Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2016

‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, from Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

labyrinths

Sometimes, I really, really wish that I had kept a reading journal throughout my entire life.   I am quite sure that I read Borges when I was at university: it was on the reading list and I was the kind of student who read everything on the reading list.  It was at that time that Borges became, for me, one of those 20th century authors that changed my ideas about what literature could be.  And yet I don’t have a copy of Labyrinths or Ficciones on my shelves, although I still have copies of absolutely everything else.  And I don’t remember any details of the pieces I read.  LOL There’s something very Borgesian about this!

Anyway…

One of my favourite authors, Gerald Murnane, writes what he calls ‘fictions’, which are inventions of the imagination, and that’s what Borges writes, though his fictions are markedly shorter than Murnane’s.  There are people and events in these works, but they are not ‘characters’ and there is no ‘plot’.  Nevertheless, they are infinitely absorbing.  They stretch the mind.  And although terribly erudite people have penned reams of terribly erudite analysis about them, they can be read and enjoyed by ordinary mortals like you and me.

Let me introduce you to, or refresh your memory about, the wonderful world of Borges’ fiction. This is how ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ begins:

I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopaedia.  The mirror troubled the depths of a corridor in a country house on Gaona Street in Ramos Mejia; the encyclopaedia is fallaciously called The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917) and is a literal but delinquent reprint of the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1902. The event took place some five years ago.  Bioy Casares had had dinner with me that evening and we became lengthily engaged in a vast polemic concerning the composition of a novel in the first person, whose narrator would omit or disfigure the facts and indulge in various contradictions which would permit a few readers – very few readers – to perceive an atrocious or banal reality.  From the remote depths of the corridor, the mirror spied upon us.  We discovered (such a discovery is inevitable in the late hours of the night) that mirrors have something monstrous about them.  Then Bioy Casares recalled that one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had declared that mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of men.  I asked him the origin of this memorable observation and he answered that it was reproduced in The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, in its article on Uqbar. (p.27) 

But when they consult the relevant volume, which the house they are renting just happens to have, there is no article about Uqbar, and there’s no reference to it in the index. The narrator concludes that this undocumented country and its anonymous heresiarch were a fiction devised by Bioy’s modesty in order to justify a statement.

(BTW in theory I could place a spoiler warning here, but IMO the concept of a spoiler doesn’t apply to Borges’ fictions.)

But no.  Bioy calls the next day from Buenos Aires, with his volume of the same Cyclopaedia in his hands, and the article about Uqbar is there.  He brings this volume to the narrator to prove it, and so begins a fascinating quest to discover the existence of the country of Uqbar.

The ‘story’ is only seventeen pages long, but it’s utterly compelling. There is humour: the article about Uqbar when they read it together is quite in keeping with the general tone of the work and (as is natural) a bit boring.  Borges plays ‘work-within-the-work’ games with his readers: within the article only one trait is worthy of recollection… the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy and its epics and legends never referred to reality.

They scour the National Library for any references to Ugbar without success.  Other volumes of the same Cyclopaedia lack the relevant article about it.  But through a series of events that test plausibility, two years after the first encounter with a non-existent country, the narrator acquires A First Encyclopaedia of Tlön. Vol XI.  Hlaer to Jangr.  This more precious and arduous text is

a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet’s entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy.  And all of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody. (p.31)

So, from an unknown country to an unknown planet!  Thus begins a quest for the companion volumes…they ‘upend’ the libraries of the two Americas and of Europe.  You can’t read this without getting drawn into the excitement…and the suggestion that they should all join the task of reconstructing the missing volumes doesn’t seem so crazy after all. (The narrator makes a plausible case that this world can’t have been constructed by a lone inventor, it must have been a the work of a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, algebraists, moralists, painters, geometers … directed by an obscure man of genius.)

Tlön sounds like a sophisticated place: it’s predicated on idealism, their language is fascinating and their concept of authorship is intriguing:

The concept of plagiarism does not exist: it has been established that all works are the creation of one author, who is atemporal and anonymous.

As for their books?

Works of fiction contain a single plot, with all its imaginable permutations.  Those of a philosophical nature invariably include both the thesis and the antithesis, the rigorous pro and con of a doctrine.  A book which does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete. (p.37)

A ‘postscript’ is even more playful.  Orbis Tertius is a revised edition of this illusory world and it turns up in 1944.  The international press goes into overdrive, and illusion overtakes reality…

There are 23 Fictions in this edition, 10 essays and 8 parables so I have lots of great reading ahead:)

PS It occurred to me after I’d published this, to Google the name of the story.  Wikipedia has a massive entry about it, which is very intimidating.  Ignore it.  Just read Borges and enjoy it!

Author: Jorge Luis Borges
Title: ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in Labyrinths
Translated by James E. Irby
Publisher: Penguin Australia 2011
ISBN: 9780143566342
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Labyrinths (Popular Penguins) and good bookshops everywhere.


Responses

  1. I like Borges’s stories but I don’t love them. When I first read some of them I tried to read them as I would a ‘normal’ story, which was a mistake. Instead, I have to read only one at a time and only when my mind is clear. I’d like to read some more some time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think so too. They’re good to dip into, rather than read all in one go. I think that’s possibly why I don’t remember them from my previous reading…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Absolutely! Reading massive entries online about books can be so offputting and you just need to read and enjoy and make up your own mind!

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    • There are ‘grade papers’ and cheat sheets for this story, so I gather that it’s still being taught at university and I suppose there will be plenty of students who will read the commentary and never set eyes on the story. I think that’s a shame. It’s a clever story, and it’s like James Joyce’s Ulysses, each time you read it you see and understand more, and (I read it twice) that’s the pleasure of it: finding the cleverness for yourself even if your reading is (like mine) rudimentary compared to the scholars’ versions.

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  3. Wish I’d kept a reading journal as well (a friend of mine has kept one since her twenties and I’m so envious). Anyway, confident that I’ve never read any Borges!

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    • Do you keep one now, as well as the blog?

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, only the blog although for the past few years I have recorded everything on Goodreads. If I stopped blogging (not planning to but if…) then I think I’d continue to use Goodreads as my record.

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        • I love Goodreads, I love being able to have wishlists and it helps me keep track of what I’ve got on the TBR.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful review, Lisa! I have read only one Borges story before yesterday – I remember it because when I read it I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep that night. In the past two days I read four more stories. I read this one today and loved it. I loved the way the story looks like a real one and how it stretches our mind as you have said. I got goosebumps while reading it. I even found references to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in it and the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle! How one can squeeze in so many amazing things into 15 pages – I can’t even imagine! Thanks for this wonderful review! So glad you love Borges! I can’t wait to read your next Borges review!

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    • Thanks, Vishy, it’s true, this is the kind of excitement that we crave in our reading:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • :)

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  5. An excellent short story, indeed… thanks for sharing your analysis!!!! :D

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  6. […] Orbis Tertius which made me realise that there was so much more to it than I had dimly perceived in my ramblings about it.  (Many of the contributors are US and UK academics (though hey! Robert Holden is an Aussie!) but […]

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