The Congress | Jorge Luis Borges #ARGshortstory

Alejandro Ferri is my name.

I truly am being stalked by Jorge Luis Borges. Everywhere I turn, there he is! Again!

The latest incident occured on the 1st August when I opened my copy of Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse to complete my Edith Trilogy Readalong. Frank ambitiously included six, yes SIX, epigraphs.

The first was from the History of the International Atomic Energy Agency, two was a reference about trust from The Odyssey, three the Borges quote (see below), four from The Communist Manifesto, five a quote from The Thin Red Line about the nature of nature and six, an old Soviet Union joke, ‘The past is unpredictable.’

What can I do?

For some reason the bookish gods keep leading me back to Borges, even though I struggle to understand half of what he says as I try to work out why his work is so influential and referenced so often by others.

The Congress was first published in 1971 in the short story collection, The Book of Sand. The first English translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni was completed in collaboration with the author in 1974. According to Moorhouse is was a special issue of fifty copies by Enitharmon Press, London. However one rare book sites says there were in fact 250 copies and another claims 300. Who knows?

Wherever the truth lies re the print run, Borges himself believed The Congress to be “perhaps the most ambitious of the tales in this book” as well as being one of his favourites.

If of all my stories I had to save one, I would probably save the “The Congress”, which at the same time is the most autobiographical (the one richest in memories) and the most imaginative.

On “The Congress” by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions | Ralph Dumain

In an attempt to understand why Borges reigns so large in so many people’s minds, I started trawling the internet. According to Mark Kerstetter,

The idea isn’t so much to get at the wonder, the mystery, the magic (use whatever term you like) of the cosmos by means of the mundane, nor yet to get there by means of the fantastic; it is more to show that the mundane itself is infused with wonder.

Nasrullah Mambrol believes that, 

The major contributions that Borges made to Latino narrative through his stories lie, first, in his use of imagination, second, in his focus on universal themes common to all human beings, and third, in the intellectual aspect of his works.

In the 1930’s when Borges published his first short story collection, Latin-American literature was dominated by realism and documentary-style social commentary. Borges helped to change all that with his metaphysical, fantastical writing that focused on the inner imaginings of his characters. It was a time when magic realism was encouraged and flourished and where the reader was expected to participate in the making of meaning.

However, by the 1970’s, Borges conservative, classical style was more evident than any magic realism elements. Social commentary was wrapped in big philosophical questions about who were are, why we’re here, and our inherent duality. The Congress features a narrator who shares his view of the world with us.

When I was a young man, I was fond of sunsets, the city’s sprawling slums, and of unhappiness; now I prefer mornings and downtown and peace.

Despite these personal reflections, his world is grounded in the reality of government, rules, leadership and the plight of the gauchos. The idea behind the Congress is one of universal assembly which encompasses all of humanity. Several problems occur almost straight away when it is decided that every single group should have their own representative, that the Congress should have a library that includes every publication and that they should have an official language.

All groups tend to create their own dialects and rites; the Congress, which always had something dreamlike about it, seemed to want its members to discover—at leisure and for themselves—its real aim and even the names and surnames of its members. I was not long in realizing that I was duty‑bound not to ask questions.

Naturally this Congress is doomed to failure. The leader, Alexander Glencoe, orders all the books in the library to be burnt, declaring, “The Congress of the World began with the first moment of the world and it will go on when we are dust. There’s no place on earth where it does not exist.

What is the meaning of all this?

Who knows. I certainly don’t. Perhaps there is an element of enjoy the moment now because you don’t know what will happen later. Maybe Borges is commenting on Argentinian politics? I also don’t know enough about Borges’ life story to comment on the rich memories that this story evokes for Borges.

But I do know already that it wouldn’t be a Borges story without a library along with numerous dips in and out of memory, time and linguistics. I didn’t spot a tiger, although a leopard and its spots made a brief appearance.

