Jorge Luis Borges on Franz Kafka (1981)

In 1981 Cardinal published a collection of all the short stories which Kafka published during his lifetime, from the first story in 1904, to the last ones published just after his death in 1924 – a working life of precisely 20 years. They are all here in new translations by J.A. Underwood. The edition is interesting because it gives a brief textual explanation before the major stories, explaining when they were written, and when published.

It also contains a brief three-page essay on Kafka by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, which can be summarised as follows:

Why Kafka wanted his works destroyed

Borges starts with Kafka’s injunction to Max Brod to burn his works. He compares this to Virgil’s request to his friends to destroy the manuscript of the Aeneid. As a practising author Borges gives a nice interpretation of both men’s wishes to destroy their masterworks, namely they didn’t want them actually to be destroyed, but

longed to disburden themselves of the responsibility that a literary work imposes on its creator.

Anyone familiar with The Trial or The Castle can immediately see how this applies to Kafka; they’re great works but they’re nowhere near finished and the effort to review, reorder and restructure them, and then to write all the linking passages and the final chapters required to bring them to a successful conclusion would daunt a lesser man and was clearly beyond Kafka. All he felt was the guilt and shame of failure.

Kafka’s works are like:

a parable or series of parables on the theme of the moral relationship of the individual with his God and with  his God’s incomprehensible universe.

They are less like what we call literature and closer to an ancient religious work like the Book of Job. Borges emphasises Kafka’s religious, and specifically Jewish, motivation. He thinks Kafka saw his work as an act of faith, and he did not want his writings to demotivate others (as they surely must have).

Borges goes further and suspects Kafka could a) only dream nightmares and b) was interested or hypnotised by delay and failure, which is why he produced a body of work solely about nightmares, and about nightmares which never reach a conclusion but are endlessly delayed… Borges thinks Kafka’s own imaginative vision wore him out.

And knowing how it wore him down, is why Kafka wanted the works burned, so as not to discourage others from seeking for happiness. (This is the same sort of terminology Brod uses in his defence of not burning the works in his afterword to The Trial).

When Borges first read Kafka

Borges slips in a memory of his own youth when he first came across Kafka; He was reading an avant-garde magazine full of modish experiments with text and font and layout but which also included a story by Kafka which, to his eternal shame, he thought insipid and so ignored.

Kafka’s Jewishness

Borges thinks Kafka’s Judaism is central. He thinks Kafka was as much in awe of his father as Israel is of its punishing God. He thinks Kafka’s Jewishness ‘set him apart from humanity’ and was ‘a torment to him’. So far so fairly basic.

Hierarchy and infinity

More interestingly, Borges goes on to speculate that Kafka’s work is underpinned by two big ideas, subordination and infinity. In almost all his stories we find hierarchies and those hierarchies tend to be infinite. Thus:

  • the hero of America roams across the land of the free until he is admitted to the great Nature-Theatre of Oklahoma which is an infinite stage, no less populous than the world
  • the hero of The Trial tries to understand the nature of the hierarchy of the Court and the authorities who have arrested him and are managing his case, but every step of the investigation only reveals how impenetrably vast and never-ending the hierarchy is
  • the hero of The Castle is summoned to work for authorities at a castle who never acknowledge him or his task

Infinity and incompletion

Borges says some critics complain about the fact that all three novels are unfinished and lament the absence of the chapters which would complete them. Borges says this is to misunderstand Kafka, to misunderstand that his subject was precisely the infinity of obstacles his heroes had to overcome. The novels are incomplete because it is ‘essential’ to their artistic purpose that they remain incomplete.

Borges compares the impossibility of completing a Kafka novel to Zeno’s paradox about the impossibility of movement.

Suppose Zeno wishes to walk to the end of a path. Before he can get there, he must get halfway there. Before he can get halfway there, he must get a quarter of the way there. Before traveling a quarter, he must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one-sixteenth; and so on. Describing the task in this way requires Zeno to perform an infinite number of tasks which is, of course, impossible. (Wikipedia)

Intolerable situations

Moving swiftly on, Borges suggests that Kafka’s greatest gift was for inventing intolerable situations. Anyone thinking of The Metamorphosis or In the Penal Colony would agree.

But Borges instances something a little different, which is the way the tremendous imaginative power of some of Kafka’s engrave themselves on our minds.

Leop­ards break in­to the tem­ple and drink all the sac­ri­fi­cial ves­sels dry; this happens over and over and, in the end, it can be predicted in ad­vance and so becomes in­cor­po­rat­ed in­to the rit­ual.
(The Zürau Aphorisms)

These short parables from early in Kafka’s career describe something different from the longer works: it is something to do with infinity and paradox, but harder to define, and less amenable to the kind of sociological interpretations which the novels are routinely subjected to.

Invention over craft

Borges makes a few controversial claims right at the end of this short essay:

Kafka’s craft is perhaps less admirable than in his invention, certainly in the way that all the stories feature basically the same character, Homo domesticus, ‘so Jewish and so German’, so desperate to keep his place in his bank or office or profession or employment.

He says ‘plot and atmosphere are the essential characteristics of Kafka’s work and not the convolutions of the story or the psychology of the hero.

We can quickly agree that few of the novels or stories have a ‘plot’ in the conventional sense of a beginning, middle and an end. His most famous stories tend to record a steady decline in circumstances and psychology until the protagonist dies.

When Borges writes that Kafka’s work doesn’t bother much with the psychology of the hero, I suppose what he means is that none of his protagonists are changed by events in the way that a classical novel is all about the change and growth in thinking and opinions of its main characters. The protagonists psychologise at very great length indeed, but, in a sense, it is always the same problem they are worrying over, and they are permanently caught in the same predicament or trap which shows no real psychological development or change.

Which is why Borges concludes that the short stories are superior to the novels, because they capture this atmosphere and this plight with greater purity and force.

Personally, I disagree. I think everyone should read The Trial because it gives you the essence of the Kafkaesque – and that the stories, being far more diverse, strange, varied and complex than the novels, tend to confuse and perplex your view of who Kafka is: the more you read of him, the less confident you become about being able to make useful generalisations.


Borges reviews

Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges (1975)

The 1977 Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Sand is in two parts. Part one consists of a baker’s dozen of late short stories which take up 90 pages. Part two contains 35 poems taken from two of Borges’s final volumes of poetry, The Gold of the Tigers and The Unending Rose, presented in the original Spanish with English translations by the Scottish poet Alastair Reid on the facing page, and also taking up about 90 pages.

There’s an author’s note and an afterword. In the author’s note Borges reaffirms his allegiance to H.G. Wells, often overlooked by literary studies but clearly one of the most fertile, imaginative and influential writers of the first half of the twentieth century.

I have tried to be faithful to the example of H. G. Wells in combining a plain and at times almost colloquial style with a fantastic plot.

In the event, some of the premises of the stories may be fantastical, but they are all conveyed in such a low-key, downbeat, almost offhand manner that you barely notice. The stories don’t signpost their own remarkableness, they downplay it. The stories feel different from those in Dr Brodie’s Report, more consistently fantastical or imaginative than the determinedly realistic narratives in that collection – but both books have more in common and are very different from the intensely bookish ficciones of his Labyrinths phase. Any reader hoping for more ficciones will be sorely disappointed but will, if they allow their expectations to be reshaped by the texts, be rewarded by subtler, more fleeting pleasures.

The stories

1. The Other (location: Cambridge, Massachusetts)

A very relaxed, low key story in which Borges quietly remembers going to sit on a bench in Cambridge Massachusetts overlooking the Charles River and realising the young fellow who’s sitting at the other end of the bench is his own self, 50 years earlier. The young self thinks he is sitting on a bench in Geneva overlooking the river Rhone. Old Borges chats a bit about what’s happened to mum and dad, then when young Borges reveals the book in his hand is by Dostoyevsky, they fall to chatting about literature, as you do, quoting Victor Hugo and Whitman.

Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike. We were unable to take each other in, which makes conversation difficult. Each of us was a caricature copy of the other. The situation was too abnormal to last much longer…

Neither is terrified, but both afflicted with unease, and so hasten to make their excuses, say goodbye, promise to meet up the next day, and walk briskly away with no intention of keeping the rendezvous.

You know the big difference between this and a story by H.G. Wells. This one has no excitement. It is a teasing situation, but with no development or payoff. In fact it just dribbles to a close.

2. Ulrikke (York, England)

The narrator is named Javier Otálora. He is a professor at the University of the Andes. He is visiting York (in England) when he hears a pretty young woman talking in the hotel bar, gets chatting to her, they go for a walk across the freshly fallen snow which becomes steadily more archetypal or allegorical. There are no cars or roads, just them alone in the deep woods. They hear a wolf howl, she kisses him, they invoke the shades of Sigurd and Brynhilde, they arrive at another inn, climb as in a dream up the stairs to a bed where they make love. I think it is a waking dream. I think the author has been beguiled into some kind of re-enactment of the Sigurd and Brnyhilde legend.

3. The Congress (Argentina, 1902)

Don Alejandro Glencoe was a Uruguayan ranch owner and landowner. At one time he had ambitions to stand for the Uruguayan Congress but the political bosses barred  his way. And so, inspired by something he’d read, he decided to set up a Universal Congress, representing all people, representing all humanity. He starts the process by inviting an assortment of 20 or so people to meet regularly at the Gas-Lamp Coffee House in Buenos Aires, trying to ensure a cross-selection, including women and gauchos and blacks. The narrator is Alejandro Ferri and we follow as he is, first, told about the Congress, then taken along, then becomes an active participant, travelling to England on research into ways to expand it and into which books to order to create a definitive library for the Congress.

Soon after his return, in what one could possibly take to be a typically quixotic, random, Hispanic gesture, Don Alejandro scraps his own creation and abolishes the Congress, insisting the members take the library of (rather random) books they have painstakingly assembled and burning them in the street. The members go on to have a wild, intoxicating night together, then part, never to see each other, but convinced by Don Alejandro’s exhortation that the Congress is not dead; on the contrary, it has now become universal and all men and women are members of it, even if they don’t know it. All this happened between 1899, when the narrator arrived in Buenos Aires, and 1902, when he undertook his ill-fated journey to a snowbound London.

The best of Borges’s ficciones left you with your mind completely blown by the intensity and profundity of the ideas and visions he conjured up. These stories are much more ‘meh’. This is the longest of all Borges’s works of fiction and, after this volume was published, he claimed it was his favourite. Meh.

4. There Are More Things (Buenos Aires)

A deliberately hammy hommage to the lurid horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, this one concerns a young student just finishing his studies. He had an uncle who had a house built in a suburb of Buenos Aires. The narrator gets news that his uncle has, sadly, died and then follows from a distance the subsequent developments, namely that the house is sold to a mysterious man who asks the original architect to build new extensions, which the architect indignantly refuses to do. After a few more investigations, the narrator one night, min a heavy storm, finds himself at the gate of the mysterious house, finds himself pushing open the gate, walking up the path, pushing open the front door and investigating the apparently empty and abandoned house and discovering it full of artefacts which make no sense, which don’t seem to have been designed for the human body or purposes… and while he is slowly coming down the stepladder from the attic, he hears the sound of ‘slow and oppressive and twofold’ coming up the ramp into the house…

5. The Sect of the Thirty (4th century Mediterranean)

A fairly brief account which purports to be a manuscript from the fourth century AD describing a Christian heresy, dwelling on the origin of the number 30 before going on to consider the drama of the Crucifixion and to identify ‘intentional’ and ‘unintentional’ actors in it, concluding that there were only 2 intentional ones, namely Jesus and Judas. So the ‘Sect of the Thirty’ takes its name from the thirty pieces of silver which Jesus gave Judas.

This echoes the ficcione ‘Three Versions of Judas’ in which a renegade theologian develops the idea that the real Son of God was Judas, for whereas Jesus was resurrected and went to heaven after a few hours suffering, Judas made the ultimate sacrifice and condemned himself to everlasting hell.

6. The Night of the Gifts (1874 Argentina)

Many years ago in the old Confitería del Águila on Florida Street up around Piedad, a group of men are gathered and having an earnest discussion about Plato’s theory of knowledge (which is that we already know everything but have forgotten it, so that ‘learning’ is merely remembering) when an older man interjects with a long and complicated story.

It is the story of the most memorable night of his life, the night of the thirtieth of April 1874,when he was little more than a boy, he was staying on the ranch of some cousins, and met Rufino, a seasoned cowhand. One night Rufino takes him into town to a brothel down a dirty back alley. The narrator is a bit overwhelmed. When confident Rufino sees him looking at a younger, shy woman, Rufino asks her to tell her tale. In a dreamy voice, the young woman, nicknamed The Captive, begins to tell the story about the time the Indians raided her ranch and took her away, but she’s barely got as far as the Indians riding towards her when the door bursts open and real-life bandits enter, led by the notorious outlaw Juan Moreira! He starts causing a lot of noise and when the little house doggy approaches, whips him so hard the dog dies there and then.

Terrified, in all the brawling, the boy narrator slips down a hallway, finds a secret stairwell and goes upstairs, into a room and hides there. It is, unsurprisingly, the room of The Captive, who quietly comes in, closes the door, slips off her clothes and makes him lie with her. It’s not described but the implication is that he loses his virginity.

But then there’s a lot more banging and a gunshot and the Captive tells our narrator to leave by the back stairs. He does so, nips across the garden and shimmies over the wall. He comes face to face with a policeman who grins and lets him go, but as he loiters, the famous outlaw Moreira slips over the same wall, presumably escaping the cops who’ve gone in the front, and the policeman steps forward and bayonets Moreira. And again. While the horrified boy looks on

Then we snap back to the ‘present’ and the now-old man reflecting on his story, that he experienced two of the Great Experiences of Life in the same night, losing his virginity and seeing a man killed in front of him.

7. The Mirror and the Mask (medieval Ireland)

After the battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014, in which he had defeated a Norse-Irish coalition, the High King of Ireland orders his chief bard, Ollan, to commemorate it in heroic verse. The story quickly becomes a kind of fairy tale, for it is structured round three magical events. The king gives his bard a year to go to England, travel widely, and compose a great poem. A year later he returns, and amid great ceremony, recites the poem, which is a masterpiece, which repeats and supersedes all the conventions of his forebears. The king rewards him with a silver mirror.

Then the poet goes off to England for another year, sees and hears many things, returns and this time reads from a manuscript, a poem which is much stranger, in form and substance, combining the Christian Trinity with the pagan gods, in which subject and verbs and nouns do not agree but present strange new combinations. Dazzled, the king says that only the learned can understand so strange a composition and that he will store the manuscript in an ivory casket and he gives the poet a golden mask.

After another year the poet arrives at the king’s court but he is a man transfigured, ‘His eyes seemed to stare into the distance or to be blind.’ This time the man asks to see the king alone and laments that the has produced the finest poem yet but wishes the Lord had prevented it. He asks for the hall to be emptied and then recites the poem which consists of just one line, but which is so transcendent, so numinous that both king and bard are shaken to their core, both wondering whether knowing such Beauty is a sin.

‘The sin of having known Beauty, which is a gift forbidden to men. Now it behoves us to expiate it. I gave you a mirror and a golden mask; here is my third present, which will be the last.’ In the bard’s right hand he placed a dagger. Of the poet, we know that he killed himself upon leaving the palace; of the king, that he is a beggar wandering the length and breadth of Ireland – which was once his kingdom – and that he has never repeated the poem.

It is a deep and powerful fable.

8. Undr (11th century Sweden)

This short text is pleasurably complicated, working at multiple removes in narrator and time and place. First of all it claims, in the time-honoured way, to be a transcription of a fragment of manuscript found in a dusty old volume in a library, namely an account by of Adam of Bremen, who, ‘as everyone knows’, was born and died in the eleventh century, and it starts off by being an account of what he has discovered about a people named the Urns, who live in Scandinavia.

But barely a page has gone by before Adam brings in a specific character, a traveller from Iceland named Ulf Sigurdsson. Adam claims to have met him at Uppsala, by the famous pagan temple there, where Ulf tells him his story. So now we have three layers of text:

  1. the introductory paragraph explaining this is all a manuscript in an old book
  2. the text itself describing Adam’s journeys into Sweden
  3. the narrative of Ulf

Ulf explains that he was a skald or poet from Iceland and had travelled to Sweden because he had heard that the Urns create poems with just one word. He meets a blacksmith who prepares him to be taken before the king of the Urns, Gunnlaug, in readiness for which Ulf composes a drapa, an elaborate genre of Icelandic poetry. However, when he performs it for the king, although the latter gives him a silver ring, his place is soon taken by a local poet who strikes his lyre and recites a poem which consists of just one word and everyone is much moved.

