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Roman Phillips
Roman Phillips

Collected Fictions Of Jorge Luis Borges [Extra Quality]

On the occasion of the centenary of his birth Viking/Penguin published three fat volumes of Borges' fiction, poetry, and non-fiction (collected, selected, and selected, respectively) -- an admirable attempt that still falls far short of the comprehensive presentation of Borges that so many clamour for. At least the Collected Fictions are translated by a single hand -- Andrew Hurley's -- (unlike the Selected Poems, with its mishmash of approaches). Unfortunately, it does not quite collect all the fiction, ignoring as it does Borges' collaborative efforts with Adolfo Bioy Casares -- an omission that can be accepted, but should be more fully explained (or at least made note of). Almost all of Borges' fiction has long been available in English, but scattered over many volumes, translated by any number of writers (Hurley counts some seventeen). The Collected Fiction finally places all the stories between the covers of a single book, a welcome though perhaps overwhelming trove. Borges' finely hewn short stories are dense, and often learned and allusive. They warrant closer reading and consideration, and to have so many of them side by side can detract from the individual pleasures almost each one affords. Borges' stories often share certain ideas and narrative tricks. A large number are tales within tales, the narrator relating how he found some lost story or piece of writing (generally only a fragment) and then quoting it verbatim, or recounting a tale he himself was told. Borges is often preoccupied with, among other things: infinity, mirrors, doubles, fate, libraries, and books. He imagines worlds and universes -- but he is also an Argentinian author, fascinated by the macho culture of that nation and describing scenes (often including knife fights) from it. Among his fictions are a number of brilliant ideas.There is Pierre Menard, the author who sets out to rewrite Don Quixote. There is the infinite library of The Library of Babel, the infinite book of The Book of Sand, the visions of the universe in its entirety in The Aleph. Shakespeare's Memory and Funes, His Memory brilliantly explore memory, and in Borges and I -- a single page -- the author examines identity and himself. There is a great deal of cleverness in his inventions, but it is the presentation that makes these stories true marvels. Often cloaked in some sort of scholarship, the stories are nevertheless accessible even if none of the references are familiar. Borges also writes a number of stories that are more realistic (or are at least less intellectual in their foundations). The South, in which a man goes to meet his fate, is among his strongest. Other stories range from the political Deutsches Requiem to The Gospel according to Mark. There is a staggering wealth of material here, with a considerable number of stories that could have a place in any anthology of the best stories written in the twentieth century. Borges is a fascinating writer, and familiarity with his work is essential. A master of his craft, almost all of his work is worth reading. Presented all in one heap, as here, one may tire of some of his tricks -- but this is a volume to carefully dip into, savouring the individual pieces. This collection -- like any and all collections of Borges' writings -- is highly recommended. This collection is, of course, of particular interest, because it is the first (English) one where one translator has had a go at all of Borges' fiction (at least all of it where he claimed sole authorship). Andrew Hurley counts at least seventeen previous translators into English of individual fictions, and even the early Ficciones (see our review) is the work of a number of translators. There's a lot to be said for a single translating voice, and Hurley has done a solid job. His work can hold its own against that of previous translators, and the advantage of having all the fictions collected here outweighs what linguistic weaknesses there are to his efforts. Unfortunately, the notes to the text are relatively weak, and often more irritating that informative. In presenting what is meant to be a "reader's edition" Hurley chooses only to "supply information that a Latin American (and especially Argentine or Uruguayan) reader would have". As to the rest:I have presumed the reader to possess more or less the range of general or world history or culture that JLB makes constant reference to, or to have access to such reference books and other sources as would supply any need there. Brave assumptions in ignorant times ! Understandably, Hurley did not want to get bogged down in annotating Borges -- though we think it would have been splendid if he had done so. Unfortunately, much of Borges' work refers to people, places, and books that are far beyond the ken of the holdings of even decent local libraries. Most of these fictions can be appreciated without this knowledge, but it would have been a fine service to provide it. In fact, Hurley does offer a number of explanations that have nothing to do with South America, but only early on. He seems to have tired of the exercise and then basically abandoned the reader. What information is provided in the notes is not offered in a straightforward or useful manner. While it is of vague interest to learn about some of Hurley's choices in translating particular passages, words, and titles (such as the considerations behind titling the collection El hacedor as The Maker) he explains himself clumsily and can't separate points of significance with empty blather (so in particular his justification of retitling the story known as Funes the Memorious -- we can accept his decision, but not how he chooses to waste our time explaining it). Hurley also manages to change the original Spanish -- as in Plaza del Once, which is actually Plaza Once, a name he figures readers will too easily be confused by. Helpfully he does explain that this Once is "pronounced óhn-say, not wunce" -- showing how skewed his priorities are. I.e. the reader finds almost no support here. The reader will also not find a footnote explicating the De rerum naturae (on page 230 of the American hardcover edition), although it is tantalizingly marked with an asterisk (which elsewhere indicates that Hurley has a note explaining it). Among the most dubious and irritating choices is Hurley's refusal (or inability) to translate practically any of the foreign quotes (of which there are quite a number), the meaning of which the casual reader is thus unlikely ever to learn. Throughout the notes Hurley leans heavily on the Fishburn and Hughes volume, A Dictionary of Borges, a substitute that is surely preferable than this sorry mess tacked onto this volume. Sad to say, this collection would probably have been better off simply without the notes. Mention must also be made of two collections included here -- The Maker and In Praise of Darkness. Both these collections contain, in their Spanish originals, prose and poetry. Hurley acknowledges as much regarding The Maker, but fails to note this fact regarding In Praise of Darkness, and from both he translates only the prose. These two collections are thus not presented in the way Borges intended, the poetry ripped free from them, considerably changing their impact. To add to the bizarreness of the situation, much (but not all) of The Maker is also available in the Selected Poems, including many of the so-called prose pieces Hurley translates. Naturally, the translations of these pieces in the Selected Poems are not Hurley's (Viking going out of its way to make sure these volumes will never be considered the definitive Borges) -- but at least the Spanish originals are included. (Both In Praise of Darkness and The Maker have been translated elsewhere in their entirety, The Maker appearing under the title Dreamtigers.)

Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges

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