Polyglot fantasies

Collected Fictions

Jorge Luis Borges <em>Penguin, 565pp, £20</em>

It is curious that, at a time when so much is published of so little significance (of no significance might be more appropriate), we should have to wait until the centenary of the birth of Jorge Luis Borges for the publication of his Collected Fictions in translation. At last, the proudly monolingual anglophone has access to a single volume containing the prose fictions of one of the most original and inventive writers of any century. Well translated and well annotated, it is to be hoped that this publication will improve the eyesight of those who prefer not to see the failings of most contemporary fiction.

A propensity for the fantastic and the metaphysical locates the Argentinian very roughly in the tradition that includes such figures as Poe, Stevenson, Kipling and H G Wells; and one of the benefits of reading the fictions is that their eclecticism directs the reader to works that might otherwise have remained ignored and untouched - Orlando Furioso, the One Thousand and One Nights, Carlyle, de Quincey. This range of reference is consistent with someone who once said that the chief event of his life was his father's English library in Buenos Aires, and who used to spend hours reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica - so much so, that he considered himself more reader than writer. His knowledge of English letters is astonishing: there is a famous anecdote that on meeting Anthony Burgess, the two polyglots conversed in Anglo-Saxon. This is slightly less startling when one learns that, with a Northumberland grandmother, he was brought up bilingual in English and Spanish, speaking the former with a variation on a Northumberland accent. Importantly, English was seen as the language that gave him access to high culture, and he was able to read in English before Spanish with some interesting consequences - when he first read Don Quixote in Spanish, he thought it a bad translation.

Eccentric as he is, Borges, if he is to be labelled, must be considered a writer of ideas. Fantastic and metaphysical ideas are embodied in short fictions that are as integrated, harmonious and thematically clear as a Gothic cathedral. A full-length novel treating of the same idea would only fall into repetition (he admitted failing to finish some novels, among them Madame Bovary and The Brothers Karamazov, while enjoying the logic and unpredictability of detective novels). The ideas are audacious and extreme: murder and violent death, clandestine societies, nightmare visions of infinite libraries, a lottery that turns into an Orwellian totalitarian regime, philosophical and religious problems made fresh, commentaries on imaginary texts, commentaries on imaginary writers of imaginary texts, variations on Zeno's paradoxes. This is the stuff of an unbounded imagination.

Essay and short story in one, the fictions are exercises in both speculative thought and brazen fantasy, often deriving their subject matter from problems central to the history of western philosophy. Any reader educated in philosophy will appreciate the imaginative materialisation of particular philosophical ideas. Any reader at all must appreciate the principal concerns of the fictions: the unimaginably bizarre nature of the world in which we live, and the even more bizarre notion that we should be living "behind our eyes and inside our heads". As a writer rather than philosopher, Borges is able to explore metaphysical questions by means of imagined and improbable situations. In "The Aleph", for example, the eponymous subject is no more than three centimetres, yet contains universal space and everything therein: the viewer experiences the inconceivable universe, not in temporal and spatial succession, but as a simultaneous and unifocal entity. In this aleph are all the places of the world, seen from every possible angle, among them "the coils and springs of love, and the alterations of death".

This fearless experimentation with space and time is very characteristic, especially when it involves turning common sense on its complacent head. In "The Secret Miracle", he draws on Berkeleyan idealism: time in the physical universe stops, while time in the mind of the central figure (who is facing a firing squad) continues for a year, enabling him to finish his magnum opus. This is reminiscent of Wells. But what sets Borges apart from his precursors in fantastical writing is the sculptured perfection of the fictions and a language whose words are sparse, exact and pellucid, features that are as appreciable in translation as in the original. Reading them is like walking from darkness into a lighted room.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers