Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Having spent several weeks talking about recent fiction, it seems appropriate to take a step backwards and revisit stories of a more classical vintage that, perhaps, have been missed or overlooked by readers. And, when I thought on the confluence of “stories that speculative fiction fans should read but possibly haven’t” and “older fiction that’s still stunning,” I (naturally) settled on Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges. Ficciones is a collection of Borges’s short fiction, including the majority of his fantastical or magic-realist works.
For the reader who enjoys tracing out a beautiful labyrinth in the form of a story, Borges will be a pleasure. His tales are hardly ever straightforward, even when the narratives may appear so, and the pleasure of the mental gymnastics that they occasionally provoke is unique. Borges also writes about writing frequently, with the sort of precise, handsome prose that lends itself well to convincing and engaging metafiction. Ficciones offers these pleasures and more—but, there are too many stories to discuss all at once, here. Instead, I’d like to focus on a couple of those that I’ve found most memorable, or most indicative of certain elements of Borges’s style or themes: “The Secret Miracle” and “The Library of Babel.”
Borges isn’t an easy read—you probably won’t want to tackle his fiction while on short notice in a waiting room. But, that bit of challenge is matched with heaps of pleasure in the way these stories linger in the mind like small puzzle-boxes after reading. It was hard to narrow it down to two, and if I were to pick a third and fourth, they would have been “The Circular Ruins” (wizards, true dreaming, and mystery!) and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (fabulist realities constructed out of books that are actually maybe a hoax and what?). The two stories under consideration today, though, offer plenty of opportunity for discussion.
In “The Secret Miracle,” the Jewish protagonist Jaromir is sentenced to death before a Nazi firing squad; however, he hasn’t finished writing his drama, The Enemies. He asks god for a year in which to finish it before he dies, and in the moment before the guns fire, time freezes. For a whole year, Jaromir lives in his mind, frozen in time—and he finishes the drama. As with many Borges stories, the summary sounds almost simplistic; it’s the words on the page that make it breath-taking. Jaromir’s ideas about god and writing are rendered succinctly and with clever dashes of wit that belie the seriousness of the situation. His year of the mind passes in a flash for the reader as he composes his masterwork alone and, finally, dies two minutes after nine in the morning, executed by firing squad. In very few pages, Jaromir is developed as fully as a close friend for us—the reader feels, in the end, an intense connection to and understanding of this man who is about to die.
“The Secret Miracle” is an ideal example of a Borgesian narrative: short and poignant, with prose so evocative and immersive that it’s almost impossible to extricate oneself from the story until the final, sharp closure of the execution. It’s handsome and effective, but leaves a discomfiting sense of futility and perhaps alienation in its wake; I’ve never felt quite comfortable after reading it, at least. The hideous utility of the Third Reich’s sentencing and execution is contrasted against the dream of writing a masterwork—and, though in some ways Jaromir perhaps overcomes by having the time to write his drama in his mind, the closing line of the story is still this: “Jaromir Hlad?k died on March 29, at 9:02 in the morning.” (It is also worth noting that this story was published in 1943, in the midst of the brutal atrocities of the Second World War.)
As for “The Library of Babel,” it is one of Borges’s best known stories; it’s also frequently alluded to, adapted, or parodied in mainstream speculative fiction—and I’d say there’s a good reason for that. This story, put simply, is the reflection of a librarian in a Library-that-is-the-universe on the nature of that universe: its history, its significance, and ultimately its books. The story is an extended metaphor, and it is also possible to read literally as a strange and fantastical world of infinite though limited variations. The prose is, word for word, a seductive and concise prism of skill: it refracts, it reflects, it distorts. The multiple possible readings and the implications of each/all of those readings are a puzzle-box, petite but internally vast. Have a taste of it, as the narrator explains the sort of categorical vastness of the Library’s collection:
Everything is there: the minute history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of these catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on this gospel, the commentary on the commentary of this gospel, the veridical account of your death, a version of each book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books. (83)
Other lines—such as, “But the certainty that everything has been already written nullifies or makes phantoms of us all” (87)—contain different sorts of beauty. Some of the text can be read as philosophical reflection; other bits as a rumination on the nature of a writer or readers’ role; still others as a humorous commentary on the nature of human life and attempts to make meaning. This is the sort of story that remains, ultimately, opaque—while still offering meaning and potentiality alongside the absurd and the futile. It is a story that, like much Borges, ends on a note that I find discomfiting, or possibly eerie; yet, it also has its moments of stunning beauty and reflection. (Plus, let’s be real: the giant library is a visually and ideologically appealing construct for most readers).
Though Borges isn’t without his problems—the almost entire absence of women from his oeuvre being one of those—he remains one of the most powerful, challenging, and delightful short fiction writers I’ve encountered. His work is layered and complex; it twists and redoubles on itself, weaving strange paths and disrupting time, narrative, and reality. These two stories offer a taste of what his fiction can do, but I’d recommend reading the whole damn book.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.