On leaving the king’s cabin, Ulf is accosted by a fellow poet, Bjarni Thorkelsson, who confirms that the old tropes Ulf used have been superseded and tells him his life is in danger. Together they conspire to get Ulf onto a boat which heads south.

At this point follows a brief summary of the rest of Ulf’s life, which was action-packed and included being an oarsman, a slave dealer, a slave, a woodcutter, a highwayman, a singer, a taster of deep waters and metals, spending a year in the quicksilver mines, fighting in the Varangian guard at Constantinople, having a big love affair with a woman by Sea of Azov, fighting a duel with a Greek, fighting the Blue Men of Serkland, the Saracens.

At the end of this long life, Ulf is a tired old man who makes his way back to the land of the Urns and, after some difficulty, finds the house of the fellow skald who saved him, Bjarni Thorkelsson. Bjarni is bed-ridden and insists on hearing Ulf’s entire life story. As a reward he takes up his harp and speaks the one Word, undr, which means ‘wonder’. The wonder of the world, and finally he understands.

With that the text ends. It does not go back up a level to Adam’s narrative, or up two levels to the original framing modern explanation. It deliberately ends on this symbolic note.

In the afterword Borges points out that one of his most famous ficciones is about an infinite library which contains every combination of every letter in every language ever conceived by man. This is the opposite, a story about just one word, which manages to capture the entire life of a culture.

9. A Weary Man’s Utopia (centuries in the future)

Some kind of vision or maybe dream. The narrator identifies himself as Eudoro Acevedo, born in 1897 in the city of Buenos Aires, 70 years old, a professor of English and American literatures and a writer of imaginative tales i.e. an avatar of Borges himself.

He is walking over a plain in the rain and sees the lights of a house and walks over to it and the door is opened by a tall man who invites him in and signals straight away that he has entered a different century, apparently in the future when other languages have fallen into desuetude and educated people speak Latin. The host is very relaxed and says they receive visitors from the past ‘from century to century’.

In this future the people are taught to forget history and culture and to rise above the present, to live in all time. He is four centuries old and has only read half a dozen books. Printing has been abolished. For his part the narrator explains that in his world, there were newspapers which made a big fuss about the latest news, a continuous turnover of trivia, plus advertising for a thousand and one products no-one needs. To fully exist you needed to be photographed.

Whereas in this future nobody has possessions, there is no money. People study philosophy or play chess. They are free to kill themselves. Everyone must sire one child but this means the human race is slowly dying out. Politics has ceased to exist because nobody paid any attention. He spends his time painting, he shows the narrator some of his paintings and gives him one as a gift.

Then a woman and three or four men enter the house peacefully and they work with the owner to dismantle all the belongings and then carry them through the streets to a crematorium where they burn all his belongings. The scene cuts back to the ‘present’ where the narrator is writing this text,

In my study on Mexico Street, in Buenos Aires, I have the canvas that someone will paint, thousands of years from now, with substances today scattered over the whole planet.

There is no drama and barely any plot. Instead it is a thing of changing moods and angles.

10. The Bribe (Texas 1969)

As the narrator admits at the outset this is more of an anecdote than a story. It concerns three American academics who are all specialists in Anglo-Saxon literature. It takes quite a while to explain because it is about a subtle psychological point which requires an explanation of the ‘politics’ in the English Department at the University of Texas.

A key figure in the department is the upright scion of a New England family Dr Ezra Winthrop. He has been helped in his editing of Anglo-Saxon texts by the able scholar Herbert Locke. A conference is coming up, in Wisconsin. Winthrop is advising the head of the department, Lee Rosenthal, who to send.

Recently the department has been joined by a naturalised American of Icelandic descent named Eric Einarsson. The text describes a series of publications he’s made, starting with a new edition of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon (which I have reviewed in this blog) then, only a few weeks before the conference, he publishes a long article in the Yale Philological Quarterly. The aim of the article is to attack the way Anglo-Saxon is taught in the department, which mainly focuses on Beowulf (which I have reviewed in this blog) which the article considers too long, confused but above all too refined and baroque a production to teach beginners.

Partly as a result of the article, Winthrop advises Rosenthal to choose Einarsson to represent the department at the forthcoming conference, rather than the loyal capable Locke. The story such as it is, boils down to the final and only real scene in the text, wherein Einarsson drops into Winthrop’s office to thank him for helping choose him to attend the conference – and then candidly lets Winthrop know how he engineered the decision. When he first met him, Einarsson was surprised that Winthrop, despite being a principled Northern, defended the South’s right to secede from the Union in the American civil war. Einarsson realised in a flash that Winthrop’s rigid Puritan morality made him bend over backwards to see the opposing point of view.

That is why he wrote a long article criticising the way the department teaches Anglo-Saxon. It was reverse psychology. He knew that Winthrop would bend over backwards to be fair so someone who had just attacked him, and choose Einarsson over loyal Locke. And that is just what happened. Low-key, eh? Subtle.

11. Avelino Arredondo (Montivideo 1897)

A peculiar story set in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, in 1897 during the civil war which ravaged the country. It tells of a man from the country, Avelino Arredondo, a little over 20, thin, shortish, poor. He is a part of a group of young men who meet at the Café del Globo. One day he tells them he is going away. He kisses goodbye to his girlfriend, Clementina, adieu to his friends, but instead of setting off to a distant town as he told everyone, he holes up in his little apartment, never going out or reading the papers, attended by an ancient servant who brings him his meals. All is aimed towards the morning of the twenty-fifth of August, which is months away and, because this date is mentioned several times, the reader naturally wonders what might happen. Because the slow passage of time and in fact the change in the subjective experience of time is mentioned several times, we wonder if this is a science fiction story and some fabulous transformation will take place.

Alas, no. Arrendondo wakes on the morning of 25 August, dresses, breakfast, then makes his way to the cathedral square just as a group of dignitaries are leaving morning Mass. He asks a bystander to point out the president of this wartorn country, Juan Idiarte Borda, then pulls out a revolver and shoots him dead. He belongs to the other side in the civil war (the Whites against the Reds). At his trial he is careful to emphasise that he has lived isolated from the world for months, having said goodbye to his girlfriends, all his acquaintances and not read a newspaper for months – all the more to bring out that this was an entirely existential decision by he and he alone.

12. The Disk (Anglo-Saxon England)

A wonderfully short and strange story. The narrator is a poor woodcutter. A stranger turns up at his hut. He gives him food and shelter. Next morning they go for a walk. When the stranger drops his staff he orders the woodcutter to pick it up. ‘Why?’ asks the woodcutter. ‘Because I am king,’ says the stranger, ‘I am of the line of Odin’. The woodcutter replies he is a Christian. The slightly mad old king says he can prove he is king by showing him the thing in his hand. He opens his fist. There is nothing there, but when the woodcutter tentatively puts out his finger he feels something cold and sees a glitter in the sunshine.

Here is the one spooky eerie detail which makes the whole thing cohere. The king tells him it is Odin’s disk and it has only one side. In all the world there is nothing else with only one side.

13. The Book of Sand

The narrator suffers from myopia, lives in a flat by himself. A tall stranger knocks on the door, he lets him in. He says he is from the Orkney Islands. He says he sells Bibles, The narrator replies that he already owns several English translations of the Bible (as you might expect). Then the salesman opens his case and gets out another book. He bought it off an illiterate Untouchable in India. It is called the Book of Sand because, like the desert, it has no end.

No matter where he opens it there seem to be more pages at the front and back. The pages bear fantastically large page numbers and it is impossible to find one again. They haggle about a price and the salesman parts with it for a monthly pension payment and the black letter Wycliff Bible, packs his case and leaves.

Only then are we treated to the slow possession the infinite book begins to exert over its owner. He stops going out, he devotes his life to trying to tabulate the content of the infinite book, he becomes paranoid, he hides is behind other volumes on his shelves, but he begins to realise it is driving him mad, he realises the bookseller came to him willing to get rid of it at almost any price.

One day he takes it along to the National Library (which Borges himself was Director of), slips past the staff, down into the dusty basement, and without paying too much attention to the rack or shelf or position slips it in among thousand of other anonymous volumes and quickly departs, as if from the scene of a crime.

Late style

Writers who live long enough often develop a recognisably late style. In these late stories Borges is closer to the ficciones of Labyrinths than he was in Dr Brodie’s Report – for a start they’re not all set in contemporary Argentina as most of those stories were; many return to the European settings or to the remote times and places of the ficciones, although he appears to show a fondness for rugged medieval pagan Europe more than the flashy worlds of Islam and China which attracted him in the ficciones. I know what he means. There’s something more genuinely weird and eerie and rebarbative about hearing one wolf howl in the great snowy Northern forests, than there is in seeing a thousand geniis pop out of a bottle or all the dragons of Chinese legend.

But it’s not so much the subject matter, it’s the treatment. The tales are more elliptical and elusive. Borges’s late style has learned to eschew flashy effects for something more subtle and lateral. I liked Ulrikke, The Mirror, Undr, A Weary Man because the inconsequentiality of the dream subject matter matches the flat obliquity of the style.

Is it the wisdom of age or the tiredness of age or the indifference of age? Or is it the result of Borges’s blindness? He never learned braille and dictated all his later works, having them read back to him and correcting them orally, a completely different method of composition from seeing the words you write, and re-seeing them, and seeing them again as you review over and over what you have written to give it not only a rhetorical flow but a visual styling, on the page. None of that here. All of that dense reworking, the temptation to be ‘baroque’, had departed along with his sight.

Was it all or any or a combination of these factors, or just a realisation that, after the metaphysical pyrotechnics of ficciones, it was on many levels more satisfying to play a subtler game, to create not the vaunting elephants and leaping tigers of a Salvador Dali painting, but the subtle understatement of a miniaturist. In the afterword Borges describes A Weary Man’s Utopia as the most ‘honest’ of the stories. In it the exhausted and ancient man of the future devotes his life to painting what appear to be modest, not very dramatic, and semi-abstract works.

I examined the canvases, stopping before the smallest one, which represented, or suggested, a sunset and which encompassed something infinite. ‘If you like it, you can have it as a keepsake of a future friend,’ he said matter-of-factly. I thanked him, but there were a few canvases that left me uneasy. I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Maybe that is an apt description of these stories, products of an old man, far advanced in his chosen craft, indifferent to praise or blame, making them for his own amusement, no longer impressed by the flashy effects of youth and middle age. Lucid and reflective.

I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Nearly… but not quite.


Related link

Borges reviews

Dr. Brodie’s Report by Jorge Luis Borges (1970)

In Buenos Aires anything can be fixed; someone always has a friend.

Paratexts

Borges was world famous and getting old by the time he came to compose the 11 short stories collected in Dr Brodie’s Report. They had all been recently published, either in 1969 or 1970 just as the author, born in 1899, was turning 70.

The book has a little gaggle of paratexts, namely a foreword, a preface and an afterword, in which Borges tells us that these stories were the first he’d written since 1953, after a 16 year hiatus in fiction writing – and it really shows in the drastic change of style and subject matter the stories in this collection exhibit compared with the metaphysical and brainteasing ficciones from the 1940s which made him famous.

Surprisingly, of all the authors in the world, Borges names Rudyard Kipling as his model for these stories, and not the later, very compressed Kipling, but the bright young thing of the 1888 collection Plain Tales From The Hills. (As it happens, I have read and reviewed all Rudyard Kipling’s many short stories so can vouch for the difference between the early and later Kipling.) Borges rather artlessly tells us he has tried to write stories in the same straightforward manner as early Kipling.

He calls the art of writing ‘mysterious’ (‘writing is nothing more than a guided dream’) and goes on to describe how a beginning or end of a story will come to him as he walks down a street in Buenos Aires but he has to wait for the middle to appear. More often than not, if he forces it, those are the weakest bits.

He mentions his politics (controversially right-wing) but emphasises that personal opinion is trivial and superficial; the process of creation taps into unconscious forces which are much deeper (a rule which could also be applied to Kipling’s highly controversial work).

Borges was 70 when the book was published. He tells us he has given up ‘the surprises inherent in a baroque style as well as the surprises that lead to an unforeseen ending. I have, in short, preferred to satisfy an expectation rather than to provide a startling shock.’ This is presumably what he means when he calls the stories ‘straightforward’, but still, none of these paratexts really prepare us for the complete change in subject matter, tone and style from his classic ficciones of the 1940s and 50s.

Instead of those weird and wonderful fantasies which play with mind-bending ideas of space and time and infinity and reality, these 11 stories are brutally realistic, sometimes macabre tales, of Buenos Aires hoodlums and gaucho lowlifes or, as he puts it in The Intruder:

a brief and tragic mirror of the character of those hard-bitten men living on the edge of Buenos Aires before the turn of the century

They are hard tales of tough slum dwellers without any of the bookish trappings, the scholarly references or the playful whimsy of his classic ficciones.

The stories

1. The Gospel According to Mark

In March 1928 failed medical student Baltasar Espinosa, a lifelong townie, is invited by his cousin to go and stay on a ranch, La Colorada ranch, in the southern part of the township of Junín. During his stay the local river floods and his cousin is called away on business. Baltasar is left with the three illiterate servant family, the Gutres. Illiterate and uneducated, They are in awe of him, treat him with great respect which turns to awe when he starts, out of pure boredom, every evening after dinner reading to them from a big old traditional Bible in the house. There is banging and nailing, there are mysterious sounds. One morning the simple-minded Gutres adults double check with Espinosa that Jesus let himself be crucified to save all humanity and then… seize Baltasar and take him out back of the house to crucify him on the cross they’ve been building!

Well, this story lacks all the characteristics of the classic Borges ficciones, the saturation with books, bookish references and high-flying metaphysical and philosophical ideas. And it certainly does bear a resemblance to the Rudyard Kipling who wrote a number of hauntingly macabre and horrifying stories. I liked it very much.

2. The Unworthy Friend

The narrator remembers when he used to visit the Buenos Aires Bookstore run by Santiago Fischbein. He remembers Fischbein once telling him an anecdote about when he himself was young, barely more than 15. He was taken into the circle of a local tough guy named Francisco Ferrari. He hero worshipped this tall Latin-looking cool dude who dressed all in black and was amazed when, after bumping into him a few times, Ferrari asked him to hang out in the saloon with all the other members of his gang. Eventually he is invited to take part in a break-in to a factory and told to be the lookout. The morning of the planned break-in he took a long tram journey downtown and reported the whole thing to the police, who were initially sceptical. But that night, when the gang are inside the warehouse, the police arrive quietly, having tethered their horses further down the road (their horses?), the narrator lets them slip into the warehouse without raising the alarm, then hears four shots. It wasn’t a gunfight, as he knows Ferrari and co. didn’t have guns. When the cops drag Ferrari’s corpse and that of his older mentor, don Eliseo Amaro, out of the building, the narrator realises it wasn’t an arrest, more an assassination, the settling of old scores.

3. The Duel

The very understated, barely detectable rivalry between two upper-class Argentine ladies, Clara Glencairn de Figueroa and Marta Pizarro, who both decided to become painters and remained friends despite their rivalry.

4. The End of the Duel

This is a grim, macabre and often barely understandable tale about two hardened gauchos, Manuel Cardoso and Carmen Silveira, who farm neighbouring land and, for any one of a number of reasons, become hardened rivals and enemies.

Until a civil war breaks out in 1870 and they fight for a while on one or other of the sides (it’s the reds versus the whites and, on a first reading, I became confused about who was who and why), the point being they are fellow soldiers on the same side, though their hatred continues unabated.

Anyway, the two rivals are on the white side, which loses a battle to the reds, and are both captured. The red officer in charge is one Captain Juan Patricio Nolan, who has a reputation as a prankster, and now he comes up with a weird and sadistic ‘prank’, which is to set them to run a race after they have had their throats cut. Got that? So they line up with all the red soldiers and white prisoners watching, then a couple of red soldiers step across and cut both their throats as Nolan tells them to start their race. Cardoso and Silveira run a handful of paces before both falling to the ground and bleeding their last into the dry dirt.

You call that a ‘prank’?

5. Rosendo’s Tale

Way back in his 1935 collection, A Universal History of Infamy, had included one ‘realistic’ story of Buenos Aires lowlife hoodlums, or gang members (insofar as that term applied to 1920s criminal gangs). That story was told through the point of view of a gang member who idolises their tough leader, Rosendo Juárez, and describes the puzzling events of a night when another hoodlum, nicknamed ‘the Butcher’, burst into a dance the gang were holding, and confronted their macho leader, Rosendo Juárez who, inexplicably, dropped his knife, failed to rise to the bait, and simply walked away.

