Review: Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones
I’ve been putting off writing this review, even though I finished reading Ficciones a few days ago. Every time I think of how I want to write about Borges’ stories, a different tactic comes to mind. This is similar to the actual reading of his stories, which caused regular revisions in my understanding of what it was, exactly, that Borges was writing about.
Borges best trick is that he has masterful control of the rate at which he introduces curiosities. It is as though he knew how long a reader would sit and attempt to puzzle over a phrase, paragraph, or theme before continuing to read, at which point another curiosity quickly emerges from the text. Despite the complexity of his stories (and their initially perplexing nature), Borges knows how to totalize a story so that it stays in one’s mind as one continues to the next. The more of his stories I had in mind as I was reading another, the more subtle connections the individual ficciones shared.
It is not as though most short story collections I have read did not have some connection between stories: most authors like to have a similar toolbox of style, voice, and theme that they go through in the time it takes to put such a collection together. If the collection has an editor other than the original author, they might be selected for variety, or to correspond with some development in the author’s work. Borges, though, seems incredibly self-conscious for an author who rarely lets loose an emotional adjective. On my reading, the artifice of Borges comes through most clearly in terms of pacing, but there is much more than that in the Ficciones.
One of Borges’ favorite themes is time and eternity, and another favorite is the nature of fiction and imaginary worlds. These themes come together not just in what Borges writes about, but also in how he writes. Both themes come together especially well in my favorite of the Ficciones, “The Babylon Lottery”. The story details the development of a lottery system that is recognizable at first, then incredible and monstrous, through its metamorphosis into an entity at once understandable and mysterious. The lottery begins as just that, a drawing of lots, with a prize for some. Soon though, penalties are introduced for those with shorter lots. Once the lottery is simultaneously rewarding and punitive, it begins absorbing other societal institutions. Eventually, society is fully dictated by the lottery, with fortunes rising to dizzying heights one month and being wiped away the next, all thanks to the workings of the Company that delivers the results of the lottery. And all at once, the lottery is a constructed incarnation of fate.
Once that moment arrives, that revelation, the lottery and the Company pass from the artificial to the natural and eternal. It’s all somewhat Nietzchean, the way in which the artificial becomes timeless. The separation from Nietzsche, however, is in the pacing, in the statement, in the act of revelation. Borges shows how it could be that the lottery, with its results carried out by humans, becomes fate, with no obviously human agency involved. By the time “The Babylon Lottery” finishes, the Company has passed into legend and nobody draws their own lots, or knows when, where, or by whom they are drawn. Except for its’ human origins, by then lost into mythology and legend, the lottery is indistinguishable from fate. “The Babylon Lottery” is not the only story in the Ficciones to meditate on the limited understanding of time we as humans have, but it is the finest. It is also one of the best I have ever read.