By Jorge Luis Borges
Viking. 559 pp. $40
Reviewed by Robert Irwin
Although he is perhaps most famous as the author of fantastic short stories, the great Argentine writer Jorges Luis Borges had difficulty in getting started in that genre, and he presented some of his early ventures into fiction as if they were factual reviews of other men's books. According to Eliot Weinberger, the editor of this substantial new collection of Borges's essays, the distinction between the fiction and the nonfiction is clear-cut, for Borges's "non-fictions never resemble fiction, or include information that is not independently verifiable."
I am not so sure about this. In an essay on "John Wilkins' Analytical Language," Borges refers to "a certain Chinese encyclopedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge." He goes on to claim that "in its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies." This is enchanting, but who has ever read this particular passage in this particular Chinese encyclopedia?
At other times Borges was misled by the fictions of others. In the course of a lecture on the misuse of local color in Argentine poetry, he notes that, according to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, "in the Arab book par excellence, the Koran, there are no camels." He goes on to observe, regarding this significant lack of color, that "if there were ever any doubts as to the authenticity of the Koran, this lack of camels would suffice to prove it is Arab. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were particularly Arab; they were, for him, a part of reality, and he had no reason to single them out." Here Borges's devious argument and his learning are at first sight impressive, but the erudition is only superficial. First, Mohammed did not write the Koran; most Muslims believe that the Prophet was actually illiterate. Second, if Borges had bothered to check the Koran he would have found lots of camels in it; one of its chapters is called "The Camel."
That said, some things in Borges's nonfiction that look bogus do turn out to be true. I could not believe in the bizarrely elaborate cosmic hierarchy ascribed by Borges to an obscure Gnostic called Basilides the False. (Surely the cognomen "False" was a giveaway.) However, on checking, I discovered that Borges was indeed only relaying ancient craziness rather than inventing it. His enthusiasm for Gnostic speculation has its parallel in the obsessed studies of another famous writer of fantasies, Philip K. Dick. A skilled tracker through library shelves, Borges had a marvelous instinct for turning up gems of forgotten knowledge, discarded theology and works of literature that have fallen out of the canon. Hence his enthusiasm for, among other things, the Apocryphal Gospels, the doctrines of Emmanuel Swedenborg and C.H. Hinton's theories about time. (There was a time when one could buy specially designed Hinton's cubes, and people used to sit squinting at them in the hope of teaching themselves to see the fourth dimension.)
Borges had an aesthete's approach to religious ideas, which he treated not as the codification of any divinely revealed truth but rather as a beguiling source of fantastic spe-
culations. He loved such gems as the theory put forward in P.H. Gosse's Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (1857). Gosse maintained that when God created the world in six days and six nights, he not only created Adam and the animal species that we know today, but He also conjured up evidence of the earth's long evolution, including fossils. Thus there are "skeletons of glyptodonts in the gorge of Lujan, but there have never been glyptodonts."
Curiously for a writer possessed of such a distinctive voice, Borges professed to have no interest in being original, nor did he seek it out in others. He was precisely interested in the lack of originality of other writers. He hunted for parallels and precursors of modern ideas in Confucian and Vedic philosophy, in Dante and in the Norse sagas. The sheer range of cultural territory covered in these essays compels awe and bemusement. There are 163 essays and reviews in this comprehensive anthology, covering such diverse matters as cowboy romances, the tango, the Kabbalah, Oscar Wilde, Ellery Queen, Nazism, Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles and lots of films. Borges was a surprisingly acerbic film critic, and even such masters as Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock were not entirely spared.
Over time his prose evolved from an uncertain adolescent pomposity to a simple style that was plain to the point of being deflatory. His apparently meandering yet carefully crafted bookmanly essays stretch the mind. A librarian by profession, Borges lived for books. As another bookish essayist, Logan Pearsall Smith, put it, "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading." Then again, as Mallarme put it, "Everything there is in the world exists to be put in a book." Since Borges repeated this mot again and again, it is fitting that he himself was put in a book, or rather at least two books. He appears as Osberg, the philosopher of time, in Nabokov's Ada and as the blind librarian, Jorge of Burgos, in Eco's The Name of the Rose.
Robert Irwin's most recent novel, "Satan Wants Me," was published in Britain earlier this year.