The Collected Novels of Jorge Luis Borges
By Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Andrew Hurley
Viking Press, 2003. Three volumes, 2188 pgs.
Review by Ben D. Anderson
Following on the heels of Vikings indispensable compendiums of Borges poems, essays, and short stories, comes this somewhat more ambitious collection of Borges novels. Divided into three volumes, the first volume contains the Arabist trilogy, Gate of Peace, Black and White Sands, and The First Governor of Jerusalem, as well as a foreword by Haruki Murakami. Published between 1948 and 1955, these first three novels are generally cited as Borges last real foray into the world of Islamic mysticism and the end of his preoccupation with Arabic peoples in general.
Set in the late 1200s, the Arabist trilogy tells the story of the Al-Warazai family through tens of generations. The novel starts off with the marriage of Raifa Al Mohammed Al-Warazai to Princess Zeeba Rakhmatti, the immortal ruler of the ruined city of Persepolis. Her fortune, literally vanishing into thin air due to an ancient curse, is buttressed by the money of her new husbands merchant family. The marriage sets into motion a series of events that culminates, in the center of Black and White Sands, with the reincarnated Raifa, now a barnacle clinging to the hull of the Pinta, desperately trying to stay with Zeeba, now a cross-dressing crew member of Christopher Columbus. In 1840, the Al-Warazai fortune, now squandered in failed attempts to corner the market on world almond production, is melted down by Beezhan Al-Mutasiim Al-Warazai, who takes the molten silver and casts it into a thin dagger as he seeks to find the now insane Zeeba, living somewhere on the plains of Bolivia. Beezhan finds employment as an itinerant guacho, Bolivias only Muslim, and a notorious horse thief. Beezhan believes that by killing Zeeba, he will free the ghost of Raifa, who now haunts his dreams.
By contrast, the two novels that make up the second volume of the three-book set are calm, contemplative and decidedly non-violent. Tableness, the first novel, is a fictional autobiography of Xanthus, the heavenly librarian of the Platonic Archives, which contain all the heavenly objects that are emulated on Earth. Xanthus tells us the story of his corporeal life, as a mercenary in Scythia who dies at the hand of Vikings, and tries to impart the existence of his afterlife without giving away too many secrets. Tableness, first published in Spanish in 1958 but not translated into English until 1961, is generally regarded as Borges most important novel.
I, however, prefer the simple austerity of his 1960 novel, The Lodestone, another time-defying epic of the eternal inhabitants of a Jesuit monastery in New Mexico. The monks lead a subsistence agrarian lifestyle, and as the ages pass, the monks and their home shrink, until they are little more than the size of ants in the present day. The Lodestone contains some of Borges most beautiful imagery (Father Simon deplored the aging process, and grew distasteful of the wrinkles on his face. Looking in the mirror, he would often focus on his dully reflective fingernails, and remember when they shone as brilliantly as the scales of a carp.), and stand as a testament to the beauty of Catholicism in an age that seeks to destroy its institutions.
The final volume of the compendium is devoted to Borges unfinished, untitled opus, a meditation on the infinite that revolves around an apocryphal tapestry that purports to be a portrait of the face of God. As the tapestry is bought, sold, stolen, and traded amongst alternately wealthy, self-righteous, and amoral men, Borges seems, as a writer, to lose confidence in the ability of even fictional humans to break out of their self-destructive behaviors. Several draft chapter are included, with marginalia and crossouts included, and they show a novel that started to disintegrate faster than its blind author could hope to write it. Although he started the novel in 1963, he was forced to put it down in 1980 because he feared the frustration would affect his health.
Besides arguments over having been robbed of a Nobel Prize, modern conversations of Borges tend to revolve around his contribution to the postmodern genres of metafiction and fabulism. We are reminded of this in every foreword in the collection, which were written by Italo Calvino, Gore Vidal, and Arundhati Roy in addition to Murakami. Indeed, it seems futile to even imagine a world of literature untouched by the influence of Borges. But in these novels, I was reminded of Borges humanity, and his enduring belief and faith in man and his infinitely combinatorial inventions. Perhaps that is why the infinite so successfully romanced Borges; after all, in an infinite series, there has to be one perfect moment.
(Entry by Ben D. Anderson)