A young aspiring writer, I discovered the work of Borges at about the same time that I began to read Beckett. Neither of these writers indicated directions I believed that I would ever attempt to follow, yet I found them tremendously liberating and inspiring. Years later it fell to me to teach a fiction course that included an examination of Borges’s work. Just before the course began, for unfathomable Borgesian reasons, an article appeared in Parade magazine, the popular Sunday supplement. It was a short history of the western outlaw Sam Bess by Jorge Luis Borges, and my students, who did not look to Parade for exemplars in contemporary prose, were puzzled. 

What I learned from trying to teach that course was more of what I had already experienced in looking in those two different directions: the one leading to Beckett, and the other to Borges. The journey toward Beckett led to a turf-covered blasted heath, where language constantly seemed to fail, where life flickered on with language failing it—a place very much like the world. Borges’s direction led to great vaults, a labyrinth, a labyrinth perhaps without a center, but filled with language, filled with narrative, an enormous quantity of invisible light, black light, an infinite passage of narrative over narrative upon narrative. Also a place very much like the world.

The more I pondered his choice of the word “fictions,”  the more appropriate it seemed. And it seems even more appropriate today as we further explore the essentially fictional quality of all narratives.

I’d like to offer to a very brief passage from one of these fictions. The wonderful obsessive intensity of its title and its prose in this translation offers all the pleasures of Borges’s fiction. It is from A Universal History of Iniquity, from that passage which deals with “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell.” This passage concerns “The Place.”

The Father of Waters, the Mississippi, the grandest river in the world, was the worthy stage for the deeds of that incomparable blackguard. (Alvarez de Pineda discovered this great river, though it was first explored by Hernando de Soto, conqueror of Peru, who whiled away his months in the prison of the Inca Atahualpa teaching his jailer chess. When de Soto died, the river’s waters were his grave.)

The Mississippi is a broad-chested river, a dark and infinite brother of the Parani, the Uruguay, the Amazon, and the Orinoco. It is a river of mulatto-hued water; more than four hundred million tons of mud, carried by that water, insult the Gulf of Mexico each year. All that venerable and ancient waste has created a delta where gigantic swamp cypresses grow from the slough of a continent in perpetual dissolution and where labyrinths of clay, dead fish, and swamp reeds push out the borders and extend the peace of their fetid empire. Upstream, Arkansas and Ohio have their bottomlands, too, populated by a jaundiced and hungry-looking race, prone to fevers, whose eyes gleam at the sight of stone and iron, for they know only sand and driftwood and muddy water.

Translated by Andrew Hurley