Now, 35 years later, Borges publishes a story which gives Rosendo’s side of the story in a first-person narrative. In a nutshell, after a life devoted to becoming chief hard man and head of a gang, when he was confronted by the blustering bullying Butcher, he had a revelation, he realised he was looking in a mirror, he realised what he had become – and was disgusted, realised his whole life was revolting, dropped his knife, and simply walked out into the night never to come back.

Then something happened that nobody ever understood. In that big loudmouth I saw myself, the same as in a mirror, and it made me feel ashamed. I wasn’t scared; maybe if I’d been scared I’d have fought with him. I just stood there as if nothing happened.

The real puzzle here is why Borges bothered. To put it another way, it’s bewildering to think that Argentina’s literary world gave a damn about the earlier, quite difficult-to-follow, hard-to-believe and ultimately trivial story, to such an extent that everyone, including Borges, thought it worthwhile writing this sequel or alternative view.

6. The Intruder

Two lowlife brothers, Eduardo and Cristián Nilsen are hard-drinking, tall, red-haired stingy brawlers. One day Cristián brings home Juliana Burgos and, to cut a tedious story short, both brothers fall in love with her. Eventually, Cristián lets his brother ‘use’ her and they live as a threesome. But the brothers can’t help getting jealous of each other so one day sell her to a brothel. But then Cristián catches Eduardo slipping off some nights to the brothel to carry on boffing Juliana, so they buy her back and bring her home to be their servant and sex slave. Eventually Cristián murders Juliana and the brothers bury her body out in the country.

This story didn’t put me off Borges, a writer can write whatever they want, but it put me off the tone and feel of this book, and it put me off Argentinians a bit.

7. The Meeting

The case of nervous, dark-skinned Maneco Uriarte and tall, white-haired Duncan took place around 1910. The narrator is nine or ten and his cousin Lafinur takes him to a barbecue at a country house called The Laurels. There’s a fine barbecue, then an evening drinking which settles into a game of poker while the boy narrator goes exploring the big, strange house. The owner of the house comes across him and is just showing him his fine collection of knives (Argentinians and their knives).

But the sound of shouting interrupts him and takes them back to the main room where the poker players have got drunk and Uriarte is shouting that Duncan cheated him. The confrontation escalates, someone points out there’s a cabinet of ornamental knives nearby, the select one each and go out into the garden followed the the rest of the men who form a ring while the pair tentatively and then in earnest begin a knife fight which ends with Uriarte plunging his knife into the chest of Duncan who falls to the floor and dies.

Then there’s a little bit of the old Borges magic, a little bit of voodoo thinking. Years later Borges describes his memory to a chief of police who is able to identify the knives as having belonged, before this incident, to two famous rivals, almost as if… as if it was the knives who were destined to fight, not the men:

I began to wonder whether it was Maneco Uriarte who killed Duncan or whether in some uncanny way it could have been the weapons, not the men, which fought. I still remember how Uriarte’s hand shook when he first gripped his knife, and the same with Duncan, as though the knives were coming awake after a long sleep side by side in the cabinet.

8. Juan Muraña

For years Borges liked to tell people he grew up in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo, famous for knife fights and guitar playing (Argentines and their knives!). He sounds like an educated upper-middle-class kid who has a pathetic hero worship of street gangsters and hoodlums.

On a train journey he bumps into an old schoolfriend, Emilio Trápani, who has read his book about the poet Evaristo Carriego in which, apparently, ‘you’re talking about hoodlums all the time.’ Well, says, Trápani, he’ll tell him a story about a real hoodlum. Trápani tells him his mother’s sister married Muraña.

Of all the men around Palermo famous for handling a knife way back in the nineties, the one with the widest reputation was Muraña.

Knives knives knives. Maybe the book should have been titled Knife Fighters of Buenos Aires. And indeed this story is about yet another knife murder.

Trápani was a boy and barely understood his mother’s anxiety that they were about to be evicted from their apartment by the Italian landlord. His mad old aunt, who had been married to the notorious knifeman, Muraña, lives up in the attic. One day his mother takes Trápani to see the landlord, but they arrive to find a crowd and that he’s been stabbed to death. Only weeks later does the boy Trápani venture up into the attic where his mother’s mad widowed sister lives and from her ravings, suddenly realises that she did it but she blames it on her late husband’s knife. In fact she identifies the knife with her husband, and holds it out to the boy saying:

“Here he is. I knew he would never forsake me. In the whole world there hasn’t been another man like him. He didn’t let the gringo get out a word.”

And then a two-penny, ha-penny payoff.

Juan Muraña walked the familiar streets of my boyhood; I may have seen him many times, unawares. He was a man who knew what all men come to know, a man who tasted death and was afterward a knife, and is now the memory of a knife, and will tomorrow be oblivion—the oblivion that awaits us all.

The story itself is a bit spooky but these final lines are, I think, bathetic (meaning: ‘producing an unintentional effect of anticlimax’) because they are so entirely conventional and, almost, sentimental.

9. The Elder Lady

An extended memoir of a rather grand though not particularly well-educated old lady, Mrs. María Justina Rubio de Jáuregui, daughter of a hero Colonel Rubio of the civil war, who lived with her memories of a gladsome girlhood and a homestead with acres of land but, by the time Borges knew her, was restricted to a room in a suburban apartment. On her hundredth birthday, in 1941, there’s a big party, a minister attends, journalists cover it, there are grand speeches and champagne. That night she took to her bed and over the following days, calmly and dignifiedly died.

In the Afterword Borges frankly admits this was a portrait of a great-aunt of his.

10. Guayaquil

This story feels the closest to one of the ficciones in that it is spooky and eerie and takes place in the world of scholarship and academia.

Some letters have been discovered written by the great Simon Bolivar, Liberator of the continent of South America, among the papers of the scholar Dr. José Avellanos of the (fictional) nation of Estado Occidental. Most of them are run-of-the-mill except for one of them which gives Bolivar’s side of the momentous encounter between himself and the Argentine national hero General San Martín, at a place called Guayaquil, in which General San Martín renounced political ambition and left the destiny of South America in the hands of Bolívar.

The discoverer of the letters, Avellanos’s grandson Dr. Ricardo Avellanos, opposes his own country’s government so put the letters up for auction and the Argentine ambassador won them for the glory of his nation. The narrator is a reputable historian, who secures the backing of the National Academy of History and the relevant Ministry to be the official representative of Argentine who will fly to Estado Occidental to take receipt of the letters and then write the definitive scholarly paper about them.

However, the narrative opens soon after the narrator is surprised to be visited at his bookish home by another historian, Dr Zimmerman, who has been proposed by the University of Cordoba. Zimmerman is a refugee, having fled the Nazi takeover of Prague.

The meat of the story is that through a strange and obscure process which the narrator barely detects and cannot define, Zimmerman, although mild and retiring and perfectly polite, somehow manages to – not to persuade, that would be too explicit – to somehow manoeuvre the narrator into abandoning his journey and to sign a letter authorising Dr Zimmerman to fly to Estado Occidental as Argentina’s official representative.

There is mention of the Golem, the legend of the animated anthropomorphic being, which was defined in a novel by an author from Prague. For a flickering second we wonder if Borges is implying that… Zimmerman is the golem. But no…

At several other points Zimmerman invokes the name of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher who said the world as we know it is a product of our own unrelenting drives or Will. So… is he a demonstration of the power of this Will? Without violence, without threats, without any argument or even attempts at persuasion, he simply gets the narrator to do what he wants him to.

Or, (as Borges states in the Afterword) ‘if the reader is in a magical mood’, then the encounter of the two historians could be envisioned as a re-enactment of the confrontation between the two generals which the famous letter describes, in which General Martin inexplicably renounces his rights or ambitions to political power and leaves the way open for Bolivar. As the narrator finds himself inexplicably renouncing his scholarly ambition and leaving the path open for Zimmerman.

This is the most classically Borgesian of these stories, the most complex and subtle and, for that reason, haunting, but it echoes the theme of some of the other stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

11. Doctor Brodie’s Report

This is more like ficciones Borges. The narrator finds a manuscript tucked away in an old edition of Lane’s translation of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (London, 1839). He identifies the manuscript as written by a David Brodie, D.D., a Scottish missionary who worked first in central Africa and then transferred to the jungles of the Amazon.

It is a fragment which starts in the middle of his description of the super-primitive men he has found himself among, and who he calls the Yahoos. Obviously this name refers to the apemen found in Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels and the text’s method of systematically describing the Yahoos’ appearance, food, and their disgusting concept of royalty reminded me of H.G. Wells systematically describing the Eloi and the Morlochs or the society of the Selenites on the moon, or the Country of the Blind.

I have spoken of the queen and the king; I shall speak now of the witch doctors.

The point being that, even though many of the details are disgusting, the authorial tone is warm and reassuring, like being in an Edwardian wood-panelled room smelling of pipe tobacco, sitting in an ancient and absurdly comfortable sofa, listening to a beloved uncle telling a story.

And so the manuscript goes on, describing the Yahoos’ customs, their king and queen and four witch doctors and their amazingly primitive language. But the story lifts off when Brodie speculates that they might not always have been in this state of extreme degradation, but may be the wrecks of a degenerate nation, a hunch he thinks is confirmed by inscriptions he finds on the heights of the plateau adjoining the malarial swamps where the Yahoos now choose to live.

He describes his escape from the land of the Yahoos and journey to a settlement of blacks, who had a Catholic missionary, who nursed Brodie back to health. Many months later he found himself back in Glasgow where he composed this narrative and is still haunted by visions of the utter collapse of humanity which the Yahoos represent.

Algunos pensamientos

I suppose one way of thinking about the vast difference between Borges’s metaphysical ficciones of the 1940s and these ‘straightforward’ memories of knife fighters and crooks is that the ficciones represent Europe, are an extension of the bookish culture of European civilisation, while these stories are much more monotone, mostly realist accounts of Buenos Aires slums and lowlifes; except, that is, for The Gospel According to Mark which appals with its Edgar Allen Poe macabre-ness, and the final two stories which echo some of the metaphysical magic of the ficciones:

[As to the witch doctors] they are four, this number being the largest that their arithmetic spans. On their fingers they count thus: one, two, three, four, many. Infinity begins at the thumb…

This is the Borges of the 1940s, most of the other stories not at all. They’re not bad, but…

Eternal recurrence

One strong theme emerges from the four or five strongest stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

Thus in The Gospel According to Mark the crucifixion is re-enacted by illiterate peasants who barely understand its context or significance.

The Meeting and Juan Muraña are closely linked in the way that the knives at the centre of each story in some sense ’embody’ the characters of their previous owners, as if the knives are destined to carry on acting out certain types of knife-ish behaviour.

In an oblique way The Elder Lady is about a person who has lived on into her own afterlife, a symbol of events which are almost forgotten and have almost lost their meaning.

In Guayaquil Borges himself suggests that the two present-day historians of the story may be unknowingly re-enacting the drama of confrontation and renunciation first lived out by the two generals whose history they are studying.

And in the chilling Doctor Brodie’s Report the narrator suggests that even in their state of complete immiseration and illiterate, inarticulate degradation, the the people he calls the Yahoos might still retain echoes of social organisation, namely institutions such as the monarchy, a language of sorts, priests or witch doctors, poets and belief in an afterlife. As if the structures of civilisation echo and re-echo through the ages, no matter how degraded and meaningless they have become.

Naming the collection after this story and placing it at the end leaves a quite misleading aftertaste of Wellsian science fiction, of Conan Doyle wonderment, of Edwardian English adventure yarns quite utterly different from the very Latin American settings of almost all the other stories.


Related links

Borges reviews

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


Related links

Borges reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges (1935, revd. 1954)

The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable.
(Borges’s 1954 preface to A Universal History of Infamy)

Long ago

One thinks of Borges as a modern classic so it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn just how long ago he was writing. Born in 1899, Borges published his first book in 1923 and wrote steadily for the next 60 years (he died in 1986). In his long life he published an enormous number of volumes (‘In addition to short stories for which he is most noted, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays, literary criticism, and edited numerous anthologies’) and the Wikipedia bibliography lists 66 volumes of prose, poetry and essays, in total.

Which makes it all the more odd or unfair that he is still best known in the English-speaking world for more or less one volume, Labyrinths, and a handful of lesser works. Borges had published the following before we get to the book under review:

  • Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) poetry
  • Inquisiciones (1925) essays
  • Luna de Enfrente (1925) poetry
  • El tamaño de mi esperanza (1925) essays
  • El idioma de los argentinos (1928) essays
  • Cuaderno San Martín (1929) poetry
  • Evaristo Carriego (1930) essays
  • Discusión (1932) essays

You’d expect poetry from a starter author, but it’s notable that so many of these early volumes contain essays, in other words short prose explorations of ideas – about other authors, historical events or topics etc. It was for his short essays on imaginary or fantastical subjects that he was to become famous and A Universal History of Infamy, more or less the earliest work by Borges you can read in English translation, gives an indication why.

A Universal History of Infamy

A Universal History of Infamy is not, in fact, a universal history of infamy or anything like that ambitious. In reality it is much smaller in scope, and consists of:

  • seven ‘biographical essays’ – witty, ironic accounts of legendary bad guys and women from history who Borges ha cherry picked from his highly eclectic reading
  • one relatively straightforward short piece of fiction
  • eight summaries of stories or anecdotes he had come across in arcane sources and which attracted Borges for their fantastical or humorous aspects

Most of the essays had been published individually in the Argentine newspaper Crítica between 1933 and 1934. The 1934 collection was revised and three new stories added in the 1954 edition. There are two English translations of the book. The one I own dates from 1972 and was translated by Borges’s long-standing English translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni. The 2004 English edition gives the stories slightly different titles.

The title A Universal History of Infamy derives from the fact that the seven biographical essays are fictionalised accounts of real-life criminals. The textual sources for each biography are listed at the end of the book: for example, the essay about the Widow Ching cites a 1932 History of Piracy as its source,  the essay on Monk Eastman cites Herbert Asbury’s 1928 history of The Gangs of New York, the essay about Lazarus Morell cites Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, the one about Tom Castro cites the Encyclopedia Britannica as its source, and so on.

So the sources are a) not particularly recondite and b) they were often fairly recent to Borges’s time of writing, in some cases published only a year or so before Borges wrote his potted summaries.

That said, Borges treats his sources very freely, changing dates, incidents and even names as he fancied to make his fantasy biographies deliberately fanciful and untrustworthy.

Part 1. Seven infamy stories

So these are stories Borges found in other books during his wide and eclectic reading and which attracted him for their elements of the macabre or gruesome, and which he chose to retell, dropping or adding details as he saw fit.

The Dread Redeemer

Lazarus Morell is poor white trash who grew up on the banks of the Mississippi and as an adult comes to be a leader of crooks who devise the following scam: they persuade gullible black slaves to run away from their owners and allow themselves to be sold on by the Morell gang who promise to liberate them and share the proceeds of this sale. But they don’t. They have ‘liberated’ some 70 slaves in this manner until the gang is joined by Virgil Stewart, famous for his cruelty, who promptly betrays them to the authorities. Morell goes into hiding in a boarding house, then, after 5 days, shaves off his beard and makes an escape to round up what remains of his gang and try to create a mass uprising of the southern slaves and lead a takeover of the city of New Orleans. Instead he dies of a lung ailment in Natchez hospital in January 1835 under an assumed name.

This story is quite florid enough to satisfy anyone’s taste for the lurid and melodramatic. What tames and raises it from being a shilling shocker is Borges’s dry wit and irony.

Morell leading rebellions of blacks who dreamed of lynching him; Morell lynched by armies of blacks he dreamed of leading – it hurts me to confess that Mississippi history took advantage of neither of these splendid opportunities. Nor, contrary to all poetic justice (or poetic symmetry), did the river of his crimes become his grave.

We expected a grand finale? Sorry folks.

If Borges’s narrative ends playfully, it opens even more so, with Borges referencing Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas. Why? Because it was de las Casas who (apparently) had the bright idea of importing African slaves to work the silver mines of the newly discovered New World. Borges phrases this with characteristic irony (or is it facetiousness?)

In 1517, the Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas, taking great pity on the Indians who were languishing in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines, suggested to Charles V, king of Spain, a scheme for importing blacks, so that they might languish in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines.

