by Jorge Luis Borges
When did fantasy become calcified? Carrie Vaughn, leader of this fall’s writing workshop at the Dallas FenCon and herself no slouch as a fantasy writer, took a moment to bemoan some of the tropes that have become de rigueur in her own subgenre. “Why does urban fantasy have to have a love triangle?” she asked. “Why not a love quadrangle?” (I think she was joking about that one.)
One of the joys of writing this blog about classic stories has been to let me see original genre tropes before they became clichés. Originals like the subject of today’s post, “The Aleph,” and Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, the man who wrote it and inadvertently fathered the subgenre of magical realism.
South America wasn’t exactly a literary hotbed in the 1940’s when Borges and a small group of friends took control of a new literary magazine, Anales de Buenos Aires. As was often the case with new publications, Borges not only edited the magazine but wrote a great deal of its copy, reports Andrew Hurley in the introduction to his 1998 translation of the Borges collection, The Aleph and Other Stories.
Borges described many of his stores as fantasies. But what fantasies they are, dealing not with magical creatures or distant galaxies, but with life and death and immortality, with libraries and mazes and puzzles, often set in the mundane (at least to the writer) world of contemporary South America.
“The Aleph” begins with the determination of the narrator to remain faithful to the memory of unrequited love for the lately deceased Beatriz Viterbo. “I knew that more than once my futile devotion had exasperated her;” Borges writes. “now that she was
dead, I could consecrate myself to her memory¾ without hope, but also without humiliation.” Doggedly visiting the family of his dead love, the narrator comes to know¾ and detest¾ the pompous cousin he suspects had taken his place in Beatriz’s affections.
With the aid of healthy doses of cognac, the narrator learns that the family home contains a phenomenon not only transcendent, but essential to the cousin’s continued work as a poet. It is the Aleph, “the microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists¼ ”
And see it the narrator does: “a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness¼ Each thing (the glass surface of a mirror, let us say) was infinite things, because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos.” And among those infinite things are the “obscene, incredible, detailed letters” in her well-known handwriting, of Beatriz to her cousin.
With the house that holds this vision is about to be demolished, a destruction that threatens the narrator’s tie to his dead love as well as his rival’s work and sanity, the cousin asks insistently, “You did see it?”
And so gives the scorned lover his chance for revenge. “I refused, with gentle firmness, to discuss the Aleph; I clasped him by both shoulders as I look my leave and told him again that the country¾ peace and quiet, you know¾ was the very best medicine one could take.”
Was the vision true or false? “Did I see it when I saw all things, and then forget it?" the narrator asks finally. "Our minds are permeable to forgetfulness; I myself am distorting and losing, through the tragic erosion of the years, the features of Beatriz.”
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics looks at L. Frank Baum’s American fairy tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.)