It pays to reread Borges every few years, and if you are able, to do so in Spanish, for the pleasure of his complex irony so lucidly expressed. He is no more difficult to read in the original than Kafka is in German, although neither is easy to completely grasp, albeit for very different reasons.
Kafka is the unawakened dreamer fully engaged in his enigmatic struggles. Borges is the awakened dreamer who has not yet finished with his enigmas. Kafka’s dreamworld is a single, internal thing, obedient to its urges and fears. Borges’s dreamworld requires reams of referential embroidery, layer upon layer of lacy mischief, some of it the woven product of astonishing erudition, some of it the whole cloth invention of astonishing imagination.
Borges in Ficciones is concerned with the mind within which the world thinks it unfolds. He is a labyrinth-builder, a mirror-polisher, a time bandit, a strangely sensuous seeker of any image that is multiple, multi-layered, ambiguous, bewildering. He’s an idealist in the sense that what matters is what is subject to thought. He’s a gnostic in the sense that what is true bears within itself its own truth, not yours or mine, a truth that predates us, a truth great by virtue of its simple name, which is what, exactly? That’s the mystery.
He does like mystery stories; he likes a good murder; he likes a vainglorious death; he likes a global complot, a mysterious conspiracy contingent upon discovering a volume that was misprinted or a library that overflowed its bounds and became the world itself.
In his wonderful story, “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote,” Borges anticipated the rage of relativism that overtook philosophy, literature, and criticism from the 50s to, in some instances, this day. Menard writes the same Quixote as Cervantes; it’s identical; but it’s so much different because Cervantes wrote it when it was meant to be written, but Menard had the genius to write it at another time, in another context, when it took such heroic imagination and intellect to write exactly the same thing. Think how hard it is for Menard to make Quixote happen in the face of already having happened!
The last story in Ficciones, “El Sur,” has been called Borges’s best. It’s about death and memory, and it is beautifully composed and paced, yielding the impact of stories like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illyich” in a tenth the words.