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Nashville Scene In the Details

Collection bears witness to writer's prodigious talent

By Michael Sims

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  A couple of months ago, I wandered the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts with a paperback of Jorge Luis Borges' horrific but immensely entertaining Universal History of Iniquity in my backpack. The economical grandeur of Borges' style seemed more suited to the ocean than to Middle Tennessee, and I found myself walking along lost in his world. More than once, I bemoaned the lack of a complete Borges--although it would have been too heavy for my backpack.

Lo and behold, my wish was granted. Upon my return, I found Collected Fictions, a fat new 565-page volume from Viking. There are several reasons to rejoice over this collection. First, finally we have all of Borges' stories in one place and in the order he wrote them; second, we have them all in a consistent voice and idiom, thanks to the splendid new translation by Andrew Hurley; third, the book itself is handsome and appealing and, well, even smells good.

John Updike once asked of Borges, "What are we to make of him?" That's the question: Is the Argentine master a fabulist, a short story writer, an essayist, a scholar, or a poet? The answer is yes.

A smorgasbord of Borges will make my point. Consider this perfect detail: "He died like a Samurai; the more distant spectators saw no blood, for the felt was red." Or ponder this opening for a story: "Out of this city marched armies that seemed grand, and that in later days were grand, thanks to the magnifying effects of glory."

Although Borges' stories take place all over the world and in plenty of unnamed regions, the American West of the 19th century repeatedly captured the writer's attention. His fascination gave birth to a number of fine stories, from which I will quote a single Picasso mural of a sentence: "Beyond the setting sun lay the cedar-felling ax, the buffalo's huge Babylonian face, Brigham Young's top hat and populous marriage bed, the red man's ceremonies and his wrath, the clear desert air, the wild prairie, the elemental earth whose nearness made the heart beat faster, like the nearness of the sea."

Born in 1899 in Argentina, Borges published his first volume in his early 20s. During his lifetime, he rose to the level of undisputed master, applauded by everyone from Mario Vargas Llosa to Harold Bloom. He died in 1986--blind, world-famous, and leaving behind poems, essays, and dozens of inimitable stories, including such influential classics as "The Circular Ruins" and "Shakespeare's Memory."

Borges' stories are rich in fantasy and allegory. He was a baroque miniaturist. Again and again he painted, out of pure wit and inventive enthusiasm, luminous microcosms that seemed to encapsulate far more than anyone else could cram into such a tiny space. For example, in a one-paragraph meditation, "Argumentum Ornithologicum," the narrator describes closing his eyes and seeing a flock of birds. He is uncertain how many birds he sees, but knows that it is more than one and fewer than 10. In a Schrodinger's-cat sort of way, he makes of this indeterminacy an internal dialogue about the existence of God.

One hallmark of Borges' style is his sheer narrative chutzpah. In "The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro," a con man impersonates a lost son even though he looks nothing at all like the man whose inheritance he is seeking. His rationale: "He sensed that the vast ineptitude of his pretense would be a convincing proof that this was no fraud, for no fraud would ever have so flagrantly flaunted features that might so easily have convinced." The hoax succeeds--for a time.

Borges was a conjuror who delighted in literary sleight-of-hand. His stories are replete with spurious quotations and sly parodies of pedantry that are also homages. Are these merely literary games, exploiting the absurdity of the world la Joyce and Beckett? Sometimes, yes. Absurdities and eccentricity are Borges' shtick. But through them he comes close to the very mystery of existence.

His stories can be dreamlike, haunting, as if Poe and Kafka were his drinking buddies and each had sworn to try his hand at the same styles and themes. Then there are moments when he sounds like Marcel Proust doing a cocktail-party imitation of H.P. Lovecraft. In other words, Jorge Luis Borges sounds only like himself. And to be oneself with such inimitable style is to leave a legacy in the presence of which we can merely smile the reader's goofy smile of complete, bookish satisfaction.

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