Monday, February 12, 2007

A quandry

I don't have a new post for you this week. The reason for this, however, has a great deal to do with Chesterton. At the present moment I am taking a class that deals, substantially, with the figure and work of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine Master of Curious Tales. He was a man of odd tastes and prejudices - a conservative when his entire continent bled its liberalism under tyrants - and perpetrator of the sorts of astonishing personal feats that one might expect from Chesterton himself, though they rather horrify here than amuse. He is said to have never once attended a concert or gone to a museum or art gallery. He never read the great masterpieces of the world. He never considered the prominent philosophies. He never even read newspapers, for heaven's sake.

What he did do, however, was revel in the obscure, the small-time, and the discredited. The legendary Greek paradox by which an arrow could never reach its target was a favourite of his. By the end, he had become convinced that only literature was real; reality itself, sadly, was lacking.

Another thing he did, though, was read Chesterton by the bushel. C.S. Lewis too, though not to the same extent (and he actually disliked Tolkien). He called Chesterton "his master," and this literary heritage can be plainly seen in many of his works. The lecture I have to deliver concerns one of his most famous short stories, "The Garden of Forking Paths," in which a Chinese man, who is in fact a spy for the German Kaiser at the height of the Great War, has to thwart the English counter-espionage service, and in so doing somehow convey a message to the German high command that a British artillery battery has been secretly moved into the village of Albert a few miles from the front. Despairing, and only minutes away from discovery and apprehension, he races off to send the message by the only means available to him: by killing the only man in his area of England who has the surname of Albert (both the murder and his name would then be reported in the newspapers that his continental counterparts were tasked with scouring, and, with luck, they would put two and two together). It is revealed that Dr. Stephen Albert knows far more about the Chinese spy, perhaps, than the spy does about himself...

That's just scratching the surface. It's a brilliant piece of moonshine, and is a mystery story after the fashion of what we might find in the annals of Father Brown or The Club of Queer Trades, though with the important distinction of being presented in reverse. In Chesterton's mysteries we arrive on the aftermath, as it were; a miracle has occured, and the story goes about elaborating upon it. In "The Garden of Forking Paths," however, we follow the affair from its panicked start to its bewildering conclusion, and yet, somehow, the sense of mystery is maintained.

So, because I have been doing all of this, reading and note-taking and internalizing texts and criticism, I haven't got anything new to say to you now.

1 comment:

Trubador said...

I came upon Borges' book "Ficciones" via Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "Love in the Time of Cholera" whom I was led to after reading Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler." Calvino is my favorite of the three, and I've read many of his short stories and quite a few of his larger works. Borges seemed to me to be (at times) a bit too cryptic for his own good. But, it's been awhile since I've read his stuff. And I've since read a bit of GKC, so maybe now is the time to re-read "Ficciones."