Stuff I’m Reading: A Universal History of Iniquity, by Jorge Luis Borges

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11/25/2008 11:30 AM |

So my beside table and stationary bike book of the moment is the Collected Fictions of Borges and this is the first section of that book, being the first collection of his fiction. In it, he rewrites the stories of scoundrels — Billy the Kid; pirates; mountebanks; impostors — from their original sources (most of them American books). The closest thing I can think of, in terms of matter-of-fact thumbnail retellings of unsavory people, is Javier Marias’s more wry Written Lives.

These are knowing genre stories — adventure tales to be devoured by dime magazine-reading adolescents — and, especially as they’re drawn from the sources, the stories seem to be about the act of writing as almost a subset of reading — both, ultimately are built on imaginative leaps (especially if you’re a kid reading crime stories). The collection works, too, as a progression to “Man on Pink Corner” — a wholly original story, the only one set in Borges’s own Buenos Aires, and a more detailed story of a much smaller incident — making it quite clear how reading leads to new, more personal, closer-to-home possibilities for fiction. (“Borges” is revealed, late in the story, as the name of the narrator’s interlocutor — that is, his listener, his reader.)

In his notes, the translator Andrew Hurley pauses over discrepancies between Borges and what he claims as his sources, even down to some tiny changes of dates or outright lies — as if with each invisible swerve away from the actual he was creating secret microfictions for his own private amusement, an audience of one.