annotation by Tina Rubin
With the earlier stories in this collection (Part I: The Garden of Forking Paths), Borges not only “explodes all previous notions of genre,” as critics have said, he also exploded my own naiveté about the impact magical realism can have when done well. Borges’ references to ancient literature, his explorations on the nature of reality, and his hints at chaos theory literally elated me. I had long boxed these subjects into the nonfiction category (philosophy, religion, history), not realizing that they could be incorporated into fiction. A few years ago I began a nonfiction novel based on translations of ancient texts, on the order of his “Circular Ruins” story in which thought form becomes reality which, in effect, turns out to be thought form. The few people who read my early chapters labeled it science fiction, and I promptly put it away. I hadn’t yet discovered magical realism. Reading Borges, however, gave me insight about writing in this genre and the courage to pick up my previous work.
Borges’ well-crafted stories, many written with tongue-in-cheek humor, are excellent examples of how to amuse while expanding a reader’s mind. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the first story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” contains this sentence: “Then Bioy Casares recalled that one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had stated that mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of man.” If you’re going to write about possibility, probability, and a chaotic universe, it’s probably a good idea to be funny while you’re at it.
Borges weaves his philosophy, which questions our perception of reality (including books), through his stories. Our perception of reality is one of my favorite topics, and one I’ve incorporated into my current novel, so I read with great interest to see how he did what he did. “The Babylon Lottery” reflects on the Godlike qualities an artificial system can take on, making the reader wonder whether our own notion of God began with such an artificial system. Borges’ reviews of imaginary books (which brought Vladimir Nabokov to mind—specifically The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, in which Nabokov’s narrator convincingly analyzes his dead half-brother’s novels) astounded me with their implications. And from the world of Uqbar, where there are no nouns, to the Library of Babel, a chaotic universe where books have no meaning, the message seems to be this: Don’t take reality for granted; there are innumerable probabilities and you can choose whichever future you like.
Although Borges carries his themes through the second half of the collection, Part I resonated more with me. The stories in Part II, however, were excellent examples of craftsmanship and narrative story, conveying an equal measure of action to theme with not quite as much intellectualism.
Ficciones is a difficult collection to annotate—with these two pages, I haven’t begun to do it justice. But as Pierre Menard, Borges’ fictional author of Don Quixote, suggests, every time we read we are, in effect, creating an entirely new text simply by viewing it through the distorting lens of history. So it is with Ficciones. I could create any number of pages here, since with each review I go off on an entirely new tangent. Such fun!