Like every other American student, in my senior year of high school I had to take a course called “Current World Problems.” One assignment in the class was to read a book of historical fiction that related to issues still being resolved today, then write an 8-page review. Plagued with senioritis and not a small dose of defiant attitude, I decided not to read a book, and instead make one up completely. In the end, writing a review of a fake book was almost certainly more work that writing a review of a real book would have been, but it turns out challenges are fun! The book I invented was about the city of Berlin and how it was recovering a decade after the fall of the Wall. I think my mother still has a copy of paper I wrote tucked away in a box somewhere. As I recall I got a 95/100 on the assignment. The only comment from my teacher, Mr. Mitchell, was that I had used a few too many direct quotes from the book.
I tell that story as an introduction to an author I’m just discovering, Jorge Luis Borges. Borges lived from 1899 to 1986 and was incredibly well-known and well-received. He wrote essays, novels, short stories, and poetry. I became interested in Borges’ work because I am traveling to Argentina soon and Borges is a much-beloved native son. I’m working my way through his entire collection of poetry at the moment (and loving it!), and will soon delve into his short stories. He is especially known for his reflections on Porteño culture, for fostering the beginnings of magical realism in Latin American novels, and for the spiritual and existential dilemmas explored in his work.
What I like best about him, though, are his hoaxes and forgeries. Along with publishing numerous legitimate translations, he also published original works and claimed them to be translations of works he had chanced upon. In one case, he added three falsely-attributed pieces into an otherwise legitimate anthology. He also wrote reviews of non-existent works. The best-known example is his “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” which tells the tale of a modern Frenchman attempting to write Cervantes’s Don Quixote verbatim, but without looking at the original text. Borges’ review of the imaginary Menard’s imaginary work, is glowing—he discusses how much richer Menard’s work is than that of Cervantes, even though the text is exactly the same. Of this unusual hobby of his, Borges wrote, “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books, setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them…A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.”
Also, incidentally, today would have been Borges' 112th birthday.