Friday Favorites: Jorge Luis Borges

This week’s Friday Favorite is the various fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, which kicked off a period in my own writing where I wanted desperately to sound like him. I am especially sorry to anyone who was around for the Peak Borgesian period of my fanfiction career. (There were one or two successes–mostly when I wrote straight-up Borges fusions–but let’s be real, I was being a terrible tryhard for the most part. In fact, I just checked the depths of my google drive and there is totally an outline for a BBC Sherlock fanfic that is 75% intended as a riff on “Death and the Compass.” No, I never wrote a word of it, but you are free to imagine it, which is the most Borgesian way possible of reading it in any case.)

In addition to Borges’ various Cool And/Or Mindblowing Ideas, which he is justly famous for, I would also say that one of his great skills was cramming his writing full of faux-throwaway references and digressions and sly asides to everything under the sun: literature, history, his contemporary writers, and of course the occasional false references, few of which exist in my mental index. Yet those stories and their digressions were still strangely, compulsively readable. It reminds me of scholarly works, only of course these are imaginary histories. On brand. (It’s probably also why attempts to emulate him are best made by those who are extremely well read and educated, i.e. not myself.)

Borges’ influence on me was not so much in his ideas, although I do share some of his obsession with trying to explore infinite possibilities within our finite lives. Rather, more than any other writer, Borges made me say “you can do THAT?” And the next thing I said was, “I have to try it myself!”

For the record, though, my favorite of his stories is “The Secret Miracle.”

Many times, when an author is the first to exemplify a genre or a concept or at least to bring it to mass attention*, their work looks like flat clichés if you come to, or revisit, them after exploring more of the rest of the genre. Borgesian stories, by contrast, has never lost their particular magic for me. I think it is because of how absolutely grounded his fantasies in the time and space that he occupied, and in the immense library inside his head. Like his story, “The Book of Sand,” Borges’ work continually and infinitely yields newness to me.

* I maintain that Borges invented the concept of the Choose Your Own Adventure books in “The Garden of Forking Paths.” You can read it in translation, along with other stories including “The Secret Miracle” and “Death and the Compass,” in this pdf.

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New Old Translation: “The Chinese Restaurant In The Middle Of The Desert” by San Mao

First, credit where it is due: I learned about San Mao (三毛) from Morporkia, who is about 100x as well-read as I will ever be.

San Mao (1943-1991) was the pen name of a famous and popular Taiwanese author who wrote many clever and sparkling and quite humorous short stories. They’re lighthearted pieces shot through with witty observations and the occasional wry, subtle insult. Naturally, I gravitated toward her.

San Mao, who also went by the English name Echo, moved from Taiwan to Madrid for college and there met her eventual husband, Jose. They moved all over the world to places such as the Western Sahara and the Canary Islands, where Jose drowned in a diving accident in 1979.

After that, San Mao returned to Taiwan. She continued writing and became friends with many other Taiwanese writers including Chiung Yao (瓊瑤/琼瑶). I’ve read some of San Mao’s later works, and the vivid grief in there brought me to tears. She took her own life at 47.

Before Jose’s death, San Mao wrote about their life together in the Western Sahara in a collection called Stories of the Sahara 《撒哈拉的故事》which at the time had not been translated (but there is a volume coming out in November 2019).

So in 2011, I translated one of the stories, with assistance and editing from Morporkia. Then I forgot all about it, until I saw the delightful news on Twitter today (March 26, 2019) that San Mao was being honored by a Google Doodle.

She deserves wider recognition than I feel she has in the English-reading sphere, and so, I am posting my translation, which contains San Mao’s original text as well:

“The Chinese Restaurant In The Middle Of The Desert” by San Mao

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Friday Favorites: “The Weight of Memories” by Cixin Liu

Welcome to Friday Favorites! I’ve decided to start a weekly series where I highlight a short story*—could be past or present—that I love.

I’m starting off with The Weight of Memories by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. ~2,800 words, science fiction. While sometimes I give content warnings, I’m choosing not to on this one. (Okay, I’m giving one: I personally found the science to be implausible, but that doesn’t bother me in stories so long as the narrative is internally consistent and doesn’t bill itself as hard science.)

This is a story about a violent conflict between memories and experiences—the same memories experienced very differently, with very different results. If we are the sums of our experiences, then is it possible to add up the same things and arrive at two different sums? Yes, says this story, depending on how the addition is done.

As a very visual reader I also loved how spare the story is, and how stark, with almost all the violent bursts of color coming from the memories being relived.

I was also very deeply touched by this story as a Chinese person. I don’t talk about it a lot, but that is my heritage. A lot of awful events (check Wikipedia, I don’t have it in me to discuss) went on over the last two generations, which my family, especially my parents, somehow survived. I grew up never asking about my family’s past because the answer was invariably Yet Another Awful Story. And I feel sometimes—and my parents too—that China is changing so fast that one generation doesn’t understand another, and this story touches on that connection/disconnect as well. I’m shivering as I type those words. Read the story to find out why.

You may look over the above and say “gosh, Kara, that’s a really dark recommendation.” Fair enough. A friend once summed up my authorial obsessions as “memory, death, tragic love.” What is there to say other than … may as well lean in. If you’re on my wavelength, this may resonate painfully but wonderfully for days, as it did and still does for me.

* Okay so in reality I reserve the right to recommend whatever piece of writing I feel like, but for now at least, I want to focus on short stories.

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