Sunday, February 5, 2006

Discovering Latin Treasure: On the discovery of Jorge Luis Borges

Allow me to confess my utter astonishment.

First, I must confess that I may have become a card-carrying literati. I have discovered a modern author of so-called literary merit with whom I have become instantly enamored. This is such a rare occurrence that I felt compelled to record the event here. The author is Jorge Luis Borges, one of the new literary literaries, the likes of which have replaced (much to my chagrin) the western classical literature in today's classroom and academia. For the first time in encountering such a figure, I find myself wholly in agreement with the sorts of hyperbole surrounding Borges:
Undeniably one of the most influential writers to emerge in this century from Latin America or anywhere else, Borges (1899-1986) is best known for his short stories....Many of the stories return to the same set of images and themes that mark Borges's best known work: the code of ethics embraced by gauchos, knifefighters and outlaws; labyrinths; confrontations with one's doppelganger; and discoveries of artifacts from other worlds (an encyclopedia of a mysterious region in Iraq; a strange disc that has only one side and that gives a king his power; a menacing book that infinitely multiplies its own pages; fragmentary manuscripts that narrate otherworldly accounts of lands of the immortals). Less familiar are episodes that narrate the violent, sordid careers of pirates and outlaws like Billy the Kid (particularly in the early collection A Universal History of Iniquity) or attempts to dramatize the consciousness of Shakespeare or Homer. Elusive, erudite, melancholic, Borges's fiction will intrigue the general reader as well as the scholar.
Second, I must confess my awe at the ability of Mr. (Dr.?) Borges' translator, Andrew Hurley. Borges is an Argentine writer and composed his work entirely in Spanish. I am most definitely not reading the original works. Hurley has done the hard work of making the totality of Borges' fictions available to the English speaking world. But here's the thing. Part of what makes Borges' fiction so amazing is its uncanny ability to take you, quickly and precisely, to a tangible place with his use of language. In his first collection of stories, A Universal History of Iniquity, Borges recounts a series of pseudo-histories of evil men and women. Each of these stories are short, tight works that take you instantly into the world of the time--everywhere from Imperial Japan to the Wild West to gang-ridden turn of the century New York. That Hurley can translate Borges' work and maintain this same quality of language and fiction is nothing short of astounding.

Third, I have to confess my narrowness of mind. Reading Borges has revealed a glaring pride in my English-speaking heritage. When reading Borges, and when thinking how difficult the work of translation must have been, I found myself having a hard time picturing an Argentine man achieving the sort of erudition I have only ever imagined belonging to the likes of William Makepeace Thakeray or John Steinbeck. Perhaps that is part of the reason why high school curricula is now featuring the likes of Borges.


ted said...

You may want to kick me Jason, but that quoted description of this guy's writing sounded a lot like Robert E. Howard's stuff.

Tim Lewis said...

For a second I thought you were talking about Victor Borge