Based on a True Story, winks Borges


When reading Jorge Luis Borges one is constantly flipping back to the cover. Exactly what am I reading?  Fiction or non-fiction? Borges’ prose is so well crafted one is never fully sure if the work is a piece of make believe or if the material is thinly veiled truth.

There are several ways Borges renders his fictions with such authenticity they appear as if the truth. (I would hazard to say Borges probably thought all stories are true regardless of the tag fiction or non-fiction, but that perhaps is the subject of a much longer piece.)  Collected Fictions is indeed fiction and one of the ways the author lends a sense of genuineness is to quote texts, which within the context of the story appears wholly realistic. In telling the story of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” the author quotes from “The Anglo-American Cyclopedia (New York 1917)” or “Ural-Altaic Languages” and “A General History of Labyrinths” to name but a few. There are numerous other examples: “The Approach of Al-Mu’tasim” is quoted as the reference material in the story “The Approach of Al-Mu’tasim”; Liddel Hart’s “The History of the World War” is quoted in “The Garden of Forking Paths.” After all, in “The Library of Babel,” Borges himself says, “In order for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible.” (italics of the author’s, p. 117). Often Borges in telling a story will say, “A full rereading of the text confirmed my theory…” or “ the reading of those old volumes would be the stimulus I sought,” (p. 125 and 517 respectively).

Another way Borges creates a sense of the factual in his fiction is by co-opting the traditions of oral storytellers, the spinners of history or archetypal myth. Invariably a Borges story begins with a pronouncement that what is to follow is a retelling of a story told to Borges himself, or at the very least, to the narrator. “Among the stories he told us that night, I shall be so bold as to reconstruct the one that follows,” the narrator of  “The Man on the Threshold” begins (p. 269). To set up an elaborate fiction, Borges begins with having the narrator say directly to the reader (it is always directly at the reader), if you don’t believe this, “I want to tell the story of the fate of Benjamin Otalora,” the narrator says in “The Dead Man.”  In “The Aleph” Borges, anticipating that the story he is about to tell is hard to make believable, has the narrator retelling the story which was told by a drunk man. “…after a few snifters, (he) launched into an apologia for modern man.” The retelling can also take the shape of reiterating what was found in a “lost manuscript.” In “Brodie’s Report” the reader is told, “tucked inside a copy, bought for me by my dear friend…we discovered the manuscript I now make known to the world…” (p. 402). The effect is of retelling a story told, to pass on what one has learned, is to say to the reader, “I am not making this up.” Borges’ method mimics the tradition of handing stories down from generation to generation by way of oral storytelling. There is little distance between reader and author, because an imaginary world has not been constructed. The author is simply a relaying information he was told and he never stops to say the story is untrue, in fact he does the opposite.

This is another way Borges defies the reader to think of his fiction as a conceit. Borges often addresses the reader directly, “It may be that the stories I have told are one and the same story. The obverse and reverse of this coin are, in the eyes of God, identical,” (p. 211) He writes in “Emma Zunz” that “The story was unbelievable, yes—and yet it convinced everyone, because in substance it was true.” (p. 219). In one story a lie told by a character is verified by Borges, but only in the admission of a half-truth. “There are no such suppers, although it is quite true that meetings are held on Thursday…” he writes in defense of a lie one his characters uses in “The Aleph” (p. 279). In the same story the strongest example of the writer entering the story, directly addressing the reader, in an effort of authenticity:


I come now to the ineffable center of my tale; it is here

that a writer’s hopelessness begins. Every language is

an alphabet of symbols the employment of which assumes

a past shared by its interlocutors. How can one transmit

to others the infinite Aleph, which my timorous memory

can scarcely contain? (“The Aleph” p. 282).

Here, Borges is saying he is going to try as hard as he can to correctly describe what he saw. This implies that what he saw, he that he saw at all, is the truth and he only needs to accurately retell it.

The late Argentinean author also enters stories seemingly in mid-sentence as if to give the reader a sense of coming into a story that has been going on for some time. It is also a way to show the timelessness of a story, that it does not even slow down for its writing. He begins “The Aleph” with “That same sweltering morning…” and “Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv” with “Unless I am mistaken…” as examples of coming into a story as it is already been told. “I give him that name because…” begins “The Improbably Imposter Tom Castro” and “That a man from the outskirts…” begins “The Dead Man.” Stories beginning this way serve to reiterate the exercise of mimicking the traditions of oral storytelling. The reader comes to these stories already behind and must catch up. In this way, there is no time to discern whether or not the story is true or false, whether it happened a long time ago, or just a few minutes from hence; it is simply a story.  “I reflected that even in the language of a god every word would speak that infinite concatenation of events, and not implicitly but explicitly, and not linearly but instantaneously.”

According to Borges, all stories are truth in their telling. To look at story this way is to free the writer. If all stories are true, and there are ways you can assure your reader of this, the easier it is to simply tell, without feeling the weight of fiction or the demands of reportage.


Penguin Books - Jorge Luis Borges - Collected Fictions (with spine + back)