Welcome to the many universes of Jorge Luis Borges. The stories in this collection, Doctor Brodie's Report, were written in Spanish and then translated into English in close collaboration with Norman Thomas de Giovanni, closing the usually gap between writing and translating, the writing and translating occurring simultaneously, or, more exactly, what Borges cites in the forward as "more or less simultaneous."
This is a good book of Borges to start with, since the stories are written in an accessible, straightforward way. I read this book thirty years ago and decided to go back and reread these tales with attention and care so their storylines and key images would press themselves permanently into my memory. As it turned out, this was a thoroughly rewarding experience. Borges shows us how one event or encounter can be a decisive turning point in our lives. Frequently we are under the impression we can define who we are and people and objects around us as singular and fixed, but, for Borges, we humans are each an entire universe, and what appears to be a simple object can have a rich history and life far outliving any being made of flesh and blood.
In the first story, The Gospel According to Mark, we meet Baltasar Espinosa, a medical student with an unlimited kindness and capacity for public speaking, a young man who didn't like arguing, preferring rather having his listener right and who was fascinated by the probabilities of chance in games but was a bad player himself since games gave him no pleasure in winning. Borges writes how Baltasar (his name is also the name of one of the three wise men) has a wide, undirected intelligence and is not lacking in spirit. What happens to this medical student when he stays on a ranch with his textbooks, grows a beard, and reads the Gospel of Mark at the dinner table? How wise is he when he answers the father's questions about hell and how Christ let himself be killed? I wouldn't want to spoil the story by revealing the ending, but let me simply say that Baltasar's last name, Espinosa, means `crown of thorns.'
With The Unworthy Friend Borges tells us our image of a city is always slightly out of date. How many cities exist that you call a city? I myself have a mental picture of New York City, a city I have visited dozens of times, but how accurate is my picture? Indeed, every time I return from a visit my picture changes. Borges plays with moving memories in this story told in first person but first person one step removed, that is, the narrator gives us the story told to him in a Buenos Aires book shop, a story where the narrator is told "Friendship is no less a mystery than love or any other aspect of this confusion we call life." How mysterious and how deep? Mysterious and deep enough to be the abiding memory of youth for an old man.
I have read a number of books on indigenous tribes people by cultural anthropologies such as Raymond Firth and Colin Turnbull, but I have never encountered a study quite like the one in the last story in this collection, Doctor Brodie's Report. In this nine page story, the good doctor's report tells us the Yahoo have no vowels, no real memory, no number greater than four, no notion of fatherhood, and a god that is "a blind, mutilated, stunted being . . ." Like all the stories in this collection, Doctor Brodie's Report is remarkable and unforgettable. Borges is absolutely my favorite story teller and this collection is one of my very favorites.