While his stories tend to leave me bemused and confused, I am curious to see where this weirdly persistent Borges association takes me. Am I being led astray, on a road to nowhere, or is enlightenment just ahead?

Epigraph: The Congress, Jorge Luis Borges | from Cold Light, Frank Moorhouse

Twirl went pale. Nierenstein blurted, ‘How can the Congress of the World do without this valuable material I’ve collected with so much love?’

‘The Congress of the World?’ said don Alejandra. He laughed scornfully. I have never before heard him laugh.

‘There is a mysterious pleasure in destruction,’ he said.

Borges, of course, has his own Epigraph for The Congress from Diderot | Jacques le Fataliste et son Maître (1796)

 …ils s’acheminèrent vers un château immense, au frontispice duquel on lisait: “Je n’appartiens à personne et j’appartiens à tout le monde. Vous y étiez avant que d’y entrer, et vous y serez encore quand vous en sortirez.

An online translation service gives us “…they walked towards a huge castle, on whose frontispiece was written: “I belong to no one and I belong to everyone. You were there before you entered, and you will be there again when you leave.

Title: The Congress | El Congreso
Author: Jorge Luis Borges
Translator: Norman Thomas di Giovanni
Imprint: Dutton Books
Published: 1977 (originally published 1971)
Format: ebook
Pages: 21
Date Read: 15 August 2022
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

24 thoughts on “The Congress | Jorge Luis Borges #ARGshortstory

  1. It is weird how one author can pop up again and again in unusual places. I had Robert MacFarlane everywhere I went or things I listened to. Now he is gone from that. Wonder who will be next. Lol

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  2. Borges is an author I haven’t read yet, and one who seems intimidating. But I do have a short bio/essay on his works on my TBR which I thought might be a good place to start before I actually read him.

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    1. I think it would a great place to start. The next time his work pops up for me, I plan/hope to read a few online bio’s to get a better sense of the man. I’ve read a few onloine essays that have helped me understand the common themes and ideas that appear in his work, but it has been a pretty basic undertaking so far.
      What is the name of the book you have?

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    1. I had an earlier literary stalker in the shape of Virginia Woolf, but it wasn’t as persistent or consistent as the current Borges one! And you’re right, the bonus is the reading 🙂

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  3. I thought I had read something by Borges and disliked it, but I just looked at his books, and it turns out I haven’t read anything by him. I guess I just expanded my bias against Marquez to include him, which isn’t fair at all. They’re not even from the same country.

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  4. I’ve unpacked my thoughts about a couple of Borges’ fictions, with the same sense of trepidation.
    I had completely forgotten that I finished my post about ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, (from Labyrinths) with a postscript:
    It occurred to me after I’d published this, to Google the name of the story. Wikipedia has a massive entry about it, which is very intimidating. Ignore it. Just read Borges and enjoy it!

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    1. I’m not sure I have the same sense of enjoyment that you have for Borges’ work, but my curiousity has certainly been piqued. I can say, though, that ‘The House of Asterion’ has been my favourite to date.

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  5. I’ve long believed that “the mundane itself is infused with wonder” and – knowing that the meaning of the word “miraculous” is essentially “inspiring a sense of wonder” more than anything supernatural – that it is up to me alone to be aware that all forms of life and creation are means to evoke wonder.

    I think that Borges was about trying to trigger the sense of wondrousness in his writings by inviting us to see things anew, even as not what we thought they were. I used to (and still do) borrow a technique of the late Colin Wilson and employ “holiday consciousness”, imagining I’m visiting a strange city when in fact I’m in a familiar urban environment, just so I can see things in a new light.

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    1. I will keep this in mind when I read my next Borges short story, Chris.
      I was reminded of the ‘holiday consciousness’ technique myself on the weekend as we had out of state visitors staying with us. Seeing Sydney through their eyes reminded of how glorious our harbour truly is, especially on a sunny winter’s day 🙂

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