Thoughts on Reading Jorge Luis Borges

Themes of non-linear time, multiple selves, complexity in simplicity, relative truth, relative reality—Borges invented stories in order to play with philosophical concepts.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator. Rather than write about a strict reality, he created fantasy in order to write about human nature. In the afterword of The Aleph and Other Stories, he concludes he’d been examining himself all along:

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.

J.L.B.

So, would I take this short story collection to the beach with a margarita? No. It’s a challenge. He pulls allusions from so many different cultures that half of them are lost on me. And if you skim over a line, that may have been the line that tied a whole concept together.

I had to reread many of these stories before I got an inkling of what they had to offer.

And yet, with every challenge there’s a pay-off; my own short story writing has recently been infused with Borges’ concepts of simultaneous time, infinite selves, a point that is all points, a word that encompasses all language—maybe it’s just a phase.

If I feel called, I might buy a reader companion for reading Borges. I don’t really know what that is but I heard someone suggesting it. Without one, and just diving in, I feel as though I may have missed half of the thoughts to think. Will a reader companion tell me what to look for?

Though maybe there was something to gain by experiencing it all on my own, even if I did miss most of it.

That someone suggesting the reader companion: The Artisan Geek and her classics bookclub here.

‘The Magnificent Conman of Cairo’: When the Despair is Not Your Own

The Magnificent Conman of Cairo‘ by Adel Kamel is a story told simply, humourously, and to the point – and that point seems to be universal across geography and the past century: privileged child is raised and then educated, “discovers” social injustices, rebels intellectually against society, and… well, I won’t spoil it in paragraph one, but I will say it was like holding up a mirror.

Originally written in 1942, the setting is Cairo, Egypt in the 1930s and the focus is on the intersection of two different lives: one rich man’s and one poor man’s. Khaled is a well-educated son of a prominent judge and government official and has recently had an intellectual awakening about society and his father’s wealth, remarking that his father “has [] pillaged it from the peasants who worked so hard for it on the land he rents to them.” Malim, on the other hand, is an apprentice who arrives to fix a window in the judge’s home. While he is there, he is falsely accused of stealing, which launches Khaled’s opportunity to put his intellect into action. Khaled’s activism is much against the wishes of his father, who in turn, alternates between punishing him and dangling bait to draw him in again.

In Khaled’s pursuit to test his own intellectual morality, he ends up doing more harm than good to Malim. It was oddly parallel to a contemporary American novel I recently wrote about (Such a Fun Age: Navigating the White & Woke) where a very similar dynamic plays out between two women. In both novels, the characters use another person to measure themselves, as evident when Khalid thinks of Malim: “Malim, who was the symbol of all that was noblest in him.[…] Malim, Khaled’s conscience given human form[.]” I think this is a fairly easy trap to fall into – and yet, doesn’t the best fiction show you yourself?

In the end…

After his pursuit of radical justice and way of life, Khaled eventually caves. “I am just a simple man but I am now a sane one. And all this sanity has made it clear to me that obedience to our fathers is the only way sons to be happy.” The book finishes with a monologue from a drunk Khaled about the disconnect between his conscience and chosen path: “We now know things with our minds only, but we don’t know how to know things with our whole being[.]”

As much as I reread the ending, I can’t quite put my finger on what’s being expressed through Khaled’s final thoughts. As part of his monologue, Khaled speaks to a lack of wisdom in society in spite of its cleverness, remarking, “I cannot singlehandedly raise the wisdom of being of an entire nation[.]” And yet, I think there must something in between this and Khaled’s eventual unraveling into gluttony, over-drinking, and womanizing… no? It seems like a “why try at all?” ending, which still may be an incredible honest feeling, though not conventionally “uplifting.”

The last line of the book:

Khaled glanced at him in despair. “Oh, Egypt,” he replied, “always burying your head in the sand.”

Sure, this story is about Egypt, but as an American reader, that sounds about right for the US as well. Still, the story and the ending provokes the questions: what does it mean to be an individual in a society where the collective change is so slow it seems nonexistent? How quick and easy is it for the privileged to “despair” and ultimately lose heart… or interest? The author himself was pressured by his father to study law, which he did. He then wrote works of literature for four years before ultimately going back to his law practice, never publishing again. It’s interesting to think of how much of himself he might’ve put into Khaled.

‘The Magnificent Conman of Cairo’ was originally written in Arabic. Here is an interview with the translator, Waleed Almusharaf: Adel Kamel’s Characters are ‘Despicable and Lovable with No Contradiction’

‘The Black Cathedral’: A Neighborhood Cacophony

“Disorienting and choppy (eh, sometimes literally), yet robust and dripping with a dark vibrancy”—that’d be my book blurb for ‘The Black Cathedral‘ by Marcial Gala (if anybody asks).

The black cathedral itself is more of the symbolic backdrop to the story as the varying plot lines unravel. The characters’ narratives—all 12 of them—begin in Cienfuegos, Cuba as an outsider family moves into a gritty and mistrusting neighborhood and begins construction on a grand cathedral.

