Over the past day or two I have been reading short stories by the Spanish author Jorge Luis Borges, in a collection I got of his work, titled Ficciones. While I stress that these works are not for everyone, many of them dealing with metaphysical concepts hard for the untrained mind to grasp, I believe that these are some of the most concise and dense and juicy short stories published in the last century, to my knowledge.
Of the four I have read so far, three of them are short enough to be consumed in one sitting. All, I believe, can be found in their entirety on the Internet. The first and longest story was called “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and in a flurry of seventeen pages dealt with the ideas of solipsism and illusory reality, metaphysics and the mind, as well as totalitarianism, and, in a recurring Borges theme, the way ideas make their way into reality. The narrator discovers a centuries-old secret conspiracy among logicians, historians, biologists, intellectuals from all fields (the group being called Orbis Tertius) to create an encyclopedia of a fictional world called Tlön, with totally different physics, creatures, morality, religion, language, etc, from Earth. The encyclopedia is so complete that within a few years of the discovery, when it has been released to the public, objects from Tlön (such as one of the world’s impossibly heavy coin-sized silver cones, worshipped by one of the world’s religions) begin to appear on Earth, and by the end of the story Tlön’s teachings are beginning to be taught in schools (ideas into reality). This is by far the most complex and difficult-to-decipher I’ve read of Borges’s so far, but it’s also the most fascinating. It shows Borges’s sheer brevity more than anything else.
Another story, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” (the real author of Don Quixote was Miguel Cervantes) talks about a fictional man who made it his task to write Don Quixote … not by copying it out, but by immersing himself in the work and trying to legitimately inspire the story in himself. The actual nature of the task is hard to explain. However, the narrator thinks Menard’s Quixote is more interesting because one has to take into account that Menard used a style centuries old and talked about moral issues already long-resolved, even though both versions of Don Quixote are entirely identical! It’s actually quite humorous, and raises an interesting point about how attributing works to authors who did not write them can give them interest again. Very curious.
The other two I have read are the more approachable of the four: “Approach to Al-Mu’Tasim” and “The Circular Ruins.” The former is about a novel (invented by Borges) which is about an Indian man who seeks a holy man whose traits are reflected in other men, and, upon reaching the chamber of the sacred man (Al-Mu’Tasim) becomes united with that which he seeks, and the novel ends. This is an easy-to-read story which provides a great example of concepts shared by Borges and Buddhism about the unity of all living things and the emanating nature of the One, the Good. The other story, “The Circular Ruins”, is not narrated by an erudite critic about some fictional work but rather concerns a magician who spends his days trying to dream a complete man and then prays to the god Fire to bring him to life. It is a vivid, if hard to follow, story about eternal recursion and illusion that is easier to read than the other ones because it does not require knowledge of famous philosophers or works of literature.
Here are links to the short stories discussed above:
The Circular Ruins (it’s white text on black so you should probably copy and paste it into Microsoft Word for easier reading).