[I realize that my Borgesian column usually runs in August or September, but it is early this year.]
As I was looking for a book at the library, I came across A New Universal History of Infamy by Rhys Hughes (ISBN-10 1-892389-83-5, ISBN-13 978-1-892-38983-1) in the science fiction section. I have two possible explanations for what it was doing in the science fiction section, neither of them very convincing. One is that it is an homage to a work by Jorge Luis Borges (A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges (ISBN-10 0-525-47546-X, ISBN-13 978-0-525-47546-0)), and everyone knows that what Borges writes is science fiction, or fantasy, or something like that. The problem with this theory is that Borges is not shelved in the science fiction section. The second theory is that it is alternate history, because while Hughes is writing about real people, his accounts do not match up with the people's real histories. The problem with this is the same--Borges's book did the same, and it is not treated as alternate history. (Actually, I have a third theory: anything published by Ministry of Whimsy Press is considered fantasy.)
Before I talk about the Hughes book, let me discuss the Borges. Borges gives the "histories" of such infamous people as Billy the Kid and Monk Eastman, but while a lot of the what he writes is true, there is enough that is false to cause real problems to anyone who trusts the accounts enough to try to pass an examination on the subjects. For example, Billy the Kid's mother was Irish, but he was not "brought up among Negros." He was shot by Pat Garrett, but not in Sumner and not in the manner Borges describes.
(Allen B. Ruch has pointed out that "Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities" has come to have a very Borgesian history: Borges wrote it using Herbert Asbury's Gangs of New York (1928) as a source, and the recent movie tie-in edition of Asbury's book uses parts of Borges's article as an introduction!)
There are also several small pieces in a section titled "Et cetera" which Borges credits to other sources, such as Sir Richard Burton's translation of A Thousand and One Nights or Burton's Lake Regions of Central Africa. Of course, these references are completely bogus, which is probably why Borges chose very long works that would be difficult to read through to verify them.
One sees the same recurring themes in A Universal History of Infamy that I commented on in my review of Labyrinths. The most common recurring reference in Borges's work is to mirrors. They are mentioned in "Tlöon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and eight other stories in Labyrinths. In A Universal History of Infamy, they are mentioned in "The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv" (1934): "The world we live in is a mistake, a clumsy parody. Mirrors and fatherhood, because they multiply and confirm the parody, are abominations." [tr. Norman Thomas di Giovanni] This is almost precisely the quote from the article on Uqbar cited in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940): "For one of those gnostics, the visible universe was an illusion or, more precisely, a sophism. Mirrors and fatherhood are abominable because they multiply and extend it." [tr. Andrew Kerrigan]
And switching now to Rhys Hughes:
This echoing of other works shows up in A New Universal History of Infamy. Compare these two passages:
Borges: "I should define as baroque that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all possibilities and which borders on its own parody. ... The very title of these pages flaunts their baroque character. To curb them would amount to destroying them.... ["Preface to the 1954 Edition"]
Hughes: "I might describe as Borgesian that excessive interest in possibilities which never (or rarely) succeeds in exhausting itself with awe, terror, or time. ... The very title of this little book flaunts its Borgesian character. To apologize for it wiuld be tantamount to admitting I am incapable of paying the great man tribute." ["Preface to the Unpublished Edition"]
(In this and in other echoes, Hughes seems to favor the di Giovanni translation over the later Hurley one as published in Borges's Collected Fictions.)
This echoing, in fact, is Borgesian on a meta-level; Hughes seems to be following, at least in part, the lead of Pierre Menard. He is "Rhys Hughes, Author of a Universal History of Infamy."
Hughes borrows some Borgesian themes. In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", Borges describes the various stages of "hronir" ("copies" of a sort) has the notion that copies get less and less accurate. Hughes also references Borges. In "Trader of Doom, Basil Zaharoff", Hughes talks about how Zaharoff wrote "Realms of the Lost", in which Zaharoff says that lost objects have slipped into another dimension, which is necessarily populated with fewer objects than ours. When objects in that dimension are lost, they slip into yet another dimension, with yet fewer objects, and so on. The tenth dimension "contains nothing but a bare landscape, a road, a tree and two men with the appearance of tramps." (This is, of course, yet another literary reference.)
Hughes also references Borges. In "Basil Zaharoff", Hughes refers in passing to how "the Widow Ching could afford to buy her way into expertly researched histories of infamy as a 'lady pirate' despite her mild manners and timid nature." "The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate" is one of the stories in the Borges volume. He also mentions Herbert Quain (Borges's "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain"). And in "The Maddest King, Henri Christophe", Hughes changes the date of the actual Haitian slave revolt by two days (August 22, 1791) so that he can have it occur on August 24--Borges's birthday.
Hughes has some non-Borgesian inside jokes as well. In the same story, he mentions the Vicar of Splott, Lionel Fanthorpe. Lionel Fanthorpe was a prolific science fiction writer of the pulp era.
Hughes does falter in his pastiche with such stories as "The Worst Hero, Dick Turpin" and "The Maddest King, Henri Christophe", which are full of such absurdities that one cannot even begin to believe them. But the ability to be believable is a key component of why the rest--and all of Borges's stories-- work so well.
It may be reading too much into this to say that both Borges and Hughes were writing in countries whose literary culture has been dominated by that of a conquering foreign country: for Borges Argentina and Spain, for Hughes, Wales and England. In both cases, the home country had no written literary tradition before their conquest, and created their literature in the foreign tongue. (This is not quite as true for Wales, I realize--one cannot stretch the analogy too much.)
[This article appeared in the 04/27/07 issue of the MT VOID.]
To order Jorge Luis Borges's A Universal History of Infamy from amazon.com, click here.
To order Rhys Hughes's A New Universal History of Infamy from amazon.com, click here.
Evelyn C. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Evelyn C. Leeper