That man from Camagüey ate, lived, and breathed Jesus Christ, always had Him at the tip of his tongue. The day of their arrival, he threw five pesos at the kids who were playing soccer so they would help him unload the stuff, and then he came over to greet us. He had a polite smile and a thin, strong, dry hand. “Blessings,” he said. “My name is Arturo and this is my wife, Carmen.” “Blessings,” echoed that Carmen, who was walking a few steps behind; you could tell she was too hot for a guy like him, in his 50s and pretty run-down, you could tell that wouldn’t end well.

All of the narrators relate to each other, finishing each other’s stories, or cross paths to varying degrees. They do not seem to be converging on a common link other than tragedy, which is heavily foreshadowed from the beginning. Being so, I found the chaos to be purposeful—a traditional narrative arc wouldn’t have fit the characters or overall tone. It took a little work to hit the rhythm of the story and I think that adds another dimension: as a reader, I had a feeling of being outsider from the onset as I tried make sense of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, their actions, and the shif between what’s real and what’s magical. If the story was tidy or easier to follow, I think it also would’ve been flat and lacking what made it a compelling (even if uncomfortable) read.

‘The Black Cathedral’ was translated from Spanish by Anna Kushner. I originally found it on this ‘watchlist’ for titles in translation.

‘Such a Fun Age’: Navigating the White & Woke

Ooh, a biting commentary on white (elitist?) progressives, one that periodically had me thinking of the author, “ope, she sees me.”

Such a Fun Age‘ by Kiley Reid examines the dynamics between a white 30-something progressive mother, Alix, and her black 25-year-old babysitter, Emira. The plot starts with a security guard accusing Emira of kidnapping Alix’s toddler. This is assumably problematic, but Reid goes further, turning the lens on the white liberals involved. While Alix takes overcompensation to an outright creepy level, Reid shows the “measuring up” thought processes of white progressives striving to achieve “wokeness” (for performances, or even genuinely), which can lead to being weird or even detrimental. The perspective shifts from Alix to Emira throughout the book – Emira’s is a coming-of-age story where she navigates these racial dynamics on top of figuring out her life. In sum, Emira is just trying to work and get paid, get health insurance, etc., and meanwhile:

“Alix fantasized about Emira discovering things about her that shaped what Alix saw as the truest version of herself. […] That Alix’s new and favorite shoes were from Payless, and only cost eighteen dollars. That Alix had read everything that Toni Morrison had ever written. […] Alix often and unsuccessfully tried to drop these bits of information[.]”

Have you ever seen Facebook ads for something oddly specific towards something you’ve only said out loud? This last line had me eyeing my phone thinking, okay, so Kiley Reid has my voice data now. [side note: in the acknowledgements, Reid cites the book, ‘Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence‘ by Rachel Sherman, as an inspiration for Alix (I’ve already added it to my “to-read” pile). Since I’m an IT consultant and not quite hedge fund financier, “privileged” seems more accurate for myself than “affluent.” Then again, the need to distance myself here is probably examined in the book. Also, I hope there’s something about trying to level the playing field with surface level wokeness instead of questioning larger structural inequities. I’m ready for it.]

Anyways, I thought “Such a Fun Age” had an engaging, fast-moving plot, even though some of that plot and the character development didn’t quite add up for me (i.e. Alix becoming CREEPY creepy so quickly seemed like a stretch). Still, the contemporary themes were fresh and had me self-reflecting, which more than made up for it. I watched a BookTube review that said this would be an excellent book club choice for the discussion it’d bring, and I couldn’t agree more.

My thoughts on the ending (if you’ve read it):

Alix did something undeniably malicious to Emira, but I almost wish Reid had kept her on that edge as someone who is still convinced they are doing the “right thing.” Alix obviously knew it was wrong to steal and secretly leak the video, especially when Emira already told her she didn’t want it made public. Furthermore, Alix set it up as though Kelley, Emira’s boyfriend, leaked it, in order to break them up. Based on my understanding of Alix’s character, it seemed implausable that she could still twist this in her mind until it’s self-justified. I think it would’ve been more convincing if Alix had accidentally come across the video, not having previously known about it or Emira’s thoughts, and published it, thinking she was “acting for justice” or “speaking up” (on her business instagram, maybe). For me, Alix simply barreling ahead and not considering Emira’s agency and privacy would have been a far more complex (and believable) transgression.

Still, I was pleased to see Alix and Kelley get dropped. In the end, Emira is the main character that gets to transform and I didn’t think it was critical to see Alix’s growth as well. As I was reading the last few pages, I was HOPING Reid wouldn’t end it by tying Emira and Kelley back together again and I was amped to see she let her move on. It was also cool to see, in somewhat of an epilogue, that Emira grew into adulthood at her own pace and wasn’t forced into being something exceptional for the sake of it. She got to be “average” and still make her way.