Tuesday 24 August 2021

Book review: Labyrinths

1629792876875-9621a88a-58a6-4a9b-81fc-3ebee5608ac8_ Labyrinths, as wiki will tell you, is a collection of short stories and essays by the writer Jorge Luis Borges. They are... refined. They remind me of the aesthetes of Garwiy in Jack Vance, perhaps because I know no real ones... or do I?

Overall: one story or two is fine; if you read them as items in a literary magazine, you would enjoy them. But somehow a book-length collection is less fine. The patterns begin to emerge, his technique becomes less subtle and more intrusive, they are too similar; and the sheer pointlessness of it all becomes unavoidable.

Individual notes:

With regard to Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote: by weird co-incidence, I come across Chinese Don Quixote is translated into Spanish after 100 years; Lin Shu’s forgotten 1922 text, The Story of the Enchanted Knight – with a less deluded Don Quixote – in edition for China and Spain. This - coupled with the Chinese links elsewhere - is interesting; did Borges know of, and take inspiration from, this? We may never know.

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius: there is a flaw in this, that our modern era reveals, with it's widespread availability of information: there exists Ukbarā, which was a medieval city on the left bank of the Tigris between Samarra and Baghdad. Presumably this was sufficiently obscure that it was omitted from the Anglo-American Encyclopedia but nonetheless the desperate search, which the story describes, for any trace of Uqbar or variants thereof should have turned it up.

The Circular Ruins: consider Gene Wolfe's the story of the young man fleshed from dreams; Wolfe has certainly read Borges.

The Library of Babel: the idea is of an infinite "library" (series of interconnected rooms) containing all book-length permutations of a given 25-element alphabet. He does realise that such a set is not infinite, just very large; and suggests that the library is cyclic rather than truely infinite. What I think he doesn't explicitly either say or realise, is that any such collection, whilst it would contain all wisdom, would also contain (as well as much that doesn't even make words) all drivel; and without a way to tell one from another would be worthless. It turns out that Quine riffs off this, adding the extension that ideas too long for any one book can simply be found by appending a second book. He justifies this with In seeking the truth we have no way of knowing which volume to pick up nor which to follow it with, but it is all right there but he is wrong: the key element missing is the organisation; the link from book to sequel. To see this more clearly, imagine the books are one character long, and there are only 25 of them, and "all you need to do" is follow from one to the next in sequence. There's a quasi-similarity here to genetics: human and mice genomes are near-identical, yet humans and mice are easy to distinguish.

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