This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed by the Deep Ones over at LibraryThing.
Review: “The Aleph”, Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Andrew Hurley, 1945.
As you would expect from Borges, this story is chockfull of literary allusions.
The narrator, in fact, is called Borges, and the story starts out by noting the death of one Beatriz Viterbo on April 30, 1929.
She was a romantic obsession of Borges. To get closer to her memory and the places imbued with that memory, Borges develops the ritual of visiting her first cousin Carlos Argentino every year on the anniversary of her death.
The visits get longer until, during one, Carlos confides that he’s been working on a massive work of poetry. It’s pretty awful – we get quotes, but it’s certainly ambitious in attempting to accurately describe, in correct poetic form, the geography of Earth.
Argentino expounds on why each line is so clever in its literary allusions, poetic form, and violations of reader expectation. He seems to be the sort of writer who imagines the literary praise critics will heap on each line of his work. Borges considers it about the dullest thing he’s read, and it’s not improved by Argentino elaborating his style with ever more varied adjectives (like different words for “blue”).
Argentino initially claimed he didn’t want to publish the work for political reasons (he works at a library), but, eventually, he decides to publish it, and he wants Borges, a writer himself, to approach another writer to do the prologue. Borges isn’t about to suggest that anyone write a prologue praising such an awful work.
However, unexpectedly, Carlos calls Borges one night. He’s somewhat panicked because the expansion of a local café means his house will be torn down. (Borges isn’t keen about that either since the buidling has emotional attachments for him given Beatriz’s visits there.) Carlos is even considering suing the café because it will strip him of his “inalienable” right to the Aleph in the basement.
Carlos discovered it as a child, and it provides a view of all the places in the world from every angle and all at once.
Borges immediately says he’ll be right over.
After drinking some wine with Carlos, Borges is taken into the basement. He’s told he has to lay flat on a particular couch and look at the 19th step into the basement. After a while, he will see the Aleph.
Borges does as instructed though, when Carlos leaves him alone in the basement, he begins to wonder if Carlos poisoned his wine and left him to die there. (The two, despite Borges’ visits, have never really liked each other.)
But Borges does see the Aleph, and there is a long passage of all the visions he sees including Beatriz’s rotting corpse and the obscene love letters from her that Carlos still has.
Carlos returns to the basement and, when asked about how wonderful the Aleph was, Borges just indifferently says it was “magnificent”. He speaks to Carlos in a patronizing manner that implies he thinks Carlos is mad and the Aleph doesn’t exist. (It isn’t stated but perhaps Borges resents Carlos’ romance with Beatriz.)
The story ends with the first part of Carlos poem getting a literary award and Borges getting none. There is also some discussion, with various erudite allusions, about why Carlos’ Aleph is a false Aleph and where the real one is.
The story concludes with a short rumination on forgetfullness. Borges wonders if, as the memories fade, he really saw the Aleph. And, through the years, his memories of Beatriz are “distorting” and being lost.
The story’s emotion isn’t very much in line with weird fiction, despite that long passage when Borges views the Aleph. The narrator’s response to his vision. The main pleasure, for me, was Borges’ description’s of Carlos’ poetry.