Ficciones is – astoundingly so – a work of imagination. All fiction is, of course, but the sheer sweep of invention in Ficciones is remarkable. From the first story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, relating a fantastical conspiracy stretching across continents and generations to challenge God by compiling the entire natural, social, political and cultural history of an imagined planet, Borges’ collection of short stories examines the intractable nature of time and reality, of what it means to be human, of art and literature and philosophy and life. There are reviews of wholly imaginary books (The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain, both pre-dating Nabokov’s Pale Fire), works of fantastic fiction (The Library of Babel, in which near infinitude resides every book that ever, possibly, could have been or will be written), genre stories (Death and the Compass, a quasi-detective story, magic realism (The Garden of Forking Paths) and so on. Think of any postmodern trope and you’ll find its progenitor among these seventeen stories.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Borges is the way he addresses huge themes – time and reality – with such compressed narratives. His stories are very short, mostly under ten pages, and his language correspondingly crisp, unadorned, and yet he achieves a depth of meaning which is almost antithetical to his brevity. Mario Vargas Llosa picks up this point: ‘The revolutionary thing about Borges' prose is that it contains almost as many ideas as words, for his precision and conciseness are absolute.’ In this, Vargas suggests, Borges is not typically Latin American. He explains:
To us [Latin American writers], ideas are formulated and captured more effectively when fleshed out with emotion and sensation or in some way incorporated into concrete reality, into life – far more than they are in a logical discourse. This, perhaps, is why we have such a rich literature and such a dearth of philosophers. The most illustrious thinker in the Spanish language in modern times, Ortega y Gasset, is above all a literary figure.
Essentially, Borges seems to have been driven by a need to explore ideas. His stories, he once declared, largely come from ‘half-forgotten memories.’ He goes on: ‘I don’t think we’re capable of creation in the way that God created the world.’ And yet he does create. He writes into being an extraordinary range of characters and situations and temporal paradoxes – the library of Babel, for example, stretching into infinity, recording every possible variation of history: such truly is the work of a god, and the Chief Librarian in charge of the library must surely be a deity? And the god of The Secret Miracle, who grants Hladik the reprieve he requests at the moment of his death – is this not, too, a beautiful vision of humanity, a mundane and not a transcendent vision of heaven? Yet it is achieved in a mere few pages, unadorned, simple, storytelling at its most basic.
Thus, we have profundity-through-lightness. Llosa notes:
This lightness of literary touch freed Borges to explore more deeply. Borges was not a writer imprisoned behind the heavy bars of national tradition, as European writers often are, and this facilitated his journeys through cultural space, in which, thanks to the many languages he knew, he moved with consummate ease. This cosmopolitanism, this eagerness to be a master of so far-ranging a cultural sphere, this construction of a past upon a foundation both national and foreign, was a way of being profoundly Argentine – which is to say, Latin American. But in Borges' case, his intense involvement with European literature was also a way of shaping his own personal geography, a way of being Borges.
And what does ‘being Borges’ entail? Borges himself said:
When I write a story or a poem I am simply concerned about that story or that poem, but I have no general philosophy; I have no message to convey. I am not really a thinker. I am a man who is very puzzled – and generally speaking, very pleasantly puzzled – by life and by things, especially by books.
Borges is surely being modest. His explorations of time and reality are profound, all the more so for their lack of didacticism. His stories consistently explore the same territory – what it means to be human in a world that cannot be tied down or defined or controlled or even, frankly, understood. In this, as Seymour Menton notes in an article addressing magic realist tendencies in Borges’ works, Borges adopts a Jungian perspective:
Magic Realism adheres to the Jungian collective unconscious, to the idea that all mankind is compressed into one, that all time periods are compressed into the one moment of the present, and that reality itself is dream-like. From his own texts, it's obvious that Borges shares Jung's view of the world and rejects Freud's.
What we have, then, is an exploration of the general from the point of view of the specific, the public from the private, the hopes, fears, beliefs and actions of humanity as seen through the eyes of humans. Thus, for all the irreality of the writing, there is a reality shining through. Funes the Memorious, condemned to remember every instant of his existence in tortuous detail, represents the fears of a humanity dwarfed by the terrifying presence of eternity, but Hladik, in his long, long moment of death, in which he both triumphs and expires, is a fine symbol for us all.