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Labyrinthine Voices

Doctor Brodie's Report, stories by Jorge Luis Borges, Dutton, $5.95, 125 pp.

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

NOW having passed seventy", writes Borges in his preface to Doctor Brodie's Report, "I believe I have found my own voice". A strange remark, for the author of a fiction which challenges the very premises of individual identity or ontological certainty. Borges goes on to describe his stories--"To use the term in vogue today"--as "realistic", and to assert that they "follow all the conventions of that school". By now, we might guess that the sly master of fiction is pulling our leg. It would not be unlike Borges to lead us up another erudite blind alley, casting a shade of doubt on his own self-explanation.

The preface might make sense, however, if we understand that realism in the Borgesian sense can only be unconventional, because of the very particular and unconventional nature of the universe which it seeks to describe. The "voice" which tells these stories may have new intonations and emphases; but it also shares important elements of the style and thought of the earlier works--Ficciones, published in America in 1962, and Labyrinths, published in 1964.

Typically, the stories in Dr. Brodie's Report are characterized by their brevity, precision, and subtlety of style. Borges has always claimed that he cannot write long fiction, and furthermore that he sees no reason to go on for hundreds of pages conveying a situation which can be concentrated into a few minutes of "oral demonstration". For his literature, structured more upon situation than upon character, more upon momentary and suggestive insights than exhaustive analysis, such brevity is a form of modest perfection.

THE Gospel According to St. Mark opens the collection setting a kind of time-conception which operates in several other stories. Borges calls it the best in the book. It is, at least, the most carefully conceived. In dispassionate and precise language, the narrator describes events which took place on an Argentine ranch, during the last days of March, 1928.

A young medical student from Buenos Aires has come to the ranch to spend his summer holidays. In the owner's absence, a flood strikes, covering all roads out of the ranch. The student finds himself isolated with the foreman Gutre and his family. Singularly uninspiring company, the Gutres are illiterate and nearly inarticulate Indians, of vague and long-forgotten English ancestry.

During the days of isolation, the student discovers an English Bible which originally belonged to the "Guthrie" family, but which is now incomprehensible to them. For evening entertainment, and "an exercise in translation," the student begins to read the book of Mark to them. As the Gutres come to understand the story, the student wins their devotion. One night, the Gutre daughter mutely offers herself to him. The following morning, after asking the student's blessing, the Gutres turn on him; they mock him, spit at him, and lead him to the yard outside, where they have erected a cross. The story ends. The teller of the Gospel, we understand, is to become the "hero" of his own story; the legend recurs, with each new telling.

LIKE poems, Borges's stories lose nearly everything in summary. Though carefully structured, The Gospel According to St. Mark offers no blatant symbolism. Each sentence conveys a sense of the ending--not an obvious foreboding, but rather an enigmatic key, to which we ultimately--at the last sentence--find a lock. Only after the story is finished, do all the elements reorganize themselves and reveal a sort of meaning.

Other stories in the collection have the same mixture of the commonplace and the mysterious, the concrete and the metaphysical. In a certain sense, these stories do partake in a "realism" which is different from Borges's earlier works. The stories collected in Ficciones and Labyrinths have been appropriately called "metaphysical fictions"; they include parables of uncertain or cryptic explanation, fantastic tales of civilizations and customs which oddly and perversely reflect our own, and pseudo-essays where actual erudition is intermingled with fictional sources, where creation and criticism perplexingly resemble one another. In all of these early stories, through a precise, cool, and credible style, Borges constructs a metaphysics of irreality and uncertainty.

BY CONTRAST, the stories in Doctor Brodie's Report have a far more concrete and intimate flavor. They are tales, for the most part, of personal rivalries, of violence, of jealousy or of love. The events themselves are not impossible or fantastic, but somehow we feel that the forces that compel these events are subtly beyond the power of man's perception or the control of his reason.

In The Meeting, a fatal and apparently meaningless duel between two gentlemen at a party takes on the significance of another sort of "meeting" across time. The two knives which are wielded in the fight seem to quiver, as if by their own energy, in the hands of the unskilled fighters. Taken from a glass cabinet, they are relics from earlier days of Argentine banditry. The narrator discovers, years after this fight that he witnessed as a child, that these two knives (or ones very much like them) belonged to two outlaws, who jealousy despised one another, but who never were able to fight it out. "Things last longer than people," the narrator concludes; "perhaps what we were really seeing was the end of another story, an older story."

The idea that inanimate artifacts may become a medium for energies of the past, and that in this way events and passions recur and prevail through time, is the key to a similar story, Juan Murana. The frail and senile widow of a famed bandit resurrects her "husband", in the form of his knife, to wreak vengence on an unjust landlord.

OTHER stories deal with less mysterious, but still uncannily disturbing events. In The Intruders, two brothers embrace in remorse after the murder of a woman whom they both loved and sacrificed, because she was destroying their own fraternal love. The End of the Duel stands out as one of the most absurd and horrible tales, told with cool, impeccable gravity. Two soldiers, captured and condemned to death, play out a long-standing feud by running a race with their throats slit, while fellow prisoners, awaiting their own executions, place their bets.

If the stories of Labyrinths and Ficciones, then, bestowed a keen sense of reality upon the fantastic, those of Borges' latest "voice" do the opposite: bestowing a sense of the fantastic upon what might very well be real. The old Borgesian fragmentation and permutation of time and of "fact" turn up again. But this time the exotic context is traded for a violent and often absurd mundaneness that is dissettlingly close to home

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