Posted by: Sally Ingraham | May 6, 2010

A Universal History of Iniquity

Borgesfrom Collected Fictions
by Jorge Luis Borges
translated by Andrew Hurley

Borges wrote in 1954, 20 years after the publication of his first collection, that the stories found within were ‘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 other men.’

I’m jumping the gun a bit on the extra-curricular reading of Borges’ short stories by our non-structured book group, the discussion of which will kick off tomorrow with Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. I couldn’t wait to start my perusal of Collected Fictions though, and it seemed extremely fitting to explore Borges reworkings of the ‘stories of other men’ after reading Life a User’s Manual and witnessing Perec’s creative use of the same type of distortion.

In A Universal History of Iniquity, Borges wrote pieces inspired by the writings of Mark Twain, the history of pirates, The Gangs of New York, tales of Billy the Kid, Japanese folklore, and 1001 Nights. According to the translator Andrew Hurley, Borges clearly borrowed directly from his sorces at times, freely adapted them at others, and pretty much did whatever he wanted to at all times, changing dates and rearranging events to fit his purpose. The stories are kind of peculiar, being in general short biographies of clever and violent people, with fluctuating tone and style – mostly entertaining, but nothing too impressive.

That’s why in comparison the one completely original story in the collection – Man on Pink Corner – is so damn good! It’s apparent from the first sentences that this is a story that is fully alive, bristling with the music of the tango, a hubbub of voices, a sky that goes on forever. The writing style is quite different, far more descriptive and yet simpler too. It’s the story of a hot night in Buenos Aires, and an encounter between two skilled knife fighters, witnessed by an observer who may or may not have remained passively on the sidelines… If this is a good example of Borges work, I am hooked.

PerecBringing it back around to Perec (this could become a habit!) in the comments on Richard’s post about Life a User’s Manual, he mentioned coming across a version of this Borges story in Perec’s work. Since I hadn’t read anything by Borges at the time I passed through Chapter 73, I didn’t pick up on this, but it was fun in the best geeky sense to go back and see what mischief Perec had gotten up to.

There in the story of Lino Margey, the brilliant motor-pacing bicycle champion who disfigured his face in a terrible crash, and took himself off to Buenos Aires, where due to his incredible memory and a fairly lengthy prison stay, he accidentally became the New World’s mobsters’ who’s who…there the informed reader will find the character of Rosendo Juarez, one of Borges’ knife fighters, called “The Sticker” by him and “The Thumper” by Perec – both equally good with the shiv. Like Borges before him, Perec just grabs what he needs and runs with it, in this case not really retelling the story but allowing his characters and Borges’ characters to exist in the same world. I rather like this technique – the merging of two literary landscapes.

I’m going to quote Richard, if I may, since his comment coupled with something Borges said kind of completes my thoughts here:

“On the “plagiarism” front, the main thing I wanted to say is that I loved how Perec rewrote the 30 writers mentioned in the postscript into his novel via the embedded quotations. Made their stories “his” in the same way that we readers make all stories “ours” through the act of reading.” – Richard

‘I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves.’ – Jorge Luis Borges

It’s one of my ambitions in life to be a ‘good reader’ and with this vote of confidence from Borges and the likes of him and Perec to keep me on my toes, I’m well on my way I believe. 🙂


  1. I’ve tried and tried to like Borges, but your post encourages me to try yet again! I think reading what everyone writes for this extra-curricular activity will give me some better insight into Borges and allow me to enjoy him more.

    I like your discussion on Borges and Perec’s “literary plagiarism.” As I mentioned in my comment on Richard’s Perec post, it’s almost like writing in code. Well-read readers will pick up on stuff like that and it’s always fun to recognize an allusion to or fragment of another author’s work.

    • What I love is that as I become better and better read, I can come back to Perec and pick up on more and more. How crazy is that? It’s been so cool to see how everyone has noticed completely different things.

      I remember you saying you weren’t thrilled with Borges. I’ll be curious to see if that changes for you. So far for me I like his playfullness, especially what he writes in his forwards to his story collections. I’m eager to see what more of his original stories are like.

  2. To EL Fay, I’ve encountered a lot of people who aren’t very enthusiastic about Borges, which is why I’ve waited this long to start reading him, but from the one story I’ve read so far, I think he may be a new favorite of mine! I totally loved the story we’re discussing tomorrow.

    And to Sarah: awesome to return to that connection! I think that following up the Perec with the Borges is a pretty inspired move – he was obviously a HUGE influence, and it’s fun to back-track and see where Perec took some of Borges’s innovations.

    • Yes, I definitely think Richard was on to something when he suggested it! Very enjoyable followup indeed.

  3. Sarah, glad you liked “Man on Pink Corner”! It’s kind of an anomaly for Borges in some ways (mostly having to do with the use of the vernacular), but in others it’s totally typical of his carefully crafted prose, intricate plots, and cerebral playfulness. I think many people have the same sort of reaction to the rest of A Universal History of Iniquity as you: i.e. it’s “good” but not Borges’ best stuff. You’ll have to keep it in mind when you get around to reading Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, though, because that’s one of Bolaño’s main launch pads for his incredible novel. Ha, hope I’m not repeating myself too much!

    • Yay, can’t wait to read that particular Bolano. Repeat yourself all you want – it just stokes my excitement. 🙂

      The translator, Andrew Hurley, said something similar about Man on Pink Corner – that it wasn’t totally typical of him. However, having read more by now I can still claim to liking Borges very much.

  4. Omg Borges and Perec wrote fanfiction!

    • Hehe, yes. I’ve kind of had that thought in the back of my mind. Too funny.

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