The Other and Ulrikke by Borges – Story Review

I have been trying to get into Jorge Luis Borges for about five years now. I had a professor at Siena Heights who really pushed the guy and I really respected this professor, so when he leant me his collection of Borges’s fiction I really tried to bear down on the thing and get under its skin. And I failed. Miserably. The thing ended up sitting on my shelf for a few weeks until the time that I returned it to him, told him how much I enjoyed it but didn’t get far into it and silently promised to take up the task again in the near future.

Five years later I pulled the collection out of the local library and have begun again. I may or may not have given the thing a chance while at UT but I can’t say for certain as that period of my life is mostly filled with memories of darkness, destruction and calamity. And none of the aforementioned triumvirate of misery had anything to really do with grad school itself, which should really tell you how wonderful those two years were.

Now I am having just as difficult of a time but I’m still trying. Instead of starting at the beginning, I’m going through the book almost at random, reading what immediately catches my eye while skipping over the things that hold less interest. This is the first story that truly grabbed me.

It centers around Borges encountering a younger version of himself on a park bench. in Cambridge, in February 1969. The bulk of the story consists of the older Borges trying to convince the younger Borges that this meeting is actually taking place and that they are, in fact, the same person. Despite many repeated attempts, the younger Borges refuses to capitulate, refuses to believe in the assertions made by thee older Borges.

It finally turns at the end where the older Borges continues to believe that he is real but that the other Borges was dreaming, but dreaming poorly as he dreamed of  a paper bill that couldn’t have existed. It’s an almost easy ending that allows you to forget how well it just plain old works.

and I’m still trying to decide whether I like it or not. It is a variation on the old “and it was all a dream!” ending that reeks of an author taking the easy way out of a difficult situation. At the same time, Borges isn’t saying all of it was a dream, just the other guy; that everything else was real except the younger Borges was there while dreaming while the older Borges was awake during the conversation. And all of the proof the older Borges has is this dollar bill that was dreamed incorrectly.

At first I didn’t think there was much to it, despite the story being enjoyable. I thought it was just a cute little thing. But the most obvious question soon surfaced: why does the older Borges so stridently believe that he’s not the dreamer? After all, it could just as easily be him that dreamed the incorrect dollar bill and it may be more likely that the dreamer would believe in his reality more than the dreamed.

But there wasn’t much I could do with this until I read the next story, Ulrikke. It’s a story, again about Borges, but about his short affair with a Norwegian woman: Ulrikke. Like The Other, Ulrikke depends greatly on the author’s point of view and the knowledge pre-supposed. Taken together, it seems that memory and perception are focus points for Borges. In either story, the protagonist has a great belief in how they view the world being the correct view. They take assured steps because of this. But I’m not sure either protagonist has great reason to believe this.

The problem I am encountering with Borges is that his fiction is so short, that it is difficult to break one story down into enough, well, stuff to really do anything with. It appears that the only way to mine Borges is to read an entire collection (not necessarily his career collection but one of the individual collections he put out in his life) and to see where the whole goes.  I’ll keep mining.

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