That is an example of what you could call literal facetiousness, the repetition of the initial heartless description being so unexpected as to be funny. But it expands into a more grandiose type of joke as Borges does on to deliver an unexpected perspective on the results of de las Casas’ brainwave i.e. the vast and numerous consequences of the invention of African slavery, and proceeds to a mock encyclopedic list of some of its untold consequences, namely:

W. C. Handy’s blues; the Parisian success of the Uruguayan lawyer and painter of Negro genre, don Pedro Figari; the solid native prose of another Uruguayan, don Vicente Rossi, who traced the origin of the tango to Negroes; the mythological dimensions of Abraham Lincoln; the five hundred thousand dead of the Civil War and its three thousand three hundred millions spent in military pensions; the entrance of the verb ‘to lynch’ into the thirteenth edition of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy; King Vidor’s impetuous film Hallelujah; the lusty bayonet charge led by the Argentine captain Miguel Soler, at the head of his famous regiment of ‘Mulattoes and Blacks’, in the Uruguayan battle of Cerrito; the Negro killed by Martín Fierro; the deplorable Cuban rumba ‘The Peanut Vender’; the arrested, dungeon-ridden Napoleonism of Toussaint L’Ouverture; the cross and the snake of Haitian voodoo rites and the blood of goats whose throats were slit by the papaloi’s machete; the habanera, mother of the tango; another old Negro dance, of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the candombe.

The intellectual pleasure derives from the combination of mock scholarliness with the pleasing randomness of the examples selected. And not only surreal but – and this is an important part of Borges’s appeal – conveying an enormous sense of spaciousness; the sense of an enormously well-read mind, overflowing with wonderful facts and references, from the obvious to the fantastically recondite and abstruse. And that by reading along with Borges, we too, become as fantastically learned and knowledgeable as him.

If you like this kind of subject matter, and the dry ironical tone, then the world of unexpected and outré references is like a door opening in your mind, hundreds of doors, revealing all kinds of wonderful, mind and spirit enhancing vistas and possibilities.

Tom Castro, the Implausible Imposter

Arthur Orton was born in Wapping in 1834. He ran away to sea and resurfaced decades later in Sydney Australia where he had taken the name Tom Castro. Here he became friendly with a stately, clever black man, Ebenezer Bogle and the two set up as con-men. In 1854 a British steamer sank in the Atlantic and one of the passengers lost was slender, elegant Roger Charles Tichborne, heir to one of the greatest Roman Catholic families in England. His mother, Lady Tichborne, refused to believe he was dead and advertised widely throughout the colonies for his return. With wild and hilarious improbability Orton and Bogle decide to reply to her and claim that obese illiterate Tom Castro is in fact her slender, elegant aristocratic son…after some years of living in Australia!

Most of this is comic but Borges milks it for further comic ideas, such as the notion that it was the very outrageousness of the entire idea which gave Bogle and Orton confidence; the more ridiculous it seemed, the more emboldened they were to tough it out in the light of lawyers and Lady Tichborne’s heirs who violently rejected their claim. Very funny is the notion that so mad is Lady Tichborne to have her son restored that she will accept anything Orton says and so when he completely invents some tender childhood memories, Lady T immediately accepts them and makes them her own.

Finally, the relatives bring a trial where all is going well until Bogle meets his death at the hands of a passing hansom cab and Orton loses all his confidence. He is sentenced to 14 years in prison but, here again Borges emphasises the humour, pointing out that Orton so charmed his imprisoners that he was let off for good behaviour and then took to touring theatres giving a one-man show retelling his story.

It is typically Borgesian that, at each venue, Orton is described as starting out maintaining his innocence but often ends up pleading guilty depending on the mood of the audience.

A story, any story, about anything, is infinitely malleable.

The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate

China at the turn of the 18th century and the story of a redoubtable woman pirate who, when her husband Ching is killed in battle, takes over his pirate crew and leads them in 13 years of ‘systematic adventure’. The emperor sends one admiral against her, Admiral Kwo-lang, who she comprehensively defeats, and then leads her ‘six hundred war junks and forty thousand victorious pirates’ on devastating attacks on China’s seaboards. A second expedition is sent under one Ting-kwei. This one defeats Madame Ching who, on the night after a huge and bloody battle, has herself rowed over to the admiral’s ship, boards it and presents herself with the appropriately flowery oriental rhetoric: ‘the fox seeks the dragon’s wing.’ She was allowed to live and devoted her later years to the opium trade.

There is something immensely satisfying in the way Borges creates a scene, a historical period, its key characters and conveys a series of big events in just nine pages. More than that, the first page is devoted to two women pirates of the Western tradition, Mary Read and Anne Bonney, before we even get round to China.

Their speed and brevity, their exotic setting and subject matter, the tremendous confidence with which Borges cuts from scene to scene, zeroing in on key moments and one line of dialogue, and all told in a wonderfully humorous, often tongue-in-cheek style, make these bonne bouches immensely appetising and pleasurable.

Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities

Borges freely acknowledges his source for this narrative as Herbert Asbury’s 1928 volume The Gangs of New York, and gives a 2-page summary of some of the most notable hoodlums from New York’s Victorian underworld described in that book, before arriving at his potted biography of ‘Monk’ Eastman who is the subject of this narrative..

Born Edward Osterman, he was Jewish but grew into a ‘colossal’ and violent killer who lorded it over the goy underworld. He hired himself out as a hitman and led a violent gang. They were involved in a shootout so epic it became known as The Battle of Rivington Street, then a two-hour fistfight with the leader of the main rival gang, Paul Kelly, watched by a shouting crowd. He was repeatedly arrested and, after the final time, in 1917, decided to enlist in the US Army which had joined the war in Europe. This, like everything else in the story, is told with detached facetiousness:

We know that he violently disapproved of taking prisoners and that he once (with just his rifle butt) interfered with that deplorable practice…

On his return Monk quipped that ‘a number of little dance halls around the Bowery were a lot tougher than the war in Europe.’ He was found dead in an alley with five bullets in him. These throwaway endings, without any Victorian moralising, give them a Modernist, ‘so what’ aspect, a throwaway bluntness which contrasts vividly with the extreme scholarly punctiliousness about the sources.

The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan

Scenes from the life of William Harrigan aka Billy the Kid. For a start, it’s factually interesting to learn that Billy was a street hoodlum born in the very tough slums of New York before he headed out West. Borges amuses himself by assigning Billy’s life to different stages, namely:

  • The larval stage
  • Go West!
  • The Demolition of a Mexican
  • Deaths for Deaths’ Sake

He killed his first man aged 14. There’s a running joke that whenever Billy boasted about the number of men he killed he always added ‘not counting Mexicans’ who he held in utter contempt.

Borges’s wonderful fantasy-mindedness, the way he can introduce a mind-teasing idea into even the most obviously material occurs when he casually mentions that, despite his best efforts to turn himself into a hard-riding cowboy, Billy:

never completely matched his legend, but he kept getting closer and closer to it.

This implication that the legend of Billy the Kid existed before he began enacting it, and that he was fated to aspire to match his own legend… there is something wonderfully dizzying about this metaphysical-magical perspective, a dizzying magic metaphysical worldview which was to emerge more powerfully in his famous mid-career stories and excerpts.

The Insulting Master of Etiquette Kôtsuké no Suké

To be honest I didn’t understand this one, even after reading it twice. It’s set in Japan in 1702. An imperial envoy comes to stay with Asano Takumi no Kami who has been ‘trained’ by a rude and dismissive master of etiquette, Kira Kôtsuké no Suké. Asano was rude to the imperial envoy who, as a result, had him executed. Asano’s other retainers came to Kira Kôtsuké no Suké and told him, that since the error stemmed from his poor training of Asano, he should commit hara-kiri, but he refused and ran away and barricaded himself into a palace. Asano’s 47 retainers laid siege to the palace, broke in, discovered he had hidden, found him and killed him. That is why the story is sometimes called ‘The Learned History of the Forty-seven Retainers.

The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv

The story of Hakim, born in 736, who grows up to assume the identity of the Prophet of the Veil and establish a religion to rival Mohammed’s, by telling the impressionable that a messenger from God had come down from heaven, cut off his head and carried it up to heaven to receive a divine mission from Allah. He crystallises his position when, amid a crowded caravan, someone releases a leopard which Hakim appears to quell with the power of his eyes alone. He becomes the Veiled Prophet or Masked One and leads his followers to military victory, taking cities. He keeps a harem of one hundred and fourteen blind women.

He promulgated a belief system derived from the Christian Gnostics, namely that the world is a parody of Divine Reality, created by nine emanations from the original.

The world we live in is a mistake, a clumsy parody. Mirrors and fatherhood, because they multiply and confirm the parody, are abominations.

Five years into his rule, Hakim and his followers are besieged by the army of the Caliph when a rumour goes round from one of the women of his harem that his body has various imperfections. He is praying at a high altar when two of his captains tear away his permanent veil to reveal that Hakim bears the revolting disfigurements of the leper, and they promptly run him through with spears.

Part 2. A short story

Man on Pink Corner

This is a surprisingly poor short story and a good explanation of why Borges focused on writing his metaphysical-brainteasing essays rather than trying any attempt at conventional fiction. It’s the account of a street hoodlum, a junior member of a gang in the unfashionable poor north side of Buenos Aires, and a supposedly fateful night when he and his gang are at a dance hall when in crashes a massive hard man, Francisco Real, who muscles his way through the crowd to confront the head of the local gang, Rosendo Juárez, at which point, inexplicably, Rosendo backs down and Real takes his place as head honcho and steals his woman, La Lujanera.

I found a lot of this inconsequential, silly and hard to follow because nobody seemed to be obeying any rules of human nature I’m familiar with, Rosendo disappears, and Real takes La Lujanera outside, presumably to copulate with her in a ‘ditch’:

By then they were probably going at it in some ditch.

Our narrator wanders out to take the air then returns to the dance where old gang members and new gang members seem to be dancing happily. Then there’s a banging on the door, and in stumbles the huge bruiser Real with a big gash in his chest, collapses on the floor and bleeds to death. The hoodlums of both gangs strip him of his clothes, possibly rip open his guts and put out his intestines, cut off his finger to steal his ring, then chuck him out the window into the river Maldonado which flowed just outside.

In the final paragraph, the narrator mentions Borges’s own name as if he is recounting this story directly to him:

Then, Borges, I put my hand inside my vest – here by the left armpit, where I always carry it – and took my knife out again…

And in the last sentence implies that it was he, the narrator who, when he slipped out, managed to fatally stab Real – in which case why wasn’t there a description of this presumably fairly melodramatic scene, how did he manage to do it if Real was shagging La Lujanera in a ditch? How come La Lunajera didn’t point out our narrator to everyone in the hall as the murderer?

It seemed to me a collection of 1930s noir crime, lowlife clichés thrown together with no plausibility and no account of human psychology. Borges himself seemed bemused by the story’s popularity. Thank God he abandoned this mode of writing altogether in favour of his ‘baroque’ and mind-bending essays.

Part 3. Etcetera Etcetera

Being short 2 or 3-page excerpts from scholarly books which presumably struck Borges because of the surrealism or bizarreness or humour of their content. The excerpts are interesting or amusing or ghoulish in their own right, but what really impresses is the arcane nature of their sources, and the range of reading and learning they imply.

A Theologian in Death

From the Arcana Coelestis by Emanuel Swedenborg (1749 to 1756).

The Protestant theologian Philip Melancthon (1497 to 1560) dies and goes to heaven but doesn’t realise it because the angels recreate his worldly house and study, but pester him to write about charity. But Melancthon obstinately persists in writing that charity is unnecessary because, like a zealous Protestant, he believes we are justified by faith alone, with the result that the angels slowly degrade his house and even his own body, day by day he awakes in a further degenerated condition, till the last that’s heard of him he is ‘a kind of servant to demons.’

The Chamber of Statues

From The Thousand and One Nights numbers 271 and 272.

In the Andalucian city of Ceuta was a citadel with a door to which each successive king by tradition added a lock until a wicked man usurped the throne and, against the advice of holy men, insisted on ripping out the locks and opening the door to find what was inside and discovered a series of rooms containing wonders, the last of which contained an inscription saying whoever opened the door would be overthrown and, indeed, within a twelvemonth, the Arab leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad overthrew the usurper and sold his women and children into slavery.

Tale of the Two Dreamers

From The Thousand and One Nights number 351.

A merchant in Cairo falls asleep in his garden with a fountain and a fig tree and has a dream in which angels tell him to seek his fortune in Isfahan in Persia, so he sets off and after a gruelling journey facing numerous threats and natural disasters, finally arrives and falls asleep by a mosque, but that night a house next to the mosque is robbed, the owners raise the alarm, the stranger is apprehended thrown into prison and tortured before being brought before the captain who asks who he is and why he’s here. The merchant tells the story of his dream, and the captain laughs and says he also has a dream of a garden of a house in Cairo with a fig tree and treasure under the fountain but he knows it’s just a dream and has never acted on it. He lets the whipped merchant go, who returns to his house, digs under the fountain, and discovers a vast treasure.

The Wizard Postponed

From the Libro delos enxiemplos del Conde Lucanor at de Patronio (1335) by Juan Manuel.

A beguiling story in which a dean from Santiago, wanting to learn about magic, visits the noted magician Don Illán of Toledo and promises him anything if he will teach him magic so the Don takes him down into a cellar deep underground and submits him to a test, namely telescoping the next thirty years of their lives together, in which the Dean is blessed with a series of promotions within the Catholic church, ending up being elected Pope, and at each step of the way the newly promoted Dean puts him off until he tells the Don to stop bothering him or he’ll have him thrown in prison. At which point the entire future they’ve lived through disappears in a puff of smoke and the Dean finds himself standing in the deep cellar with Don Illán who says ‘told you so’, escorts him to the door and wishes him a pleasant journey home.

The Mirror of Ink

From The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860) by Richard Burton.

How the wizard Abd-er-Rahman al-Masmudi threw himself on the mercy of the tyrant of Sudan Yaqub the Ailing, who orders him every morning to show him visions and wonders, until one day al-Masmudi shows him a figure being dragged for execution. When Yaqub demands that the figure’s veil be taken off, it reveals his own face and he watches the executioner raise his great sword and, when it falls and severs the neck of the man in the vision, Yaqub the Ailing himself falls dead.

A Double for Mohammed

From Vera Cristiana Religio (1771) by Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Since the idea of Mohammed is so closely linked to religion in the minds of Muslims, Allah ensures that heaven is overseen by a kind of deputy or second Mohammed, whose identity actually varies. A community of Muslims was once incited by evil spirits to acclaim Mohammed as their God, so Allah brought the spirit of the actual Mohammed up from under the earth to instruct them.

The Generous Enemy

From the Anhang zur Heimskringla (1893) by H. Gering

In 1102 Magnus Barfod undertook to conquer Ireland. Muirchertach, King of Dublin, sends him a nine-line curse which, by roundabout means, ends up coming true.

On Exactitude in Science

From Travels of Praiseworthy Men (1658) by J.A. Suárez Miranda.

A fragment which tells of a magical empire where the geographers at first essayed maps so huge that the map of a single province covered the space of an entire city, and the map of the Empire itself an entire Province. These were eventually replaced by the ultimate map of the empire which was the same size as the Empire itself, and coincided with it point for point. Over the years it fell into neglect and now only a few tattered fragments survive in the Western Deserts, sheltering an occasional beast or beggar.


Borges’ approach

Bookish

The content of the seven infamy tales is lurid and melodramatic, with plenty of murders, assassinations, beheadings, shootouts and suicides. But they are all refracted through a highly bookish, ironic sensibility which does at least two things: 1. is careful to cite the sources of the story, in a parody of a learned or scholarly article, and 2. mocks the content of his own story with irony and knowing humour.

The first quality (showy concern with indicating sources) is most evident in the opening of The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv:

If I am not mistaken the chief sources of information concerning Mokanna, the Veiled (or, literally, Masked) Prophet of Khurasan, are only four in number: a) those passages from The History of the Caliphs culled by Baladhuri; b) The Giant’s Handbook, or Book of Precision and Revision, by the official historian of the Abbasids, Ibn abi Tahir Taifur; c) the Arabic codex entitled The Annihilation of the Rose, wherein we find a refutation of the abominable heresies of the Dark Rose, or Hidden Rose, which was the Prophet’s Holy Book; and d) some barely legible coins unearthed by the engineer Andrusov during excavations for the Trans-Caspian railway. (p.77)

‘If I am not mistaken’, that’s a nice touch. The effect of these kinds of learnèd references is to give the very pleasurable sense that you are entering the magical realm of books and stories. Not the everyday books we encounter in our lives or local bookshops, glossy gardening books or biographies of celebrity chefs or tedious accounts of adulteries in North London – but that we have been transported to the realm of old-fashioned stories, stories of extreme actions and derring-do and marvellous deeds in exotic settings.

