book-reviews

A Universal History of Infamy

by Jorge Luis Borges (tr. Norman Thomas di Giovianni)

Rating: ★★★★

At the core, I just sort of liked this. I'm not sure how much of that will translate for others. It's quite probably not Borges' best work, and if you read it for the plot alone you are going to be left unmoved or even confused. The various entries (I hesitate to call them all 'stories') are not consistent even in their overall style and tone, let alone setting or narrative arc.

But this is part of the fun. Borges flips from the sardonic to the soulful, from the moralistic to the playful. I can find myself smirking at an aside like "These missing Oriental touches lead me to suspect that we are dealing with a version straight from the Japanese", but then later find myself being pulled in quite another direction by the savage poetry of Mark Eastman's biographical passage.

There is a sort of progression to the collection. The earliest entries are most credibly nonfiction, merely rephrasing the stories of real legends, who seem to be sorted roughly both in the groundedness of the language Borges applies to them, and the ratio of myth to history in the retelling of their lives. At Streetcorner Man we see something else, something written as fiction (with obvious links to the Eastman biographic) which could nevertheless contain a grain of reality. Borges did live in this environment, it is not impossible that he would know such a narrator. After this, we get into some 'translations' from pseudo-historical sources. Some of these are probably real, for a given value of 'real'. We end with a parable about the map and the territory, which just makes me identify with the author a little too much.

Sort of like a Tarantino sketch-show, but with more Arabs, and using words.