‘Death and the Compass’ by Jorge Luis Borges

A tale of murder, scholarship and the flawed nature of inductive reasoning, ‘Death and the Compass’ takes liberties with the conventions of detective fiction and, I would argue, provides one of the earliest examples of a story based on a semiotic quest for meaning. Borges exposed readers to the idea that the extensive and obsessive collation of sinister information might reflect a quest for meaning and pattern in a world that seems absurd, random and arbitrarily cruel. The idea has been rendered familiar by some great novels –White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, The Crying of Lot 49Illuminatus! and Foucault’s Pendulum– but Borges tackled the theme first and in a more concentrated form. The narrative follows the efforts of celebrated detective Lönnrot to solve a series of murders involving cryptic messages, Kabbalistic philosophy, the geometry of the built environment, the detective’s nemesis Red Scharlach and the tetragrammaton – the sacred four-letter name of God. As Lönnrot solves the case, the lines between hunter and hunted are blurred and distinguishing between actions of will and destiny becomes increasingly tricky. A ludic tale with philosophical twists, it’s as entertaining as it is erudite.

First published in Sur in May 1942 and collected in Labyrinths, various editions. Also available online here

‘Funes the Memorious’ by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

I read this on my teenage bed, whiling away the hours between a school day and another school day, and being amazed at the upside-down universe Borges creates in just a few short paragraphs. It completely changed the way I thought about ‘literature’ (i.e. realist, difficult, old). Suddenly, I realised that ‘literature’ could be a way of defying ordinary life. Borges showed me that it was possible to experiment, to write anything I wanted, to any word-limit. Whenever I need to memorise anything, I think of Funes, struggling with the terrible gift of being able to remember everything that ever happened.

First published in La Nación, June 1942. First published in English in Avon Modern Writing 2, 1954. Collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1964/Penguin, 1970 and in Fictions and Collected Fictions, Viking, 1998/Penguin, 2000, where it is translated by Andrew Hurley as ‘Funes, His Memory’

‘Funes the Memorious’ by Jorge Luis Borges

We zoom out from the apertures of lens ‘13’ and ‘30’ and consider a lifetime. The life of Funes is recalled through the narrator’s memory in an insecure way, and the infrequency of their encounters is stressed (‘I never saw him more than three times.’). Frequency does not necessarily inform intensity. Some of the people I love most in my life I’ve have met no more than ten times face-to-face. Borges knew that you can see someone three hundred times in your mind. Perhaps the architecture of them that you’re building in your head is erroneous, and incomplete, but does that make it worthless? Funes is chronometrical and can tell the time without consulting a clock (a method later adapted and adopted by the character, Crocodile Dundee). It’s easy to feel shame when reading this story as it highlights human negligence and ignorance. It shows how complicit we are in the hierarchisation of life. Simone Weil described attention as the ‘purest and rarest form of generosity’ and the story of Funes extends the hand of kindness to memory and leaves us to contemplate its destructive and creative nature.

First published in La Nación in 1942. Collected in Fictions, various editions. Can be read online here

‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

(I could just as easily have chosen ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, to be honest.)

I was sitting on a Southern train in London, with this paperback edition of Labyrinths, one of the many books I’d spent my meagre salary on at Foyles, and the parafictional genius of Borges washed over me, making me want to reach out to my fellow passengers to discuss just what Borges was accomplishing, how mind-bending and wickedly funny it all was, coupled with the dizzying sense of unease at not knowing how much of what he is writing actually comes from real sources.

When I got back to my aunt’s house where I was staying I remember going on Twitter to see if anyone had tweeted about this weird boy on the Surrey train cackling to himself.

first published in Spanish in the Argentine journal Sur, May 1939. Collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962. Can be read online here

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ by Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Donald A. Yates

So as we draw into the terminus, arriving at the end of our allotted dozen, the reader may feel comforted by the appearance of such a familiar story (like a landmark that welcomes us home, much as a glimpse of the Etihad often tells me I am nearly back in Manchester Piccadilly), or delighted by the possibility of something as yet unknown (the thrill of arriving in a city we will now discover!). Much has been written about (and many inspired by) this story, and while yes of courseit is all about labyrinths, endless recursion, the infinite, books fake or otherwise, fate, destiny, and time, what many have missed is that this story in fact entirely hinges upon a train: the one in which Yu Tsun narrowly misses Captain Richard Madden on his way to his fateful encounter with Sinologist Stephen Albert. As Ricardo Piglia has noted in his Theses on the Short Story, ‘a short story always tells two stories’ and the ‘visible story hides a secret tale, narrated in an elliptical and fragmentary manner.’  The train, buried in the midst of this abyme, is surely the ‘secret truth’ and key to both the garden of forking paths, and ‘The Garden of Forking Paths.’  And, as I hope I have demonstrated by now, the short story as a whole.

First published in English in Fictions, 1962. Read it online here

‘The Garden of Forked Paths’, by Jorge Luis Borges

What to say about Borges that hasn’t been said? Well, for me, his utter wonderfulness, and the reason I couldn’t imagine an anthology of short stories without him in it, is not so much in the brilliance of his conceits, as in the often unexpectedly prosaic settings he gives them. At the heart of ‘The Garden of Forked Paths’ is the idea of a novel that splits into multiple variants at every juncture, to give an infinity of possible stories (hello, quantum mechanics! hello, the internet!), but Borges chooses to bury it in a World War One spy story that John Buchan might have tossed out. I recently fulminated on Twitter about Aaron Sorkin’s wrongheaded comment that “the most powerful delivery system ever invented for an idea is a story”, but look here: the idea and the delivery system in Borges’ story are entirely mismatched, thrown together seemingly at random. Or are they? However many times I read it, I can’t find any link between the cover story and what the author smuggles in under it, any reasonable explanation for why he chose to write this story that way. And so I go on reading…

(In Fictions and Labyrinths, but not, surprisingly, in the self-selected A Personal Anthology itself. Available online here)