Stories from our remembered childhood which fired our imaginations before we were forced to grow up and become sensible. It is a very old-fashioned tone and it’s no surprise that Borges, throughout his career, said he was early on inspired by the yarns of Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Exotic

This old-fashioned, bookish tone overlaps with the wonderfully exotic settings of many of the narratives: slave plantations of the Deep South; Australia; the China seas; 18th century Japan; the Wild West; 12th century Ireland; medieval Spain; medieval Persia.

In the first preface he mentions Robert Louis Stevenson as a source and you can feel Stevenson’s restless quest for exotic locations shared by Borges.

Intellectual themes

I hate to say it but probably one of the recurring tropes of the stories is (the currently modish theme of) ‘identity’. The seven historical characters freely change their names or have names assigned them by contemporaries or historians. Writing of Monk Eastman, he says:

These shifts of identity (as distressing as a masquerade, in which one is not quite certain who is who) omit his real name – presuming there is such a thing as a real name.

Aha. The most flagrant example is Tom Castro who has already changed his name once before he embarks on the criminal project of impersonating Roger Charles Tichborne, which leads to the sensational trial in which the nature of ‘identity’ is central.

Two prefaces

After the fact, Borges commented on his own stories in two prefaces, one written for the 1934 edition, one for 1954.

1934 preface

It’s only one page long and Borges admits that the stories stem, in part, from:

my rereadings of Stevenson and Chesterton, and also from Sternberg’s early films, and perhaps from a certain biography of Evaristo Carriego

combined with the over-use certain tricks:

random enumerations, sudden shifts of continuity, and the paring down of a man’s whole life to two or three scenes

I found it very interesting indeed that he casually says:

They are not, they do not try to be, psychological.

Traditional literature, and many short stories, focus on a psychological crux, a decisive moment in someone’s life, and investigate the ‘moral’ and psychological aspects of it. Borges consciously turns his back on that tradition and exploits his sources to create pen portraits which are not at all concerned with anyone’s inner life, but use the content as 1. entertainment, creating striking scenarios and tableaux, as if in paintings or – as he frequently remarks – like scenes from movies. In the 1954 preface he elaborates that:

The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable

They are intended to be all surface. That partly explains why they end so abruptly and with no moralising whatsoever: to emphasise their shiny metallic surfaceness.

2. What Borges doesn’t mention is that the stories are also quite clearly used as starting points for ironic and amused meditations on ideas, the more metaphysical and paradoxical the better. And that this was a harbinger of the work which was to come later.

1954 preface

The 1954 preface is twice as long as the 1934 one, being an extravagant 2 pages in length. Borges immediately launches into a consideration of ‘the baroque’, claiming it is a style:

which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody… [that] only too obviously exhibits or overdoes its own tricks.

He goes on to link this to a fundamentally comic worldview:

The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has stated that all intellectual labour is essentially humorous.

I disagree. Having attended a big London exhibition about The Baroque I took away the strong conviction that the Baroque is about Power, the Complete Power of supreme monarchs and/or the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church in Italy. Apart from anything else, Baroque works of art and churches are massive and imposing whereas, if Borges is anything, he is a precise miniaturist. He is more like a Swiss watchmaker than a Baroque architect.

But we are not reading Borges for accurate scholarship, in fact the precise opposite, we are reading him for his whimsical playing fast and loose with facts and figures and ideas for our amusement, an attitude he makes explicit when he writes that the stories are:

the irresponsible sport of a shy sort of man who could not bring himself to write short stories, and so amused himself by changing and distorting (sometimes without aesthetic justification) the stories of others.

He may be accurate in invoking the idea of the Baroque to indicate an interest in following every detail or narrative possibility to its logical conclusion, in the compulsive inclusion of every finial and architectural flourish possible. But his work is at the opposite end of the scale from the Baroque. And the Baroque is deadly serious, whereas Borges’s work is informed above all by a dry, metaphysical humour, that comes from somewhere else. That is Borges’s invention, filtered through the gentlemanly, bookish, ironic tone of the late Victorian British authors he loved.

Literary influence

Apparently (or, as Borges might write, ‘If I am not mistaken’) the Puerto Rican critic Angel Flores (1900 to 1994) was the first person to use the term ‘magical realism’ and dated the start of the Magical Realist movement from this book.

This is echoed by the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition which claims that Borges intended the stories simply to be light entertainments, newspaper squibs:

‘yet after its appearance in 1935 its influence on the fiction of Latin America was so profound that its publication date became a landmark in the history of Latin American literature.’


Related links

Borges reviews

Science fiction blog posts

A chronological list of reviews of science fiction novels, short stories or other sci fi-related material which I have reviewed.

Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000 to 1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment

1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen
1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting the resulting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating what is in effect a peaceful transition to a communitarian socialist society, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the events
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel against the system
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold
(1973) The Best of John Wyndham 1932-1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – having survived his journey to Mars, Ransom is now sent to Perelandra (aka Venus) to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s innocent young inhabitants to a new Fall
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of ‘the Party’, who are kept under unremitting surveillance by Big Brother

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – one night the sky is full of green flashing lights as the earth passes through the fragments of a comet and the next day the entire population awakes to find itself blinded, all except for a tiny handful of survivors who have to preserve human society while fighting off the growing numbers of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation, set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon, as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships, attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, the tale of a psychiatrist who projects the same romantic fantasy into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a dry run for The Chrysalids set in a post-disaster future
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by lingering radiation; but as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, and soon he and his mind-melding friends are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology, which together allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – the Chung-Li virus kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) leading to a global famine, so civil engineer John Custance has to lead his wife, two children and a small group of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism towards the farm owned by his brother David in a remote valley in Westmoreland, where they can grow root crops and defend themselves
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – ten stories of travel in time and space in which, despite the 1950s phrasing, women tend again and again to be presented as the stronger, more resourceful sex
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with eerily platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which almost immediately begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke –a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a few centuries hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like mothers into whose body a twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, millions of years ago, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The World in Winter by John Christopher – the amount of radiation/heat emitted by the sun declines, not totally but enough to plunge the temperate zones, specifically northern Europe, into a new ice age, and so all Europeans who are able to, flee to Africa, where the novel acquires black characters, who accompany the main protagonist on a colonising expedition back to frozen England – all intertwined with the tangled love affairs of two middle-class couples
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1965 A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher – more than a mere earthquake, a cataclysmic upheaval of the earth’s surface raises the English Channel so that it drains of water, destroys all human edifices, killing most people in their homes as they sleep, leaving a handful of survivors including Matthew Cotter, a Guernsey horticulturalist, who sets off on a long and gruelling quest across the ruined land- and seascape to find his daughter who had been at university in Sussex, accompanied by young Billy Tullis, as they encounter other survivors, decent, mad and psychotic
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quiet suburb.
1967 The White Mountains by John Christopher – It is a hundred years or more in the future and the tripods have conquered the earth, implanting humans with ‘caps’ at age 14, which render them docile and obedient; society has reverted to a medieval level of agriculture with lords of the manor, knights and jousting tournaments; 13-year-old Will Parker is looking forward to his own ‘capping’ ceremony till his eyes are opened by a wandering evangelist who persuades him to run away from home and undertake a gruelling journey south, to the White Mountains, where free men are planning resistance to their tripod overlords
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey – a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew, the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple, starts talking to a voice he hears in his head, who it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents is a real entity, a psychic explorer from a far distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes, in the style of a scientific report or official inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and samples taken to a top secret US containment centre, where things go disastrously wrong
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces Vonnegut’s laconic catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough background radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe, in one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – in my opinion Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together the author’s key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1970 The Guardians by John Christopher – a young adult novel: it is 2052 and England is divided into two societies, the modern, overpopulated ‘Conurbs’ and the aristocratic and sparsely populated ‘County’, separated by the ‘Barrier’: 13-year-old Rob Randall lives in a block of flats in the Conurbs but, when his father dies, he is sent to a state boarding school where he is bullied, so makes the momentous decision to escape to the County; here he is taken up by a landed family and begins to settle into a new life until he stumbles across a conspiracy to overthrow the existing order
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the pornographic possibilities of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about environmentalism, sex, race, America, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in an event referred to as ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of an abandoned Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river, accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the ensuing chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former planet Jupiter, in a cheesy ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age – eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards in a entirely science fiction-free murder mystery thriller
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time ‘Count Zero’ from the previous book in the trilogy; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a leading character from the first in the series, Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction but some interesting formal experiments, like Answers To a Questionnaire where the reader has to deduce the questions and the context just from the answers to a questionnaire
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second of the Bridge Trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo to meet her pop hearth throb and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 John Christopher on the changing face of science fiction – namely how how the naive excitement about travel round the solar system, which characterised the 1930s, was slowly disillusioned, giving way to earth-bound stories of disaster
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency, Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru and heavy hitter Hubertus Bigend, joined by Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, as they both hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – Second in the so-called Blue Ant trilogy, named after the advertising agency run by advertising exec and new media guru Hubertus Bigend. Hollis Harris was a singer in a rock band, now she’s trying to make it as a journalist but a routine gig interviewing a Los Angeles ‘geospatial artist’ snags her into a complex conspiracy involving renegade security operatives who are working against each other in a hectic race to track down a shipping container full of illicit loot, involving a kidnapped drug addict and a family of spies from Cuba who use the pagan gods
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), sprinkles insightful comments about science fiction, but the book is dominated by moving expressions of love for his three children

2010s

2010 Zero History by William Gibson – third in the Blue Ant trilogy of novels, set mostly in London and featuring key characters from Spook Country, namely rock singer-turned journalist, Hollis Henry and reformed drug addict Milgrim, commissioned by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend to track down the mysterious designer of fashion brand Gabriel Hounds
2011 A Man of Parts by David Lodge – a long (560 page) novel describing H.G. Wells at the end of his life looking back over his long career and colourful sex life
2019 Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns – a really beautiful biography of a surprisingly sensitive, loving man who not only created 3 or 4 of the best British science fiction novels since the war but whose fictions also depict a series of strong independent women, who, Binns reveals, were all based on his lifelong partner Grace Wilson

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969)

The human body is one of the dirtiest things in the known universe (p.116)

Michael Crichton

I’ve no idea what Crichton was like as a man but I admire his phenomenal success as a writer of popular techno-thrillers. If you’re going to entertain, then you might as well do it as effectively as possible. Ever since I learned about it years ago, I’ve been impressed by what will probably be a unique feat that no-one will ever match, namely that in 1994 Crichton was, simultaneously, the writer of America’s number one movie, Jurassic Park, was the creator and producer of America’s number one TV show, ER, and had a book at number one in the bestseller list, Disclosure.

What an amazing achievement and indicator of the practical skills of a man who was not only an author and scriptwriter, but who produced and directed movies himself, as well as creating and exec producing hit TV series.

The Andromeda Strain

Right back at the start of his career, young Michael (born 1942), was 26 when he published this, the first novel to appear under his own name (a few had appeared under pseudonyms). It announces a major talent, not so much in the plot – space probe returns to earth carrying a deadly virus is the same as, say, The Quatermass Experiment – but in the thoroughness and the verisimilitude of the scientific and administrative framework he presents the story in.

The story begins by describing the arrival of a two-man recovery team (Lieutenant Shawn and Private Lewis Crane) to retrieve a space probe which has crash landed on the small town of Piedmont in Arizona (population 48). They’re in the middle of doing so when their radio message back to base is dramatically cut short. Alerts are transmitted up the chain of command until five scientists who have been kept on standby for just such an emergency are each visited at home in the middle of the night by dark-suited security officials, asked to accompany them immediately in unmarked cars to military airports and flown to the top secret biohazard unit in the Nevada desert which has been painstakingly constructed for just such an emergency, under the codename Project Wildfire.

The scientists are:

  • Dr. Jeremy Stone: Professor and chair of the bacteriology department at Stanford University, fictitiously the winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  • Dr. Charles Burton, 54 (p.61) Professor of Pathology at the Baylor College of Medicine, ‘nervous, jumpy, petulant’, nicknamed the Stumbler (p.54)
  • Dr. Peter Leavitt ‘superb clinical bacteriologist’ (p.59) who suffers from epilepsy, ‘an irritating, grumbling, heavyset man’ (p.54)
  • Dr. Mark Hall, surgeon
  • Professor Christian Kirke, who never makes an appearance because he’s in hospital for appendicitis

The plot then follows the scientists’ race against time to identify the weird extra-terrestrial virus and try to find a cure. The breakneck plot builds up to a climax when there’s a breach in biosecurity at the Wildfire centre with the result so that the virus gets loose among our heroes, and there’s a race against time to prevent its spread… with a novel twist at the very end.

So much for the thrilling plot, but what really distinguishes the text, and makes Crichton’s debut stand out, is the enormous amount of scientific, technical and administrative content.

Organisations

For example, the book is packed with dense and authoritative-sounding explanations of the umpteen different branches of the US military, space agency and security services which were involved in the research, commissioning, financing and building of the biohazard centre, including:

  • Vandenberg Scoop Mission Control
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • the Wildfire facility is built by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics
  • the Army Medical Corps, Chemical and Biological Warfare Division
  • the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee
  • the Goddard Spaceflight Centre
  • the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee

Official documentation

Lots of pages of the text consist of ‘copies’ or apparent photostats of official documents, procedures, maps, computer projections and so on, for example a photocopy of the original letter written by concerned scientists to the President of the United States suggesting the creation of a quarantined biohazard centre. It was here, right back at the start of the project, that the scientists included the controversial suggestion of having a small thermonuclear device onsite, which could be detonated if the infection gets out of control (under Directive 7-12, codename Cautery).

In fact soon after Stone and Burton have investigated the town (wearing tip-top latest biohazard suits) and discover an old man still alive and a screaming baby and retrieve them into a helicopter and take them back to the Wildfire centre, Piedmont is itself destroyed by a small nuclear weapon (p.114).

Scientific references

Then, complementing the detailed descriptions of security organisations there is the science itself. It includes references to:

  • a fictional study by J.J. Merrick an English biophysicist on the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life and the probability of it being single-cell life
  • a study by the Hudson Institute on the likely outcome of various scenarios around an alien infection outbreak and the impact of detonating a nuclear weapon to obliterate it (p.87)
  • a two-page study complete with statistical analysis, of the Odd Man Out Hypothesis
  • a study by Rudolph Karp who established there are life forms on meteors and asteroids (p.130)
  • the Vector Three report which identified three possible sources for extra-terrestrial bacteria
  • the Messenger Theory of John R. Samuels i.e. that an intelligent civilisation on another planet might choose to communicate not by sending radio or TV signals but sending out tough microforms of life which can recombine if they ever arrive somewhere inhabitable (p.228)
  • a 274-page report on Project Wildfire, highlights of which Dr Hall has to read;  through to detailed descriptions of American military research into chemical and biological weaponry, with lists of the major research universities involved and some of the papers produced on the subject:

Few Americans, Stone knew, were aware of the magnitude of the US research into chemical and biological warfare.

History of the science into the 1960s

Crichton spends time giving us some background on the development of science up till the 1960s: in particular how before, during and after the war, most expensive research focused on physics, in particular nuclear physics. But how, with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, biology had exploded as a field of interest.

He gives us digressions on the nature of biology itself – ‘the only science which cannot define its subject matter’ because there is no agreed definition of LIFE. On the types of animals used in bio experiments – rats, monkeys, pigs – (p.146) or the large range of growth media used in laboratories (p.163). And an explanation for laymen of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the billions of bacteria we host, which leads on to a detailed explanation of the drawbacks which would occur if a wonderdrug were discovered which killed off all bacteria and viruses. In fact Crichton goes to the trouble of inventing a wonderdrug, Kalocin, for the purpose of the book which does just that – kills off all bacteria, viruses, fungi etc which inhabit the human body with the result that… all the human patients died (p.266). We need the bacteria which infest our bodies.

