Shelf Defense: Artifices, The Aleph

In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

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JORGE LUIS BORGES, ARTIFICES (1944, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: See here.

THOUGHTS: Here’s where Borges’s stories start to turn further in on themselves—no longer just interacting with the history of literature, they now interact with other Borges stories. A footnote in “Three Versions of Judas” refers readers to a book written by Jaromir Hladik, also known as the protagonist of “The Secret Miracle.” When “The South” references the (real) epic Argentine poem Martin Fierro, what first comes to mind is not the poem itself, but how Borges’s own “The End” just performed a fictional riff-coda on it.

Let’s linger on “The South” for a minute. In the preface Borges says this story of a library clerk who cuts his head, receives medical treatment in a sanatorium, and then gets in a fight in a café “may be my best story”—not in the collection, mind you, but ever (as of 1956, anyway). Borges also says “it is possible to read it both as a forthright narration of novelistic events and in quite another way, as well.” It inspired the title story in Bolaño’s Insufferable Gaucho, too. But I can’t figure it out. So either I’m too jaded by years of predicting twist endings, or else Borges is still pitching way, way above my head. I’m willing to bet it’s the latter.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

* * * * *

JORGE LUIS BORGES, THE ALEPH (1949, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: See above.

THOUGHTS: Okay, now fatigue is starting to set in. These eight-page universes take so much energy to unpack, and then they’re just gone. I doubt I could describe half of the ones in this collection in any detail. Recurring motifs include labyrinths, the number 14, Martin Fierro (again), and, above all, tigers—“The Zahir” makes mention of “an infinite tiger … it was crisscrossed with tigers, striped with tigers, and contained seas and Himalayas and armies that resembled other tigers.” That’s roughly where I’m at right now with Borges. I see stripes everywhere I turn.

On the other hand, two of the labyrinth stories stood out: “The House of Asterion,” whose subject I advise you not to google until after you’ve read the twist ending, and “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths,” which, naturally, is really a self-contained chunk of another of the collection’s stories. The latter also argues that there’s no better maze than the world itself. You don’t say? At this rate I’ll be full-on agoraphobic by year’s end.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

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