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Tlön, Uqbar, Thomas Browne, Rings of Saturn

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Jorge Luis Borges Is Awesome

Jorge Luis Borges Is Awesome

This past weekend, Globe Books did us all a favour by featuring Jorge Luis BorgesFicciones in its 50 Greatest Books of all time series. The review/essay, written by the U of T’s Dennis Duffy, gives the briefest accounts on the nature of the text and its effects on western contemporary literature. Duffy also neatly summarizes what many arguably feel to be the most 

important story in the collection: Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius. I’m not going to try to tell you what the story is about. Either you’ve read it and understand why it’s impossible to do that in an hour or less, or, you haven’t read it and I’ll ruin a really good text for you by inadequately trying to capture its most salient points. Duffy, on the other hand, explains Tlön, Uqbar best when he writes that this short story “have as their heroes tge newly created sensibility of us, the readers.” That’s the twist. The story is ostensibly about you and all you’ve ever read, and will read. (Well, for the most part, really.)

I can’t remember the first time I encountered Borges. It was in my early 20s, back in my Hogtown days. The Big Smoke wasn’t always good for me, and I wasn’t always good for it, but oh man did I consume some great lit back then. I had only read a couple stories in Ficciones, but I damn-well-loved every frigging minute of them. I didn’t quite understand then all the tiny little facets of various lit-theories that comes into play with Borges (i.e. the big words we all love to think we comprehend after studying them for only one week at the age of 22: post-structuralist lit; meta-fiction; magic realism and fabulism; (self-)reflexivity), but I did understand that there was something going on in this collection that was much bigger than the lit I was used to reading, and that it had completely altered the way western literature was written. Yes, that’s right, I identified that the literature of the 20th century is markedly different from other time periods. I’m that smart.

But I digress. I forgot about Borges’s fiction for a time, but I didn’t abondon his works outright. I recall going to Book City on Bloor Street and flipping through compilations of his poetry for a half-hour at a time before heading out. But I did let go of his short stories. I didn’t encounter them again until I discovered, and fell in love with W.G. Sebald, that Awesome German-English author I’ve written about so many times before. Max Sebald (as he liked to be known) played with Tlön, Uqbar at the beginning of his text The Rings of Saturn 

the same way that Borges played with so many other authors and texts in his own works. The most beautiful thing about it is the manner in which Sebald draws upon Borges’s references to Sir Thomas Browne, the 17th century doctor and author of The Anatomy of Melancholy throughout his own text in order to make his own explorations on that particular state of mind. Brown and The Anatomy play an incredibly important role in The Rings of Saturn, but all of it is predicated on the smallest of references to Borges in its opening pages.

Rings of Saturn, English Paperback Edition

Rings of Saturn, English Paperback Edition

I instantly fell in love with Sebald after reading Rings of Saturn. The late author may have actually knocked the brooding face of Milan Kundera out of my mind’s place of honour as “favourite author”. He comes damn close if he didn’t. Borges also fits in my pantheon of incredible authors, but his placement is particular. Although Borges doesn’t vye for the top spot, he remains one of the gods. I suppose a simile could be drawn to the relationship between Zeus, god of the skies, and Poseidon, god of the seas, if I were continue with the concept of a pantheon. Borges is most certainly a major god, a god of gods; but he cannot be the greatest only due to a certain amount of favourtism on the part of the lowly earthlings toward Zeus (in this case, Sebald or Kundera). Nonetheless, he is reserved a special place of honour.

I have since encountered Borges, and Tlön, Uqbar in other contexts. I once went to a conference where a person spoke at length about the American and Argentinian publishing history of Ficciones, for instance. Borges’s radical writing (for its time) ensures that he is referenced in pop culture from time to time, as well. But anyway, it’s damn awesome to see that Borges’s collection of short stories have hit Globe’s Top 50 Books of All Time. Their collection has been somewhat conservative up to now, learning toward “classics” as opposed to contemporary movers and shakers. This is bound to happen in list that wants to determine the “Greatest Books” in western culture, I understand, but reading it has nonetheless been a bit of a letdown thus far. However, it’s nice to let Borges be the standard-bearer of contemporary lit this week – he’s a dude we should all want to march to war with.

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Written by mitchellirons

July 6, 2008 at 1:47 pm

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