Man lives in a sea of bacteria (p.167)

Hard technology

And then there is the technology, which includes (obviously) the rocket technology used to launch the ill-fated space probe; NASA’s network of monitoring stations around the earth; and the technology used within the Wildfire biohazard installation, including state of the art sterilisation processes, spectrometers, amino-acid analysers, the microtome, the X-ray crystallographer, the electron microscope (a BVJ model JJ-42), Fourier electron-density scans and so on. He gives an explanation of why an electron microscope is better than a light one, as explained by one of its inventors (p.255).

Computers

Then there are computer diagnostics and computers in general. Crichton patiently explains to the 1969 reader that computers are capable of doing many tasks much faster than people! I’m always struck to be reminded just how long computers have been around and enthusiasts have been promising that they will change the world.

Commission of enquiry

All of this heavily factual material is organised as if in a report written up after the crisis was over and as the result of an inquiry into how it was handled. Thus the narrative itself contains mention of where the team made crucial mistakes.

  • It is a peculiarity of the Wildfire team that, despite the individual brilliance of the team members, the group grossly misjudged their information at several points. (p.243)
  • This was a most unfortunate decision, for had they examined the [growth] media, they would have seen that their thinking had already gone astray, and that they were on the wrong track. (p.250)

Scientific results

And the text includes numerous scientific illustrations, for example computer readouts of autopsies, chemical analyses of blood, a scanner printout from a ‘photoelectric eye’ that examined the growth media, an early sketch of the hexagonal structure of the Andromeda Strain, electron-density mapping of a sample of the strain – all carefully credited to Project Wildfire, as in a scientific paper.

The text is followed by four pages of finely printed references, mixing up genuine studies of extra-terrestrial life and biology with papers by the fictional characters in the novel.

Bureaucratic tone set in the preface

This approach, the pose that the entire text is an after-the-fact report, starts in the author’s preface, usually a place where the author is candid with the reader, but in this case Crichton presents himself as an investigator into the events surrounding the breakout, and gives copious thanks to numerous military officials who are entirely fictitious and are clearly part of the fictional cast, as if they were real figures.

The effect is partly to give the text verisimilitude but also allows him to do the standard thriller strategy of anticipating mistakes and accidents and disasters to come without going into detail and so making you impatient to read the full story itself.

Same happens when he describes the experiments the scientists carry out in the Wildfire lab and highlights their mistakes with phrases like ‘Only later would it become clear that…’ or ‘That was his first mistake…’, ‘It would be forty eight hours until he realised his error…’ (p.173)

Taken together, it’s all these tactics which give the novel its authoritative air and which, in turn makes the biological crisis all the more scary, and then the security breach at the centre all the more nailbiting.

Plot summary

By the end you realise that without all the images and diagrams and facts and figures in report format, and without the digressions about biology and computers, the book would have been significantly shorter, and the simpleness of the story much more apparent. Here is a barebones plot summary:

  • a space probe infected with alien life form crash lands near small town in Arizona, Piedmont
  • almost everyone in town dies almost immediately with weird symptoms, namely their blood congeals to powder
  • except two survivors, an old man and a screaming baby
  • they’re brought to a brand new hi-tech biohazard facility named after the project Wildfire where – after a thorough history of the thinking behind the centre, how it was researched, signed off, designed and built – the four scientists central to the story run a series of tests whose results are discussed at length, and engage in high-level speculations about the origin and form of the entity
  • there are several apparently unrelated incidents, mainly the crash of an air force jet which was flying high through airspace over Piedmont; crash investigators confirm the pilot’s last message which claimed that all the plane’s rubber hosing and casing was turning to powder
  • meanwhile the scientists have established that the Andromeda Strain, as it’s been named, consists of perfectly hexagonal crystals which replicate with amazing speed, and feed off pure energy, leaving no waste products
  • one of the scientists, the doctor, finally puts all the pieces of the jigsaw together and realises that the baby and the old man didn’t die because their blood PHs were abnormal, the old man because he was a diabetic, the baby because its continual crying acidated its blood – the Andromeda Strain only replicates within a narrow PH band
  • at just this moment the alarm goes off inside the bio centre indicating a seal has been broken sealing off the containment area, triggering the alarm and the countdown
  • countdown? yes, because throughout the novel we’ve been told that the Wildfire station has at its heart a thermonuclear device which will automatically detonate if there is a security leak – now the alarm bells go off, the red lights start flashing, all the big metal security doors slam shut and a nice lady’s voice starts counting down; they have three minutes before the bomb detonates!!
  • the thing is, it’s only been in the last hour or so that the scientists have realised that the strain feeds off pure light or energy – in other words, a nuclear explosion, far from wiping the virus out, will cause it to replicate a trillion-fold and spread all over America!!!
  • now, there is a failsafe, the nuclear countdown can be halted: the biohazard centre is dotted with light switch-sized sockets into which a metal key must be inserted to countermand the nuclear countdown, BUT the security doors clanging shut have sealed Dr Stone and Dr Hall off from any of these units – oops
  • which leads to the most famous passage in the book, and the movie based on it, when Dr Hall has to make his way through air ducts into the central circular core of the installation and climb up it to the next level, despite the fact that, given the security breach a) the central core is flooding with poison gas and b) remote control darts fire poisoned arrows at anything moving i.e. him
  • these last few pages are grippingly described as Hall tries to climb the ladder up inside the central shaft, despite becoming woozier and woozier, poisoned by the gas and hit by the poisoned darts, till he crashes through the door into the level above and staggers, almost unconscious to the nearest security point, inserts the key and turns it, then blacks out!!

Payoff

The virus mutates into a harmless form. Wind carries air from the now-leaking bio-hazard lab over Los Angeles but nothing at all happens. Lead scientist Stone speculates that a) it has mutated to a non-fatal form, as indicated by the way it had started eating rubber and plastic instead of human blood, and b) disliking oxygen rich environments (which earlier tests had established), it is likely to migrate upwards out of the atmosphere.

And that is the explanation for the brief two-page epilogue in which we learn that a recent manned space flight (Andros V) crash-lands killing all the crew. In an interview with journalists, the head of the program reveals the crash had something do with the failure of plastic safety shields. The journalists don’t know it, but we the readers know that this is proof that the Andromeda Strain has indeed gravitated away from the unfriendly oxygen-rich atmosphere of earth up to the troposphere – and the book ends with the threat that it might, possibly, remain there for ever, preventing the passage through it of any machines which contain rubber or plastic…

The IPCRESS connection

It’s fascinating to learn from Wikipedia that Crichton was heavily indebted to Len Deighton’s debut novel The IPCRESS File which was published in 1962 and which Crichton read on a visit to Britain.

The Deighton novel is also written in the style of an official report and recreates the often dull bureaucratic paperwork surrounding spying; the title itself indicates that the entire thing should be read as an official report.

Same with Andromeda which, on the pre-text pages, carries instructions as for an official file, which state: ‘THIS FILE IS CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET and that the ‘receiver’ of the file must first show his identity card to the courier.

All great boyish fun. I wonder if Crichton ever told Deighton about his indebtedness to him. I wonder what Deighton made of it.

Crystals

It’s interesting that the Andromeda Strain of virus turns out to be a perfect crystal and that one of the scientists is known for printing papers speculating that life on earth began as crystals (p.226). Because this is a genuine theory and is well expressed in the 1985 book, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985), which I read and reviewed not too long ago.

The movie

In 1971 The Andromeda Strain was made into a movie directed by Robert Wise and starring Arthur Hill as Stone, James Olson as Hall, Kate Reid as Leavitt (changed to a female character, Ruth Leavitt), and David Wayne as Dutton (Burton in the novel). A lot of its appeal is due to the fact it was low budget and not dominated by well-known Hollywood names, lending it an extra soupcon of credibility. I saw it as a kid and loved it.


Credit

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton was published Knopf in American in 1969. All references are to the 1993 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

Zero History by William Gibson (2010)

Zero History is a 400-page novel about has-been rock stars and pretentious advertising executives in search of a reclusive designer of ‘really cool’ jeans and jackets. It is mind-bogglingly shallow, pretentious and boring.

Zero History is the third novel in William Gibson’s so-called ‘Blue Ant trilogy’, itself the third of Gibson’s three trilogies of novels. It’s even more disappointing than Spook Country and rotates round the same kind of lame ideas: the central figure is ex-rock singer Hollis Henry who’s continually interacting with her super ‘cool’ former bandmates. She gets paired up with Milgrim, the reformed drug addict who we met in the previous novel, both being sent on a wild goose chase to track down the creator of the mysterious ‘Gabriel Hounds’ brand of jeans by the ‘genius’ advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

We know Bigend is a genius because all the characters tell us so.

  • ‘His grasp of contradiction is brilliantly subversive.’ (p.269)
  • ‘He has a kind of dire gravity. You need to get further away.’ (p.337)
  • ‘He’s like some peculiar force of nature. Not a safe one to be around.’ (p.346)

Thus the text, despite its often zingy and effective prose style in details, overall consists of lots of lame references to the ‘cool’ rock world and the ‘cool’ world of fashion and stale clichés about advertising, all struggling to support a plot which goes beyond the disappointing denouements of the previous two novels into new realms of the genuinely asinine.

Half way through, Zero History gets bored of its own fatuous storyline and switches from being a ‘quest’ for the jeans designer to a hostage thriller. By the time the legendary jeans designer is, in fact, tracked down, in the final passages of the book, nobody cares because the novel has unexpectedly morphed into a Die Hard movie.

Advertising

The owner of the Blue Ant advertising agency, the preposterously named Hubertus Bigend, is treated as some kind of advertising / communications / sociology guru, despite the fact that, whenever we actually get to hear any of the Great Man’s thoughts, they amount to recycling tiresome ad-man bullshit. As he explains to ex-rock singer Hollis Henry, who he is giving another ‘mission’:

We aren’t just an advertising agency. I’m sure you know that. We do brand vision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.’ (p.21)

Hmm. Just like every other modern advertising agency, then. He goes on to tell Hollis that he is always looking for the next big thing, that he is in quest of ‘the edge’, always trying to catch the next big wave (p.24). Well, no shit Sherlock; what corporation, bank, company, fashion house, publishing company, art gallery or music label in our rabidly consumerist society isn’t trying to do exactly the same thing? That’s not a bold vision, it’s the default setting of the entire world we live in.

This is all dressed up on page 177 as Bigend’s quest for the mysterious ‘order flow’, the flow of all the world’s information about everything, something which Bigend (megalomaniacally) wants to possess. In the end he’s just a reincarnation of Dr No or Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, only not actually evil, barely even amoral. A neutered baddie. A tamed megalomaniac.

Rock band chic

As to rock band chic, it plays a central role in this novel, not because anyone makes any actual music, but because Gibson thinks it’s ‘cool’ to write about people who were in rock bands. He seems to be aiming the book at the kind of middle-aged dads who read Rolling Stone magazine or watch BBC4 documentaries about Classic Rock Albums. Ageing, would-be hipsters who still wear jeans and black leather jackets as they approach pension age. In their heads they’re still their speed-snorting, dope-smoking crazy selves from the 1970s and 80s but to everyone else they’re Derek the head of IT who really shouldn’t be wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt at his age. Or Jeremy Clarkson.

Thus the lead character is a young woman (as in so many of Gibson’s novels), Hollis Henry, who was lead singer in the now defunct rock band The Curfew. She’s turning 30 (i.e. half Gibson’s age when this book was published) and is now trying to make her way as a freelance journalist.

In the previous novel, Spook Country, Hollis was commissioned to write a piece about ‘locative art’ (3D holograms of dead rock stars which are located at strategic places around Los Angeles and can only be seen if you use a set of video headgear) for a magazine which turned out to be a front for Hubertus Bigend’s endless curiosity, a way for him to employ pretty young women to investigate subjects which take his fancy (bit creepy, eh?).

‘I’m a curious person,’ said Bigend, ‘and can afford to satisfy my curiosity.’ (p.67)

(Bigend’s super-PA and fixer is Pamela Mainwaring who is, according to the narrator, ‘a very tasteful pornographer’s idea of “mature”‘, p.40. That’s a bit creepy. And see the throwaway reveal at the very end of the story, below.)

The novel opens with Hollis staying in a fabulously retro hotel in London, but the point of the ‘rock’ connection is that almost immediately she is interacting with her old bandmates, short balding English guitarist Reg Inchmale, who is in Soho producing a new album by another fictional band, The Bollards, and the Curfew’s feisty, not to say pain-in-the-ass, former drummer, Heidi Hyde, ‘her hair dyed goth black’ (p.49), who swears all the time (‘You said he was bugfuck,’ p.136).

Not only this but Hollis hooks up with members of other rock bands she knew when she was part of the rock scene and they have conversations about being in a rock band and the rigours of touring, staying in a new hotel every night, the drugs, the band tensions, oh man, it’s so tough being a rock star. We hear about an Icelandic duo Eydis and Frederika Brandsdottir who make up the band The Dottirs. About another band named The Stokers (p.156).

The rock world ambience is enhanced by a steady drip of casual references which seem to go out of their way to refer to really ancient rock acts and the long-ago world of the late 1960s or 70s. Thus Heidi Hyde describes the wallpaper at her fancy London boutique hotel as like a pair of ‘Hendrix’s pants’. Later Fiona the motorbike courier defines a piece of music by explaining that its maker listened to Jimi as a boy (pages 305, 349). Now Jimi Hendrix, flourished 1967 to 1970. This book was published in 2010, 40 years later. Then we have the fact that one of the first pieces of ‘locative art’ was a 3D hologram of Jim Morrison, lead singer with the Doors, died in 1971. 50 years ago. Phil Spector is referred to (p.307), career peak 1960s and early 70s. On page 321 Voytek quotes Bob Dylan, but not 1990s Bob Dylan, instead the 1967  song ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’.

It’s this kind of thing which makes me think Gibson is aiming his novels at what you might call the American mainstream rock tradition, at ageing ‘hipsters’ who carry on writing and reading magazines like Rolling Stone, and who think writing or reading articles about Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and the Doors and the Who is still ‘cool’.

What I don’t understand is that critics queue up on the covers of this book to describe Gibson as the master novelist we need now, describing him as a ‘prophet’, as capturing ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ (Cory Doctorow), as an ‘astounding architect of cool’ (The Spectator) and yet it is a plain fact that Gibson spends less time thinking about 9/11, Iraq or the Financial Crash, or anticipating the seismic changes which will be brought about by social media, than he does retailing crappy, second-hand ideas about advertising and making tiresome references to long-dead 1960s rock gods.

The Spectator thinks Gibson is the  ‘astounding architect of cool’. Think about that. The Spectator, the solidly right-wing mouthpiece of the Brexit-leading Conservative Party. The Spectator, whose editor was Boris Johnson from 1999 to 2005. Boris Johnson. Maybe the fact that Gibson is so gushingly praised by The Spectator crystallises all my misgivings about him and his later novels: William Gibson is Boris Johnson’s idea of ‘cool’, a 60-something white man in a black leather jacket making references to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

Fashion

The fatuousness of Gibson’s attempts to make Hubertus Bigend some kind of communications guru, and the lameness of his dad rock references (Heidi Hyde wears an old Ramones t-shirt, p.59 – how cool!) are exacerbated by Gibson’s ongoing obsession with namechecking the brand names and designers of every conceivable product the characters come into contact with.

Thus we are told the precise brand of their cars and handbags and clothes, and my God, of their clothes, yes their clothes, every item of clothing that they wear, or look at, or think about.

We get itemised lists of their shoes and socks and jeans and shirts and t-shirts and jackets and shades. Roberto Cavalli, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Chanel, Tommy Hilfiger, Jun Marukawa, Hackett – for all I care this might be a list of the administrative regions of Kazakhstan, but I appreciate that for tens of millions of people being able to distinguish Lauren from Lacoste is a matter of life or death, and these seem to be the people Gibson is catering to in this novel. Or satirising. Or both.

In the earlier novels this was merely an irritating symptom of the triumph of style over substance, but in Zero History the plot itself dives head-first into the empty-headed stupidity of the fashion world, as parodied in the movie Zoolander among many others. Once you enter this world of style and fashion, you check in your brain and never see it again.

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The plot

Hollis Henry

We first met Zero History‘s lead character, Hollis Henry, in the previous novel in the trilogy, Spook Country. She’s the former singer with rock band The Curfew who’s forging a new career as a journalist and writer. Her intellectual level can be measured by the fact that:

Hollis was a firm believer in the therapeutic power of the right haircut. (p.69)

In Spook Country Hollis had been researching ‘locative art’ for a magazine which turned out to be a thinly disguised front for advertising guru Hubertus Bigend. Well, she’s done a lot more work on ‘locative art’ since and has now turned it into a big coffee-table book, complete with images of what the art looks like. The book is titled Presences: Locative Art in America (p.97). The main example the book uses to explain locative art is a 3D hologram of soft porn female nudes done by Helmut Newton (1920 to 2004) which are now visible to anyone who can afford the headset required to see this ‘art’ at some French chateau.

