those 25 symbols are contained in the books in the library.  So there are 25^1,312,000 books and 25^1,312,000 / 20*32 rooms in the library.)
  • The Garden of Forking Paths – contains a story within a story.  Outer story: a (Chinese, working for the Germans) spy in WWII Britain is on the verge of getting caught and has to somehow warn his handler what town on the continent should be bombed to take out a major British artillery offensive before it happens.  Inner story: the spy visits a Sinologist named Albert who tells him about a literary work written by the spy’s ancestor.  The work is basically the many worlds theory.  (Again!)
  • The Secret Miracle – might be my favorite Borges story.  A Jewish playwright is arrested by the Germans in WWII.  He is sentenced to die by firing squad.  In the days before his sentence is executed, his over-arching anguish is not that he is to die, but that his greatest work will remain unfinished.  He pleads with God for one more year to complete it.  The day of the execution comes, and the soldiers fire.  But he doesn’t die – in fact nothing happens, everything is still.  Time has stopped – but the playwright’s mind has not.  He deconstructs and recomposes his play repeatedly, entirely in his mind.  Finally, one year later, he is finished and rejoices in his masterpiece.  Suddenly time restarts, the bullets rush to his chest, and he dies.  But he is satisfied and happy.

I kind of wondered if the title “Fictions” is not just a descriptor indicating that the volume contains fictional stories, but maybe an allusion to the content of many of those stories.  A lot of the stories deal with branching choices, “what-ifs,” or the idea of parallel universes …. Aren’t all fictional stories parallel universes?

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