by Jorge Luis Borges

9/10 (Lacks emotional component)

I loved this book. It wasn’t flawless — it doesn’t feel “complete” since it operates almost wholly in the intellectual arena and very rarely attempts to engage your emotions — but it is very rich and very satisfying, with bursts of prose and puzzlement that frequently set your mind spinning. It is best to read one or two stories at a time, lest they get monotonous and run together, but that’s not a condemnation; very rarely to I so look forward to re-reading a book.

Here’s a basic question that, regardless of the answer, should tell you a lot about Borges: when adding him to your shelf, do you categorize him as “Classic” or “Modern” literature? It’s certainly old enough to be classic and many of the stories are well known, but everything about the style and substance screams modernity.

Some of my favorite stories: the famous “Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” “The Library of Babel,” “Funes the Memorious,” “The Sect of the Phoenix,” “The Immortal,” “The House of Asterion,” and “The Waiting.” “The Shape of the Sword” was perhaps my favorite and most memorable, probably because it’s the one that packs the greatest emotional heft.

All of these stories above (and most all in the book as well) have in common that they are ostensibly speaking about one thing and only as you get close to the end do you realize they have been talking about something else the entire time. It’s this kaleidoscopic shifting between layers and dimensions that dazzles as you read. It’s really the closest thing to hallucinatory I’ve ever read, where one thing becomes something else right before your eyes, yet it is also still that original thing, and now it is both simultaneously. . . and oh by the way does time still even exist?

Even more surprising and delightful about this book: the essays and parables that appear to be tacked onto the end are every bit as engaging and hallucinatory as the fiction. “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” and “Partial Magic in Quixote” are two of the most interesting, but “Avatars of the Tortoise,” about Zeno’s Paradox, is my mind-blowing favorite. In it he explains the paradox (by which nothing can ever arrive at its destination because the distances between two points is forever halved) with the most intriguing aspect of Hinduism (though he does not overtly avow knowledge of Hinduism I doubt that someone so well-read would have been unaware of the resemblance):

‘The greatest magician. . . would be the one who would cast over himself a spell so complete that he would take his own phantasmagorias as autonomous appearances. Would not this be our case?’ I conjecture that this is so. We (the undivided divinity operating with us) have dreamt this world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false. 243

How can you not love this? It’s like chewing gum for your brain.

Of the last section of parables, “Borges and I” and “Everything and Nothing” are wonderful, but “Ragnarok” must surely be the most astounding and beautiful. It is about a dream of the Gods that turns into a disgusting nightmare. But the imagery is overwhelming. In fact, it’s so great that I think I’ll leave you with it:

. . . A voice shouted ‘Here they come!’ and then ‘The Gods! The Gods!’ Four or five individuals emerged from the mob and occupied the platform of the main lecture hall. We all applauded, tearfully; these were the Gods returning after a centuries-long exile. Made larger by the platform, their heads thrown back and their chests thrust forward, they arrogantly received our homage. One held a branch which no doubt conformed to the simple botany of dreams; another, in a broad gesture, extended his hand which was a claw; one of the faces of Janus looked with distrust at the curved beak of Thoth. Perhaps aroused by our applause, one of them — I no longer know which — erupted in a victorious clatter, unbelievably harsh, with something of a gargle and of a whistle. From that moment, things changed.

It all began with a suspicion (perhaps exaggerated) that the Gods did not know how to talk. Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese mustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or piety, they would finally destroy us.

We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods. 276-7

Original Review

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