Is this capturing ‘the futurist nature of the present day’? No, it isn’t. Referencing the soft porn, pervey nudes of a dead German photographer whose heyday was the 1980s does not feel like anybody’s future.

Hollis’s coffee table book is just being published when she is summoned to London to meet her sugar-daddy, er, I mean ‘Machiavellian advertising guru’ Hubertus Bigend, who has a new assignment for her.

The novel opens with Hollis having just flown in from New York and staying in a quaint London boutique hotel (‘Cabinet’) stuffed with dinky period pieces, not least a stuffed ferret and the steampunk elevator. She meets, has coffee and chats with Reg Inchmale, former guitarist with The Curfew who’s now producing another band, The Bollards, in a studio in Soho. Also putting in an appearance is Heidi Hyde, the tough, foul-mouthed drummer with The Curfew, who refers to her former boyfriend, at length and repeatedly, as ‘fuckstick’. So the band’s all here, trailing dated 1980s drug slang and rock clichés.

Milgrim

Bigend introduces Hollis to Milgrim, who’s just flown in from his clinic in Basel. Clinic? Yes. Like Hollis, Milgrim also first appeared in this novel’s predecessor, Spook Country. He is an educated young man with a college degree in Russian and was working as a translator when he slowly got hooked on prescription tranquilisers, eventually ending up an almost gibbering wreck, which is how he was found in the street by a shady, renegade intelligence operative named Brown, who ‘sort of’ abducted him, probably saving his life but keeping him under lock and key and feeding him pills in order to use Milgrim’s top translating skills in monitoring a family of what Brown takes to be Russian-backed spies. This is a key storyline in Spook Country.

Brown turned out to be completely wrong and Milgrim managed, at the end of Spook Country, to escape from his clutches. In the final pages he stumbles across Hollis’s handbag which she accidentally left in a deserted loft space and this, though the reader doesn’t know it at the time, is a crucial link, because it allows none other than Hubertus Bigend to phone Milgrim, using the phone he’d given Hollis and which was in her lost handbag. Being Bigend, he doesn’t get cross that someone’s stolen Hollis’s handbag and phone, but is intrigued by the sound of Milgrim, quizzes him, finds out about his background and…

Pays for him to be sent to a world-class detox clinic in Basel, Switzerland for eight months (chapter 4). There, Milgrim tells us, he had his entire body’s blood replaced with clean blood and underwent an extensive course of cognitive therapy. This complex background means that throughout this book Milgrim can conjure up either drug-addled streams of consciousness, odd and unexpected insights,  or sober advice his therapist gave him to manage unexpected situations. He is the peg for the kind of sentences Gibson excels at, which gesture to something just beyond perception, or slightly wrong, out of kilter and unnerving:

  • He struck her as being unused to inhabiting his own face, somehow. (p.44)
  • He felt as though something new and entirely too large was trying to fit within him. (p.92)
  • He seemed peeled, somehow, transparent, strangely free of underlying motive. (p.180)
  • Milgrim was having one of those experiences of feeling, as he’d explained to his therapist, that he was emulating a kind of social being that he fundamentally wasn’t. (p.174)

All these qualities make Milgrim the most interesting character in the book and, maybe, just about enough reason to read it. Not to buy it, though.

However, Milgrim isn’t totally free. His stay at the rehab clinic was managed by Oliver Sleight, on the face of it an employee of Bigend’s (p.85), but Sleight wants to keep tabs on Milgrim in a way which goes beyond Bigend’s needs. Sleight has given Milgrim a phone, a ‘Neo’, which only takes calls from him and which has GPS tracking so he can follow Milgrim’s movements at all times (p.124).

Why? ‘Fuck if I know’ as Heidi puts it in her charming way (p.202). As with most content in Gibson novels, this kind of thing is thrown in early on and then referred to at regular intervals almost entirely to keep you guessing.

Early on an apparently trivial incident occurs, which will become central to the plot. At one point Milgrim gets fed up of being trailed by Sleight all the time and gets into an elevator in a department store and, purely because the other people in it are speaking in Russian (which always wakens memories of his pre-drug existence), on an impulse Milgrim slips the Neo into the pram of one of the Russian women then watches the lift stop at the next floor, the doors open and the woman and pram exit and wander off who knows where. She seemed to have a couple of tough-looking minders in tow. Maybe she’s the wife or daughter of an oligarch, who cares. But it will turn out to matter, later.

Gabriel Hounds

So what’s Zero History actually about? Bigend has come across a brand of jacket and jeans named Gabriel Hounds (‘It’s a secretive jeans line’, p.72). They’re made by a secretive designer. Bigend wants to find out who. As Hollis explains:

‘Bigend’s hired me to look into Gabriel Hounds. He wants to know who designs it, how their antimarketing scheme works.’ (p163)

That, as far as I can tell, is it, at least to begin with. So Bigend introduces Hollis and Milgrim, tells them he wants to track down the designer of Gabriel Hounds jeans and jackets and pays for them to take the Eurostar to Paris, stay in a swanky hotel and visit a Vintage Clothes Fair (the Salon du Vintage) where, inevitably, they meet lots of other designers and models plus some of Hollis’s friends or contacts from the rock world. The level of humour is indicated by the character with the oh-so-funny name of Olduvai George, the ‘brilliant’ keyboardist with the Bollards. He is named Olduvai George because there’s a place  in Africa called Olduvai Gorge and Gorge sounds like George! Hence Olduvai George. Geddit!? They also meet ‘Clammy’ who dresses all in black, because dressing all in black is ‘cool’ (p.33 ).

In other words, the novel is marinaded in references to the international rock-fashion world. If you think that world is ‘cool’, you’ll love it; if, like me, you think it is all weirdly lame and dated, you won’t. Everyone wears black. Everyone is thin. Everyone is a design genius. Everyone has an ‘uncanny sense’ for the next best thing, everyone has a special feel for the Zeitgeist bah blah blah yaddah yaddah yaddah.

Anyway, Hollis talks to Clammy who knows Olduvai George who knows some clothes designer named Meredith Overton aka ‘Mere’ (p.115). (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and indicate just how much you grasp ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’.)

They all go out for a simply wonderful dinner at a restaurant where they bump into Bram, reluctant singer with the Stokers (geddit!?) who is having a meal the other side of the restaurant with one of the Icelandic pop duo, the Dottirs. Half way through the meal they have a big row and Bram storms out, only to be trapped by the legions of paparazzi waiting outside. It is so tiresome being a rock star, darling.

Anyway, that’s by way of being a distraction. The real outcome of the dinner is that Mere thinks she knew someone in fashion school who knew someone else in Chicago, who might be the designer of the Gabriel Hounds!!

Foley

Milgrim spots they’re being followed. To be precise, he had noticed a guy popping up several times in South Carolina where he had been hanging out after leaving the Basel clinic. Then Milgrim thinks he sees the same guy a few times in London. Now he’s certain he’s seen the same guy following him at the vintage clothes fair in Paris. He’s wearing foliage-green ‘pants’ so Milgrim quickly nicknames him ‘Foliage’ and then ‘Foley’. (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and also indicate just how much you grasp the blah blah.)

Milgrim is approached out of the blue in a cafe in London by a woman who flashes a badge and identifies herself as Winnie Tung Whitaker, Special Agent for the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (p.108). I suppose we’re meant to take this seriously but it all reminded me a bit of Secret Squirrel.

(Actually, to my delight and coincidence, Secret Squirrel is actually namechecked later on in the text, page 309. Gibson feeling the anxiety of influence from the classics of the thriller genre, there.)

So Hollis is introduced to Mere at the vintage clothes fair in Paris who spouts a lot of garbage about the secretive designers of Gabriel Hound jeans. This personage is revered because he or she shuns the usual industry calendar of releasing new lines with each new ‘season’. This is because:

‘It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. It’s about deeper code.’ (p.116)

If you think this twaddle is profound, this is the book for you.

Mere was a model before she became a designer, which allows her to reel off a description of the boring existence of a poverty-stricken model, rather as Hollis being an ex-rock singer allows Gibson to refer throughout to the sleazy-glamorous life of rock and roll stars. Mere escaped modelling to set up a business designing a new style of shoes, trying to sidestep fashion (there are some pages about the design and fabric of her shoes and she explains how so few people really got what she was trying to do with them (p.228); as if shoes are very puzzling and complex intellectual constructs). But Mere’s business flopped. Now all the stock is locked up in some warehouse in Tacoma, Seattle (p.164) and she’s back working in fashion retail.

Lots more labels

There are a lot more sentences in this 400-page novel but for quite a long time not a lot happens. The characters travel from London to Paris and back again, there are hyper-detailed descriptions of hotel foyers and receptionists and lifts and corridors and rooms and showers and beds, lots and lots of phone calls on nifty cell phones, a lot of messing about with AirMacs and passwords and dongles, a great deal of meetings in restaurants and cafes with a minute itemisation of what everybody ate (Milgrim has a salmon starter followed by pork tenderloin, chapter 32; the salmon is everso good. Bigend, counter-intuitively, or maybe inevitably, likes crude full English breakfasts, namely two fried eggs, black pudding, two slices of bacon, two slices of bread and a mug of tea. Of his favourite café he opines: ‘They get the black pudding right here.’ p.196.)

Maybe this is what the Spectator means by ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ – advertising execs, writers and rock musicians jet-setting between fashionable capitals, staying in swank hotels and eating out on bottomless expense accounts. Or maybe they’re referring to the future for the cosmopolitan urban elite like themselves, anyway.

I read this and think – this self-congratulatory cosmopolitan elite, sooo concerned with acquiring just the right patina on their jackets, desperately seeking the mysterious jeans designer – this entitled elite deserved their comeuppance in the form of moron Trump and dumb-bell Brexit. In their ways, both those votes were crude gestures of protest against the arrogance of the international art and fashion and media and style elite with its ill-concealed contempt for the chavs and proles who populate the countries they flit between, and who they sell their shitty films and TV and clothes and art to and patronise and lecture and exploit.

It’s about gear queer

What else happens? Well, Bigend explains they’re seeking the Gabriel Hounds designer because the latest thing is Gear Queer. According to Bigend, army veterans returning from Iraq have sparked a fashion among young men for an army surplus look (explained in chapter 41).

This just seemed patronising rubbish to me. If there’s been any fashion of the past few years it’s been the rise of the hipster – metrosexual, casual styling associated with full but coiffured beards. According to Wikipedia:

The term ‘hipster’ in its present usage first appeared in the 1990s and became particularly prominent in the late 2000s and early 2010s

I.e. just as this book was being published.

It’s another indication of the way that, in fashion, in music, in sociology and in politics, Gibson strikes me as being plain wrong. Even in his specialist subject area of digital tech he completely failed to anticipate the revolutionary impact of smart phones and social media which began to take off just after this novel was published. And his books are utterly bereft of any real thinking about the important events of the day: 9/11, the threat of Islamic terrorism, or the impact of the great financial crash of 2008. Rather than being some kind of ‘prophet’ Gibson is in every way a highly misleading guide to his times.

OIiver Sleight defects to the enemy

Anyway, back to Bigend’s stupid name and ridiculous quest for ‘Gabriel Hounds’. Oliver Sleight was supervising Milgrim in South Carolina because that’s where a lot of the supply to the US military comes from and that’s where they found the pair of rogue Gabriel Hound jeans which confirmed ‘the Hound look’ as being possibly the next big thing which Bigend can a) sell to the military b) promote to young men round the world concerned with replicating the look and ‘semiotics’ of elite military forces. (At least in this utterly rubbish plot.)

As the story progresses Winnie Tung Whitaker meets Milgrim a couple of times (they’ve been staying in touch via a Twitter account she showed him how to set up). At their final meeting in a restaurant she explains who she’s after. It is one Michael Preston Gracie, 45 with a long career in the US military but then stepped sideways into private security work, and then military contracting, and then something to do with supplying uniforms to East Asian countries. Why is Winnie Ting Whitaker after this man? Because (exactly like ‘the old guy’ in Spook Country) it’s a gesture, nothing serious or significant is at stake: it’s just ‘a gesture in the face of the shitbird universe’ (p.225).

To be honest, everything this fiction Michael Gracie is doing sounds perfectly legal and enterprising. As this plot about a renegade military supplier emerged to become the focus of the novel, at every sentence I thought Gibson was utterly missing the real story here, which was the huge expansion in private contractors supplying military and security services in Afghanistan and Iraq – Blackwater, Dyncorp and so on – about the huge amounts of money which went from the American taxpayer straight into these organisations which, more often than not, had top US politicians on their payroll.

(Actually, the really big story which emerged from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was how astonishingly shit America turned out to be at understanding or managing the countries they’d conquered. How many American historians, commentators and novelists have I read casually castigating the mismanagement of the British Empire? So how did you do in Iraq, boys? Or Afghanistan? Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Ritual humiliation of prisoners. Over $6.4 trillion spent on the ‘War on Terror’. It’s a proud record.)

To recap:

‘Gracie’s an arms dealer. Bigend was spying on some business of his, in South Carolina.’ (p.295)

Remember Oliver Sleight who had been minding Milgrim? In the middle of the book, Bigend reveals that Sleight – who was in fact Bigend’s IT chief – has gone rogue, has been recruited by ‘the other side’, meaning the people round Gracie.

Why? If you think about it rationally, it’s not at all clear why Gracie and the tail who Milgrim calls Foley would give a stuff about Bigend poking about in the same market. It’s a very big market, and Gracie has a huge head-start, being ex-US Army with all kinds of contacts. Why should they care?

The enemy attack

Still, this idea of people within Blue Ant itself going over to ‘the enemy’ is whipped up into the pretext for a kind of gang war which breaks out.

Milgrim, Hollis and Heidi are being driven back to their hotel after meeting Bigend (a meeting at which he shows them his latest toy, the next generation of drones, which can be controlled from your phone which were, I guess, a whole new idea in 2010) when the vehicle they’re in is nearly rammed and forced into an alleyway somewhere in the City.

Once rammed into this alley, another car comes hurtling towards it to ram it, and Milgrim sees Foley in the front seat gesticulating at him. But the point is that the vehicle they’re in is a ‘cartel-grade’ Jankel-armoured, four-doored, short-bedded Toyota Hilux truck (p.36), driven by a no-nonsense Jamaican security guy named Aldous, and he himself rams the oncoming car and pushes it backwards all the way to the end of the alley, before reversing a bit and then further ramming into its bonnet, crushing the engine.

Aldous Calls up Fiona, the helmeted biker babe we’ve met a couple of times throughout the story, who turns up pronto, grabs Hollis onto her pillion and roars off, while Heidi drags meek Milgrim on foot along to the nearest Tube (Bank) and so back West towards their hotel, while Aldous waits in the Jankel for the cops to arrive and give his side of the story.

Now, as the second of the cars had hurtled towards them down the alleyway, Milgrim had seen Foley bright and clear, and seen that he had a bandage over his face and that he was brandishing the phone, the Neo which Sleight had given him. This a) confirms that Foley, Milgrim’s ‘tail, was indeed working with Sleight, and b) implies that Foley went to track down the phone and had an unfortunate encounter with some Russian mafia bodyguards.

In other words the entire incident of the car ram seems to stem from Milgrim’s momentary act of rebellion against being tracked in the department store, when he slipped the Neo into the pram of some random strangers. Seems that Foley was despatched to track down the phone and encountered the Russian oligarch’s security people who beat him up.

After the ramming, Bigend convenes yet another meeting with Hollis and Milgrim and explains the current situation. Sleight, his lead IT guy, has ‘gone over’ to ‘the enemy’ (remember, this is all about contracts for military uniforms). Sleight was monitoring Milgrim so closely because he was relaying Milgrim and Hollis’s discoveries back to his new boss, the renegade military contractor, Michael Gracie. Now Bigend tells them that other senior personnel within Blue Ant are also defecting. To some extent Bigend always expected this: he employs people on the ‘edge’, renegades and free thinkers, and always enjoys watching them mature and rebel – but this time there’s a bit more of a rebellion going on than he’s used to.

