A good deal more measured and moderate than his explosively creative Fictions, this collection of short stories reveals a writer who is almost singularly concerned with narrative, storytelling, and the presentation of plot elements in bizarre patterns. At times incredible (and at others, inscrutable), The Aleph is a densely concise treasure trove of erudite anecdotes.
Jorge Luis Borges / Argentinean / 1952 / 106 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley
I first tangled with Fictions when I was carting off to Omaha for college and it shattered my brain like a bomb. There was something at once both entertaining and exasperating about Borges’ fantastical visions that were, nonetheless, deeply grounded in the laws of physics, logic, and probability. He constructed libraries with infinite dimensions and infinite shelves of books, drafted rigorous encyclopedias of fabricated cultures, and described a lottery that engendered more lotteries. Borges began with simple concepts and expanded them into absurd discussions of forgery, storytelling, history, and crime. He writes of a man who could remember everything he came into contact with, a worldwide cult so nondescript that virtually any person could have been inducted without her own knowledge, and a spy who murders a person at random because his last name bears some resemblance to a piece of information he is trying to convey to his general. Borges’ juxtaposition of his prose (terse, precise) with his structural execution (dense, organized) belies the ridiculousness of the narratives themselves. It was a combination of elements that my younger, undergraduate brain soaked up like a sponge.
Rereading the collection nearly 10 years later, I find myself less distracted by the fantastical bells and whistles of Fictions and in a better position to appreciate the extreme learnedness Borges poured into these tales. This time around, it was the quieter moments in Fictions that I found the most arresting, the most poignant, most funny, clever, or harrowing. I was more willing to run down the permutations of permutations implicit in Borges’ presentation, to dwell on the expansiveness of the ideas that he had artfully crammed into three- or four-page segments. In fact, this time around, it was probably the subtlest of all his stories in this collection — “The South” — that captivated me most deeply. It is a simple story, told well, that requires a degree of pondering on par with that elicited from a typically good, novel-length work.
Fans of “The South” will find a lot to like in The Aleph, another short story collection Borges published (and refined in subsequent editions) in the five years after he finished Fictions. Although I believe The Aleph is standard consumption for most Spanish-speaking readers, this is a collection that has received considerably less attention in English translation. Combine this with the fact that there exists a bastardized third collection of stories available in English — Labyrinths — that manages to filch a subset of stories from both The Aleph and Fictions, and what I think you end up with is an American audience that has somewhat haphazardly sampled stories from Borges’ catalogue (whereas, it seems to me, Fictions and The Aleph each actually stand on their own as internally cohesive works and deserve to be read as distinct entities). All this by way of saying that you, the American reader of Borges, may experience some considerable deja vu in reading the rest of this review even though you have, in all probability, never actually picked up The Aleph. (But I digress on a high horse.)
The collection opens with a fantastical tale called “The Immortal” that would have sat well alongside many of the stories in Fictions, but is still distinct from those stories in its pacing, framing, and thematic thrust. In contemporary times, a woman buys a book from a bookseller who disappears shortly thereafter. Inside, she finds an addition to the text that charts out how a Roman soldier stumbles upon a city of immortal beings, one of them Homer himself. The reader is led to the believe that the bookseller was this Roman soldier, made immortal by his visit to the city and unable to shake this curse. The story nicely foreshadows — both in structure and in substance — how the rest of The Aleph will play out: longer, meandering, and less predictable tales that tend to end up in a radically different place than where they began. Stories like “Emma Zunz” and “The Man on the Threshold”, for example, end in such a way that the reader cannot take the previous narrative arch at face value. Other tales like “The Wait” and “The Theologians” gradually begin to call attention to themselves, as if the process of reading was in some way informing the plot. Rather than the big explosions of Fictions, then, The Aleph more carefully develops its narratives in a highly self-conscious way. Readers are required to diagnose not only what the story is about substantively, but also how it is being used to convey that substance.
Teasing out this relationship between content and form is the locus of The Aleph. It is a bit of a high wire act, at times gleefully rewarding and at others, too tedious to tolerate. Relative to Fictions, it is also more intellectually demanding, which is a problem because, vis-a-vis the reader, Borges is always the better intellectual. Some stories — such as “Averroes’ Search” and, especially, “The Writing of the God” — are simply inscrutable. Other stories — like “Ibn-Hakam Murdered in His Labyrinth” — come off as hopelessly bookish B-sides from Fictions.
But even still, the collection works up to a couple of high points that are well worth the investment and time. “The Zahir” and “The Aleph” anchor opposite ends of the The Aleph and complement one another in thought-provoking capacities. Both stories begin with a funeral and end with the discovery of an object. In “The Zahir” this object is so singular that it invades the mind of its possessor at the expense of all other considerations; in “The Aleph”, by contrast, the object is the total convergence of all things, a complete snapshot of every in the world. Borges includes enough ancillary window dressing around the two tales — and makes their counterbalancing roles evident enough — to illicit from the reader a nice range of musings.
So The Aleph ends on a pleasant trick, even if it never quite measures up to the unhampered brilliance of Fictions. It is a more mature and measured work than Borges’ earlier volume, but it takes far fewer risks and at times reads as though the author is getting hemmed in by is own metaphysically complex understanding of literature. I liked the project and the end result; the only occasional problem was the process.
Rating: 7 / 10