Ficciones
by Jorge Luis Borges
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The figure of Jorge Luis Borges haunts so many
post-modern mysteries, the author himself taking
on symbolic resonance. Umberto Eco, in his
The
Name of the Rose, assigns a key role to a character
named Jorge of Burgos, and constructs his story
around a labyrinthine library that seems virtually
lifted straight out of
Ficciones.  In Jean-Luc Godard’s
avant-garde
noir detective film Alphaville, hero
Lemmy Caution outwits the evil computer Alpha
60 with poetry drawing on lines written by Borges.  
Borges’ mythical book,
The Approach to Al-
Mu'tasim
—one of many peculiar
volumes invented by our author
in the course of
Ficciones—even
shows up as a real (and sym-
bolically-charged) tome toward
the conclusion of Miguel Syjuco’s
Borgesian novel
Ilustrado.  

Yet Borges also had deep ties to
more conventional mysteries.  Few
remember that his first story pub-
lished in English, “The Garden of
the Forking Paths,” made its debut
in the
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, a pulp fiction
periodical with few aspirations to highbrow literary
acclaim.   This tale, included in
Ficciones, relates the
elaborate strategy employed by a Chinese scholar,
operating as a German spy in England during World
War I, for sending a message to his handler in the
Kaiserreich.  The tale blends an intricately plotted
mystery into a typically playful Borgesian setting,
complete with his trademark labyrinth, riddling texts,
elaborate scholarly conceits, cross-cultural confusions, a
tinkering with notions of infinity, duplicitous role-
playing, and a paradoxical alternative reality angle.  I'm
not sure what
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine readers
thought, encountering this tale alongside conventional
crime stories featuring hard-boiled detectives and
provocative dames, but I wouldn't be surprised if more
than a few canceled their subscriptions in the aftermath.  

In “Death and the Compass,” also found in
Ficciones,
Borges appears to adopt a more conventional stance,
presenting a private investigator, Erik Lönnrot, very
much in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste
Dupin or Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.  A
puzzling crime, perhaps even an unintentional one,
leaves a rabbi murdered.  In his typewriter, police find a
sheet of paper upon which is written—another
enigmatic text from Borges—
The first letter of the Name has
been spoken
.  While the authorities seek for clues and
suspects, Lönnrot focuses on textual interpretation,
perusing works such as
A Vindication of the Cabala,
History of the Sect of the Hasidim, and the Philologus Hebraeo-
Graecus
.  I wish I could assure you that our detective is
rewarded for his scholarly efforts, but his case sadly
proves to be an instance when
explication de texte brings
with it neither academic tenure nor a conviction in
court.  And, yes, a labyrinth also appears in this story.

In the closing pages of “Death and the Compass,”
Lönnrot comes upon a strange, apparently deserted villa
marked by "superfluous symmetries and maniacal
repetitions."  The same description might be applied to
many of author Borges's stories.  In "Pierre Menard,
Author of Don Quixote," a scholar devotes years to
writing a book that has already been written.  In "The
Library of Babel," the universe is reduced to a possibly
infinite series of identical hexagonal galleries, housing
shelf after shelf, each holding exactly 32 books of
uniform external appearance.  In "Funes, the
Memorious," an accident leaves a young boy paralyzed,
but with such a vivid memory, that every incident in his
life is preserved in his mind with incredible richness and
exactitude, the recollection offering a perfect reflection
of the lived reality.  

Only a few Borges stories involve an actual detective,
but many force the reader into a comparable
investigative role.   To read tales such as "The South"
or "The Secret of the Phoenix" is akin to attempting the
solution of an elaborate puzzle.   Other stories, such as
"Theme of the Traitor and Hero" or "Three Versions of
Judas" invite the reader to accept a total reversal of a
given historical account, almost as if actual events might
be reinterpreted as easily as a poem or play.  "The Form
of the Sword" applies the same approach to a personal
anecdote, teasing the reader with clues indicating a true
story that is the mirror image of the one recounted.

When Borges wrote these works, the concept of post-
modernism was unknown, not to mention undefined in
its particulars.  Yet so many of the key elements are
already laid out here with confidence and mastery.  
Here we have the playful intertextual games, the
elaborate and mythical books within books, the
recondite scholarly grotesqueries, the unpeeling of a
deceptive reality to reveal a horrifying nothingness
inside, the interpretation of signs and symbols as
necessary if maddening vocation, the pervasive paranoid
if not solipsistic tone, the story that turns on itself and
devours its own origins, etc.  How appropriate that our
author himself has shown up himself in more recent
postmodern works, less a flesh-and-blood historical
figure and more a talisman and symbol himself.  That
itself could be a Borges story.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
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Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) tried to
destroy the clues hidden in his early work.  
His attempt to purchase every surviving copy
of the magazines that featured some of these
efforts, in order to eradicate all evidence of
their existence, is just
the kind of obsessive
pursuit he would cele-
brate in his own elliptical
stories.  At other times,
he would circulate de-
liberate forgeries, works
of his own in the style
of other authors, at-
tempting to pass them
off as translations. Then
again, he would review
non-existent books, praising or disparaging
these chimerical volumes found in no library.  
When Borges's later stories won him
international renown, these accounts of
obsessed narrators, Sisyphean vocations,
subtextual intrigues and self-negating literary
pursuits were, oddly enough, direct extensions
of his own equivocal career to date.  But
even odder:  this author, so iconoclastic and
unbeholden to literary fashions, set the tone
for many later schools of writing, from
magical realism to post-modern meta-
narratives.  For all the efforts to eradicate
clues and throw off those following his wake,
Borges lived up to his own prediction:  
"Every writer creates' his own precursors," he
asserted. “His work modifies our conception
of the past, as it will modify the future.”
ROGUES GALLERY:
JORGE LUIS BORGES
Further Clues:

Jorge Luis Borges:  The Mirror Man, a Documentary by
Philippe Molins

The Garden of Forking Paths

The Borges Center

"The Borges Behind the Stories"

Interview with Jorge Luis Borges by Ronald Christ from
The Paris Review

Labyrinth
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