Thus Bigend has been forced to retreat from his London headquarters (probably bugged by Sleight) to the back room of a Japanese tailor down the road. This explains why a number of these meetings involve passing through the shop front of ‘Tanky and Tojo’, the name of the Japanese tailor, into the surprisingly spacious back room.

(I wonder about Gibson and his fetish for Japan. In the 1980s and 1990s Japanese imagery, style, design and steel-and-glass cityscapes seemed to be the future. But my understanding is that around 2000 Japan entered into a prolonged period of stagflation and in any case was being overtaken by China as the new military and cultural power in the East, a rise which continues to this day. Yet Gibson seems to be sticking with his dated Japan obsession. True, some Chinese crop up in his novels, but not as many as Japanese. Two of the three novels in the Bridge trilogy take place almost entirely in Japan, in Tokyo. It seems to me another token, along with the dated rock music and the lack of grasp of key geopolitical events of the early 2000s, of the way Gibson’s worldview seems dusty and dated.)

Voytek and Chombo

Remember Voytek? He’s the Polish immigrant who keeps a computer repair store in Camden, north London, and pops up throughout Pattern Recognition, the first novel in the trilogy. And remember Bobby Chombo, the tech genius who actually makes locative artists’ projects for 3D holographic art become a reality in Spook Country. Well, now we learn that Bigend had brought a reluctant and paranoid Chombo back from Vancouver (setting of the previous novel) and parked him with a reluctant Voytek to look after, who resentfully pronounces his name ‘Shombo’.

But we’ve barely learned all this (Milgrim sees Chombo in the backroom when he visits Voytek’s computer repair shop to get Hollis’s AirMac checked out for bugs) before Bigend tells the team that The Enemy have forced their way into Voytek’s place and kidnapped Chombo. Bigend has received a simple ultimatum: The Enemy want to make ‘a prisoner exchange’, return Chombo in exchange for Milgrim, with the implication that they will do very bad things to Milgrim for his various ‘betrayals’.

None of this is really intrinsic to the idea of a commercial rivalry between Gracie and Bigend, which itself isn’t really implicit in the situation. Why shouldn’t two (or three or four) companies operate in the market selling clothes to the US military? Likewise, the bad guys wanting to get their hands on Milgrim isn’t intrinsic to the situation, it just seems to derive from Milgrim’s arbitrary decision to drop his phone in a stranger’s pram. That one moment is the basis for the entire second half of the plot, and it is a slender and silly basis.

The return of Garreth

Now you need to know about an added complication. The first two-thirds of the narrative have been peppered with Hollis’s memories of her affair with Garreth. Garreth was the supremely competent handyman and security operative key to the plot of the previous novel, Spook Country. He was the right-hand man of ‘the old man’ who was running the scam at the centre of that story. Garreth is handy with guns and weapons and cars and planes. He is your basic, omni-competent thriller hero, good-looking and chivalrous into the bargain.

Doing very dangerous things was his avocation. (p.153)

(It’s interesting to consider how, despite Gibson’s best woke efforts to centre his narratives around female protagonists, the fact that he is writing thrillers means that a tough, strong, competent handsome man keeps ending up taking centre stage in the stories. Tough-but-sensitive security guard Berry Rydell in the Bridge trilogy, and tough-but-sensitive secret operative Garreth in this trilogy. The scenery may be modern but the fundamental mindset is deeply traditional. This helps to explain Gibson’s nervously jokey references to James Bond in both this and the previous novel. Gibson’s acolytes proclaim him the prophet of the future but he is, in essence, simply writing flashy gadget thrillers and he is uneasily aware that this entire genre can’t escape the shadow of 007, simply because Ian Fleming brought the formula to such a peak of perfection. In fact the comical similarity to Bond is explicitly acknowledged right at the end of the novel: ‘Fiona said that Bigend, with the Hermès ekranoplan, had gone totally Bond villain’, p.399)

Anyway, in this novel we learn that after she met him towards the end of the previous novel, Hollis is so dazzlingly original and independent that she fell in love with the tall, dark, handsome, supremely confident, tough but sensitive security dude, Garreth. (So much for futurity; feels very 1960s to me.) But that their affair only flourished because it fell in a lull between Garreth’s missions, and that when he was assigned a new one by the mysterious old man, Garreth melted out of her life and that they then definitely split up.

Until… Hollis is delivered the shock news that Garreth has been involved in an accident!! Among his many other heroic action-man attributes was that Garreth was a free jumper, one of the group of people who illegally scale enormous buildings and jump off them wearing mini-parachutes. Well, Garreth illegally made it to the top of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, jumped off, but his chute got snagged in unexpected construction cranes and/or he landed on what should have been a deserted freeways but was instead run over by a super-rich Arab in a sports car.

Hollis is distraught, realises that she loved him after all (how very Mills & Boon), phones him, gets no reply, is given emotional support by her band-mate Heidi etc, all this going on while the situation with Milgrim and Gracie and the Opposition is getting more and more intense.

And then, the evening after the traumatic car attack on our heroes in the City, there’s a knock on Hollis’s hotel room door and it is none other than Garreth! Admittedly, he’s been badly knocked about and is in a wheelchair. The doctors had to reconstruct his hip and most of his right leg. He can just about limp using a walking stick but the wheelchair is easier. Cue a tearful reunion, ‘I never stopped loving you,’ ‘Oh why did you do it?’ ‘Is it serious?’ etc etc. They embrace, they kiss, he spends the night on her bed. They nickname his partly reconstructed right leg Frank.

However, characteristically for Gibson, there is no hint of any sexual activity whatsoever. His characters are strictly neuter, with no sexual attributes or thoughts.

(Same happens in chapter 60 when foxy Fiona, a strong, independent motorbike courier, is stuck in the lockup with Milgrim, completes the assembly of a bit of kit, strips off her overclothes and gets into the one sleeping bag, then invites Milgrim to join her. He takes his trousers and socks off. This will be a first, the reader thinks. But Milgrim slips into the sleeping bag beside her, lies perfectly straight and still and… soon hears her snoring, p.299.)

The puzzling absence of sex as an activity or a motive or even a footnote to the relationships is one of the big limitations of Gibson’s novels and something which prevents them being any kind of serious investigation of human nature. Instead they feel more like the adventures of chrome-plated, cartoon cutouts.

Garreth’s plan

Anyway, Garreth’s appearance is very convenient for the plot for, the next morning, when Bigend invites himself to breakfast with Hollis at her boutique hotel, and is explaining that he’s made the decision to hand Milgrim over to the bad guys, Garreth, who was hiding behind a screen and overheard everything (like a character in an Elizabethan play) steps (well trundles in his wheelchair) forward and backs Hollis up in saying this unacceptable. They cannot possibly consider handing over poor Milgrim to the bad guys. No, instead he, Garreth, will use his super secret agent powers to devise a cunning plan.

And so it is that in the final quarter of the novel Garreth calls in lots of favours, assembles kit from all over, and puts together his plan, while the extended team of Good Guys assemble, as in every heist movie ever made. The good guys are: Hollis and crippled scam supremo Garreth, timid Milgrim and the biker babe Fiona, Benny the bike mechanic who makes important adjustments to Fiona’s bike and keeps the lockup mentioned above, and tough Polish immigrant and computer repairman, Voytek.

I forgot to mention that Heidi, a tall no-nonsense woman, had joined a gym in Hackney, where she’d discovered a cohort of blokes who like boxing, including an Asian guy named Ajay, who she brings back to Hollis’s hotel, and who is thrilled to meet the legendary singer of The Curfew. Well, Garreth ropes this Ajay into his quickly whipped-up scam, and he comes accompanied by his cousin, Asian beauty Chandra.

It’s a kind of multi-ethnic Ocean’s Eleven, or like the elaborate set-up scenes in The Italian Job (1969).

The mystery designer is Cayce Pollard

Remember how the whole narrative got rolling with Bigend apparently interested in finding the designer of a particularly funky pair of jeans and denim jacket. Well, Mere reappears at this juncture (from a narrative structure point of view, to take pressure off the buildup to Garreth’s Masterplan) and reveals to Hollis that the mystery designer is in London, and takes Hollis to see her. In a secret denim shop in Soho.

And, with a terrible sense that Gibson’s world is contracting and contracting until it’s the size of a microchip, the mystery designer who we all spent the first half of the novel obsessing about, turns out to be… none other than Cayce Pollard, the magically gifted ‘coolhunter’ who is the lead protagonist of Pattern Recognition!

Cayce explains that a) she became a designer because old clothes she bought in vintage fairs were just so much better made than even designer modern clothes, and b) that she shunned all logos because, as we know from Pattern Recognition, although it was her job to search out new patterns in the flow of design and clothing, actual logos gave her panic attacks. So, no logos. (Writing that reminds me of Naomi Klein’s 1999 book No Logos with its wholesale attack on the insanity of the fashion and branding industry, and makes me think, once again a) how very much behind the curve Gibson is and b) how shallow and superficial his ‘satire’ is next to a solid polemical book like Klein’s.)

So Cayce the designer insisted on no logos, absolutely no logos right up to the moment when her husband suggested they use a logo and… she agreed. There. That’s how brainless this book and its characters are. Cayce tells Hollis that she occasionally doodled dogs with human heads while designing and her husband spotted these and told her about the ‘legend’ of Gabriel Hounds. And thus this mysterious anti-brand was born. A logo which isn’t a logo. A brand which isn’t a brand.

The two women proceed to have a heart-to-heart conversation about Bigend. Yes, why are their lives both dominated by a big overbearing corporate capitalist, the reader asks himself? Sisters are doing it for themselves, or not, as the case may be. Cayce explains to Hollis that she doesn’t have fashion launches, doesn’t conform to usual fashion rhythms. She has special ‘drops’. So successful is her anti-fashion stance that Hollis sees the editor of French Vogue entering Cayce’s building as she leaves. She is so hot this season!!

I was left speechless by the illogical, inconsistent shallowness of this storyline.

Meanwhile, the Chinese agent Winnie Tung Whitaker contacts Milgrim again. He goes see her at Smithfield. She’s still after Gracie. Hollis wonders out loud to Garreth whether Bigend has for the first time lost it. Inchmale tells her that his wife (very well connected in the world of London PR and comms, darling) says the buzz is that something big is on.

You know the book is reaching its climax because everyone starts talking in italics because there is going to be some serious shit going down! Don’t let him fuck with you! I did not come to this country for motherfucker! How scary is that? Shit just got weirdLateral fucking move! Totally fucking next level! —

As if Americans can’t talk in a calm tone of voice. Or that the text itself is aware that the story is rather boring, doesn’t really make much sense, and so tries to get the characters to jazz it up by inserting lots of swearwords and random emphases.

Bigend had earlier on shown Hollis and and Heidi Milgrim some prototype drones you can operate from your iPhone. These become part of Garreth’s Cunning Plan to manage the prisoner exchange.

The prisoner exchange

Then it’s zero hour. Garreth texts everyone on the team that it’s time to rumble. Pack what you can carry, he tells Hollis, there may be running, we may not be able to come back to the hotel. It’s like a Bourne movie but without any of the actual tension or logic.

The exchange has been arranged for waste land near Wormwood Scrubs. It is, basically, a prisoner exchange as out of thousands of Cold War novels and movies, except with drones. The plan is pretty simple. Garreth has gotten the Asian martial arts guy, Ajay, to use makeup to look like Milgrim, and arranged for him to be accompanied to the drop place by an ex-Gurkha (it’s handy to know this kind of people if you’re in special ops).

The two Bad Guys approach with Chombo. When they’re close enough, Ajay simply leaps forward and decks Foley, grabs Chombo and runs off, while Charlie the Gurkha drops the other bad guy.

Over on the edge of things of the meeting ground both Fiona and Milgrim have been operating drones with cameras attached which Garreth can see from the control van packed with TV screens and phones, parked half a mile away. Also in the van are Hollis and Heidi who, we now learn, has bad claustrophobia.

From one of these drone cameras they spot Michael Gracie over to one side of the exchange zone, unpacking a Kalshnikov rifle with night sights. Uh-oh. Without prompting, Milgrim fires the taser on his drone which hits Gracie, who lies convulsed on the floor. Taser? Yes, it turns out Heidi packed a taser into her luggage when she drunkenly packed to come to Britain from the States weeks ago. Handy, eh. Gibson is just adding bits of plot to try and jazz up this rather lame prisoner exchange plot device.

So while Ajay and the Gurkha run away safely, the two bad guys – Foley and some guy with a mullet haircut – are slow to get off the floor, while Gracie has been badly shocked and staggers to his feet and away without the Kalashnikov.

Chombo tries to get away from Ajay but, as luck would have it, Heidi had exited the van a few minutes earlier due to her claustrophobia, saw him running off and, being the tall Amazonian type, had rugby tackled him and brought him back to Garreth’s van. Our boys pack up and drive away, mission accomplished.

Epilogue

Cut to some weeks later. Heidi and Ajay are touring Cornwall. They seem to be an item. Hollis is in a Paris hotel bedroom with Garreth, fixing up his leg. We learn that an obscure character named Pep, the Catalan car thief (p.306), the world’s best at getting into and out of locked cars (in thrillers everyone is ‘the world’s best’) had, while the baddies were walking Chombo towards the handover zone, broken into Gracie’s car and left some semtex and photos of mosques around the UK in it. Before the mission began, Garreth had called in some heavy-duty UK anti-terrorist police on a number given him by Winnie Tung Whitaker. These police found the bomb making equipment and Gracie is now in a world of trouble. (To be honest, I never really understood what he was doing which was so wrong. Selling uniforms to the US Army, does it deserve the treatment he got?)

Hollis tells Garreth that Bigend has paid her a lot of money. No surprise, says Garreth. It was Hollis who introduced Garreth to Bigend and Garreth made all Bigend’s problems go away. At which point… Garreth proposes marriage to Hollis!

And what of Bigend, conspicuous by his absence from the hostage exchange? We catch up with him on a flight to Iceland with the Dottir twins and on no ordinary plane but a sort of zeppelin balloon, or plane with little or no wing, designed by the Russians. Milgrim is aboard it with Fiona, the biker babe. There’s a cocktail party (the plane is that big) where Milgrim is informed that:

  • Blue Ant is over: anyone who was anyone in it is on the plane and they’re all relocating to Iceland
  • Bigend helped the Dottirs’ father in shady internet deals which have ended up with the pair, between them, owning most of Iceland (the vast effort everyone put into understanding the US military’s uniform contracts has completely vanished, like the MacGuffin it always was)
  • and, in nearly the final joke, we learn that winsome Fiona with whom Milgrim is now definitely an item, is none other than Bigend’s daughter by his uber-secretary, Pamela Mainwaring

This is one massive thing in Gibson’s favour, I think, that his novels include almost no violence. This is supposedly a thriller but nobody actually gets killed – unlike the scads of traditional American thrillers in which so many people get horribly butchered. Instead this novel ends with three couples happily paired off and a nice romantic wedding on the cards.

I found Zero History a long, hard, gruelling, pretentious and irritating slog, but ended it with a smile on my face. The best bit is the ending.

Zero history

To summarise, Zero History consists of 400 pages describing rock musicians, magazine journalists and fashion aristocracy jetting from New York to London to Paris, staying in fancy hotels, taking cabs to fancy restaurants, wittering on some stupid quest to track down the designer of some slightly quirky jeans, all paid for by an absurdly rich sugar-daddy, until right at the day it turns into a briefly gripping hommage to Cold War-era hostage exchange narratives, before ending with three happy relationships and a marriage, rather like a Shakespeare comedy.

The title is explained, sort of, on page 84. All it indicates is that Milgrim was such a social dropout during his addiction phase, during his ‘decade-long low-grade brown-out’, p.141, that he never had a regular job, paid taxes, social security etc, didn’t even have a credit card. And therefore, as far as ‘the grid’ is concerned, had ‘zero history’. So no deep meaning at all.

Despite being an astonishing architect of cool, Gibson’s favourite word (apart from black, and apart from his occasional deployment of media studies buzzwords like ‘semiotics’, pp.213, and ‘liminal’, pp.4, 94, 369) Gibson’s favourite word appears to be ‘peculiar’, which cropped up frequently enough for me to  count its appearances on pages 4, 6, 8, 111, 113, 135, 180, 268, 279, 318, 326, 335 and 346.

It’s an oddly cosy and very English word for such a self-conscious American hipster.


Credit

Zero History by William Gibson was published in the UK by Viking in 2010. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon which was a bad mistake because, as with the previous 10 Amazon purchases, it arrived creased, scuffed, bent and smeared.

Other William Gibson reviews

Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techie ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

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