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Ficciones | Themes



Ficciones contains any number of doubles and reflections, imitation worlds, and imitated books. Often these copies have a complicated and troubling relationship to the originals. The copy sometimes overwhelms, undermines, or infiltrates the original. In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," a secret society of philosophers invents a planet, Tlön, disseminating information about it through a plagiarized encyclopedia. The invented planet infiltrates the real one, and one day, as the narrator predicts, the invented planet will overtake the original: "The world will be Tlön." In "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," a 20th-century French writer sets out to write Don Quixote. His aim is not to copy Cervantes's 16th-century Spanish novel but to produce it anew, word for word, to become the author who could—and did—write Don Quixote, but at the present time. Thus his task is more difficult, for he must learn 16th-century Spanish and absorb a different culture that no longer exists. He succeeds in writing two disconnected chapters. Strangely, the narrator finds Menard's Don Quixote "almost infinitely richer" than the original, as he considers the difficulty of the task. Both the planet Tlön and Menard's Don Quixote raise questions about the value of a created work. With sly humor Jorge Luis Borges proposes an image of the world superior to the actual world.

In "Three Versions of Judas" the Swedish theologian, Runeberg, proposes Judas as a kind of reflection of Jesus. Judas, too, had a God-destined task. Runeberg then refines his ideas about Judas, finally deciding Judas is the true incarnation of God. Again the copy or double is superior to the original. Judas is Jesus with the addition of infamy and sin. In Borges's eyes these additions do not detract from Judas's divinity. On the contrary Runeberg's Judas has "added to the concept of the Son ... the complexities of calamity and evil."


In Ficciones detectives, spies, and scholars examine texts for multiple meanings. Many are tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at critics and scholars. "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" can be read as a series of adventures that begins in a riot. It can also be read as a story about a search for the divine. The story is not told directly but is instead recounted by a commentator who has read a translation of the book The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim. Several other stories in Ficciones are also commentaries on imaginary works: "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain," "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," and "Three Versions of Judas." Indeed, the latter story is about interpretation not only of fictitious texts but of Christian theology in the three ways the story's scholar presents his unorthodox views of the man known as Jesus's betrayer.

Interpretations take on added significance and are the underlying theme of "Death and the Compass." The cerebral detective Lönnrot is convinced the motive for the murders lies in the scholarly texts in the first murdered man's hotel room. Dismissing the straightforward interpretation—robbery and mistaken identity—Lönnrot claims, "I would prefer a purely rabbinical explanation, not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber." His powers of interpretation are equaled by the villain's, who ultimately "out-interprets" the detective.

In "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," critical interpretation comes into play as well in its absurdity. The narrator reads Cervantes's original "as if Menard had conceived it," recognizing Menard's style in the text. The narrator actually finds "the fragmentary Don Quixote of Menard is more subtle than" Cervantes's.

In the matter of interpretations it is hard to imagine Borges siding with the common-sensical interpretation. Sometimes he seems like his double Herbert Quain, whose books try hard to astonish readers. Thus the inventiveness of "The Library of Babel," which takes "sortition" to a logical extreme. (Sortition is ruling by lottery, in which rules are chosen by chance rather inheriting office or being elected to it.) Likewise the description of Quain's works is inventive—Quain writes complicated experimental works, and the narrator prefers the more complicated interoperations of Quain's works. (Thus the popular audience interprets Quain according to the fashion of the day, as Freudian. But the narrator interprets Quain in light of the British idealist philosopher F.H. Bradley.) However, Borges's stories also show the darker side of preferring complicated interpretations. In "Death and the Compass" Lönnrot's preference for "interesting" and "rabbinical" interpretations leads him to his death. His unhappy ending is perhaps a warning about going too far in interpretation.


Many of the stories in Ficciones concern infinite artworks or infinite systems, meaning they have no limits or boundaries and thus are endless. "The Babylon Lottery" evolves from a simple cash prize to a system in which "the number of [lottery] drawings is infinite." Herbert Quain, commenting on his novel with multiple paths, thinks "demiurges and gods would choose an infinite scheme: infinite stories, infinitely subdivided." In "The Garden of Forking Paths," Stephen Albert refers to the moment at which The Thousand and One Nights becomes metafictional. Scheherazade starts to tell the story of herself telling The Thousand and One Nights. And within that telling she risks "again arriving at the night upon which she will relate it, and on to infinity."

Infinity is a concept in both mathematics and metaphysics, the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of things. Borges has his own, slightly quixotic, concept of metaphysical infinity. In his essay "Avatars of the Tortoise," published in Labyrinths, Borges writes, "There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others ... I refer to the infinite." For Borges infinity is a puzzling paradox, after which nothing can be the same. Infinity is like his fictional planet Tlön: knowledge of it creeps into everything.

In Ficciones Borges often presents infinity alongside an idea of circularity. At the end of "Death and the Compass" Lönnrot expresses the belief he and Red Scharlach will confront one another infinitely many times, and each time Scharlach will kill him. The Library in "The Library of Babel" is "limitless and periodic." For the narrator this means the infinite volumes of the Library will all be repeated at some point, giving the immense disorder a kind of order. In Ficciones infinity is contrasted with a restraining or structuring principle of repetition. The stories show an irresolvable tension between these two.

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