Sunday, 30 January 2011
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) Short Stories...
Jorge Luis Borges, was an Argentine writer, essayist, and poet born in Buenos Aires. In 1921, Borges began publishing his poems and essays in surrealist literary journals. His work was translated and published widely in the United States and in Europe. Borges himself was fluent in several languages. His work embraces the "character of unreality in all literature." His most famous books, Ficciones (1944) and The Aleph (1949), are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes such as dreams, labyrinths, libraries, fictional writers, religion and God. His works have contributed to the genre of magical realism, a genre that reacted against the realism/naturalism of the nineteenth century. Writer and essayist J. M. Coetzee said of him: "He, more than anyone, renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish American novelists."
Here's a few notable stories/texts that rely heavily on a specific object, space or place throughout the narrative...
The Book of Sand
The "Book of Sand" is the Book of all Books, and is a monster. The story tells how this book came into the possession of a fictional version of Borges himself, and of how he ultimately disposed of it.
On opening the book, Borges finds that the pages are written in an indecipherable script appearing in double columns, ordered in versicles as in a Bible. When he opens to a page with an illustration, the bookseller advises a close look, since the page will never be found, or seen, again. It proves impossible to find the first or last page. This Book of Sand has no beginning or end: its pages are infinite. Each page is numbered, apparently uniquely but in no discernible pattern. The bookseller indicates that he acquired the book in exchange for a handful of rupees and a Bible, from an owner who did not know how to read. He and the fictive Borges strike a bargain, and Borges exchanges his entire pension plus a black-letter Wyclif Bible for the miraculous book. The worldly Borges ultimately proves no more able to live with the terrifying book than was the salesman. He considers destroying the book by fire, but decides against this after reasoning that such a fire would release infinite amounts of smoke, and asphyxiate the entire world. Ultimately, Borges transports the book to the Argentine National Library with the infinite book deliberately lost in a near-infinity of books.
In the story, Zahir is a person or an object that has the power to create an obsession in everyone who sees it, so that the affected person perceives less and less of reality and more and more of the Zahir, at first only while asleep, then at all times.
Borges plays himself in the story as a man who, after paying for a drink, gets the Zahir in his change. At the very beginning of the story Borges describes it: a common twenty-centavo coin, with the year of minting of 1929 and knife marks scratching the letters N T and the figure 2. Borges then tells the reader about a train of thought focused on famous coins throughout history and legend, and the fact that a coin symbolizes our free will, since it can be turned into anything. These feverish thoughts keep him awake for a while. The next day Borges decides to lose the coin. He goes to a faraway neighborhood in Buenos Aires and manages to get rid of the Zahir by paying for another drink in an anonymous bar.
The writer is unable to forget the coin, which fills his dreams and his waking moments too. In the meantime, he tries to look for a cure to his obsession, and after some research he finds a book that explains his malady. In this book, the Borges character reads that the Zahir is a piece of Islamic folklore that dates back to the 17th century. A Zahir is an object that traps everyone who so much as takes a look at it, even from afar, into an obsession that finally erases the rest of reality. In other times and places, a tiger has been a Zahir, as well as an astrolabe, the bottom of a well, and a vein in a marble column in a mosque. According to the myth, everything on earth has the propensity to be a Zahir, but "the Almighty does not allow more than one thing at a time to be it, since one alone can seduce multitudes".
Borges tells us that soon he will be unable to perceive external reality, and he will have to be dressed and fed. In idealistic philosophy, "to live and to dream are synonymous", and he will simply pass "from a very complex dream to a very simple dream". In a mixture of despair and resignation, he wonders:
Others will dream that I am mad, and I [will dream] of the Zahir. When all men on earth think day and night of the Zahir, which one will be a dream and which a reality, the earth or the Zahir.
The Library of Babel
Borges's narrator describes how his universe consists of an enormous expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival—and four walls of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just a few basic characters (letters, spaces and punctuation marks). Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages.
Despite — indeed, because of — this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair. This leads some librarians to superstitions and cult-like behaviour, such as the "Purifiers", who arbitrarily destroy books they deem nonsense as they move through the library seeking the "Crimson Hexagon" and its illustrated, magical books. Another is the belief that since all books exist in the library, somewhere one of the books must be a perfect catalog of the library's contents; some even believe that a messianic figure known as the "Man of the Book" has read it, and they travel through the library seeking him.