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The Aleph

Today – as celebrated by Google – is the 112 birthday of the greatest man to ever lay fingers on a keyboard – Jorge Luis Borges. Certainly the greatest writer not to win the Nobel for literature.

I have stolen this. Perhaps. But unless you are utterly potless do buy it (if potless read it anyway – it is that good). The best English translations (Borges was fluent in English but tended to write in Spanish) are to be found in “Labyrinths” and “The Aleph And Other Stories”. This is “The Aleph”.

Tired of his inane words, I quickly made my way. The cellar, barely wider than the stairway itself, was something of a pit. My eyes searched the dark, looking in vain for the globe Carlos Argentino had spoken of. Some cases of empty bottles and some canvas sacks cluttered one corner. Carlos picked up a sack, folded it in two, and at a fixed spot spread it out.

“As a pillow,” he said, “this is quite threadbare, but if it’s padded even a half-inch higher, you won’t see a thing, and there you’ll lie, feeling ashamed and ridiculous. All right now, sprawl that hulk of yours there on the floor and count off nineteen steps.”

I went through with his absurd requirements, and at last he went away. The trapdoor was carefully shut. The blackness, in spite of a chink that I later made out, seemed to me absolute. For the first time, I realised the danger I was in: I’d let myself be locked in a cellar by a lunatic, after gulping down a glassful of poison! I knew that back of Carlos’ transparent boasting lay a deep fear that I might not see the promised wonder. To keep his madness undetected, to keep from admitting he was mad, Carlos had to kill me. I felt a shock of panic, which I tried to pin to my uncomfortable position and not to the effect of a drug. I shut my eyes — I opened them. Then I saw the Aleph.

I arrive now at the ineffable core of my story. And here begins my despair as a writer. All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass? Mystics, faced with the same problem, fall back on symbols: to signify the godhead, one Persian speaks of a bird that somehow is all birds; Alanus de Insulis, of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere; Ezekiel, of a four-faced angel who at one and the same time moves east and west, north and south. (Not in vain do I recall these inconceivable analogies; they bear some relation to the Aleph.) Perhaps the gods might grant me a similar metaphor, but then this account would become contaminated by literature, by fiction. Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal. In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive. Nonetheless, I’ll try to recollect what I can.

On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realised that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; I saw a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree; I saw a summer house in Adrogué and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny — Philemon Holland’s — and all at the same time saw each letter on each page (as a boy, I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight); I saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal; I saw my empty bedroom; I saw in a closet in Alkmaar a terrestrial globe between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly; I saw horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea at dawn; I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe.

I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity.

I feel infinite wonder (that is the point of Borges). (current word count 1111 – fitting). There are two authors ever who utterly took me away. One is from Birmingham and the other is from Argentina. Oh, OK! Honourable mentions to Conan-Doyle, Gibson, Chandler and Dodgson… But I have only read Tolkien and Borges quite like that. Lying in bed and ravished like a two-bit whore. It’s that emotional.

If you haven’t read Borges you haven’t lived. He was that good. Other writers told stories. He told reality.


  1. CIngram says:

    Other writers told stories. He told reality.

    Quite. He managed to be a literary genius without kowtowing to communism, and without being insane. He described realities far beyond the imagination of most writers, or artists in general. To conceive such worlds, to conceive them as coherent entities and to translate them into something that the rest of us can understand (sort of) requires a mind that isn’t really human.

    And if you’ve got a bit of time he’s worth learning Spanish for.

  2. NickM says:

    I know. A Mexican once told me.

  3. RAB says:

    Great comment CIngram.

    And many thanks to you Nick, for turning me on to Borges a few years ago. I thought I had heard of most of the best of the best, but had never heard of him.

    Awe and wonder are exactly the emotions I get reading Borges.

  4. nelsontouch says:

    Something else for the reading list – a recommendation from CCiZ is not to be ignored. . . .

  5. LJH says:

    Thank you for reminding us of his incomparable imagination. His stories allude to, intertwine with all the world’s imagination – Norse saga, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Poe, Averroes..leaving the reader with the ambition to read further, deeper. His comfort at being able to play with ideas was the start and guide to my own reading when I discovered him at sixteen. (Of course, education authorities would regard him as too challenging, preferring the shallows and continue to prescribe pabulum).

  6. Laird says:

    Well, on the basis of all the commentary here I’ll give him a try, but frankly this story did nothing for me. No character, no plot, no discernable point. What am I missing?

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