Review of Universal History of Infamy Essay

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Review of Universal History of Infamy

The word ‘Magical realism’ first introduced by Franz Roh, a German art critic, conjures up images of the fantastic and the profane in the minds of the reader transporting him into a world whose edges are as blurred as the characters or the situations the stories portray. The works of Jorge Luis Borges are characterised by this style of literature. Though ‘Magical realism’ is not considered a genre by itself, it has all the makings of one and is profoundly illustrated in all the works of Borges.

David Mullan in his article Magic Realism: A Problem says ‘…. Angel Flores applied the term (with some modification – he referred to it as “magical realism”) to Spanish-American writing. Flores put forward Borges as the master of this form……. ’ ‘In his first series of fiction Historia Universal de la Infamia (‘A Universal History of Infamy’) he took real and mythical characters and created new stories around them. Sometimes creating new events for fictional characters, at other times creating fantastic incidents involving real life characters.

In these stories, again published in newspapers, it can be said he laid the foundations for Latin American Magical Realism’ (BBC, 2003). 2. 0 Overview This article attempts to show how Borges rewrites/reconstructs history/historical figures that are seen as infamous legendary figures in the book ‘The Universal History of Infamy. ’ An attempt has been made to identify history, lie and legend lacing the characters and events presented in the stories. The link between Oscar Wilde`s essay, `The Decay of Lying` and Borges book has been brought out.

Other works by Borges such as ‘The Ficciones’ ,`The secret miracle`, and `The South` have also been used for the purpose of this discussion. 3. 0 Literature Review: ‘A Universal History of Infamy’ is a collection of stories that first appeared in Critica, a Buenos Aires newspaper, August 1933 to January 1934. The remarkable element which flows through this collection is violence and death and as with many other stories of Borges, contains the occasional twist as the story unfolds.

For the purpose of this article the stories ‘The South’ and the Secret Miracle’ of Borges have also been taken into consideration. Before we venture further given below a summary of the above said stories so that we will be able to appreciate Borges better as well as render justice to the topic for discussion. In ‘The South’, Juan Dahlmann, the protagonist, while taking a copy of the Arabian Nights home, gets injured on his forehead on a window and is forced to be in bed for a number of days before his doctors move him to the hospital.

In the words of Borges, ‘Fever wasted him and the pictures in The Thousand and One Nights served to illustrate nightmares. ’ Learning that he is dying of septicemia, he travels to his ranch to convalesce. Reaching his destination, he enters a restaurant to have his food before proceeding. The locals at the restaurant taunt him by throwing bread crumbs at him and challenge him to a duel, one even providing him with a knife. Though Dahlmann is aware that he would lose if he were to accept the challenge, he feels that that would be the death he would prefer.

In the words of Gorges, ‘As he crossed the threshold, he felt that to die in a knife fight, under the open sky, and going forward to the attack, would have been a liberation, a joy, and a festive occasion, on the first night in the sanitarium, when they stuck him with the needle. He felt that if he had been able to choose, then, or to dream his death, this would have been the death he would have chosen or dreamt. ’ In the “The Secret Miracle” the protagonist is Jaromir Hladik, who is arrested for the two reasons: i) being a Jew and ii) for opposing the Anschluss, and consequently sentenced to die by firing squad.

Borges says,’ The execution was set for the 29th of March, at nine in the morning. This delay was due to a desire on the part of the authorities to act slowly and impersonally, in the manner of planets or vegetables. ’ Though appalled at first by the fact of his inevitable and impending death Hladik turns his attention to his unfinished play, ‘The Enemies’ which he resolves to complete before his execution. The night before his death, Hladik prays to God to grant him one year to finish his play.

At night he dreams of a voice that says: ‘The time for your labor has been granted. ’ The next day at the moment the sergeant gives order to the firing squad, time stops and Hladik, though motionless like all others, completes the play mentally and after he completes, the bullets from the firing squad end his life. Borges works seem to defy the proposition of Wilde that, ‘One of the chief causes that can be assigned for the curiously commonplace character of most of the literature of our age is undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art, a science, and a social pleasure.

The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction. ’ (David Scott-Okamura, 1998) It is not hard to see that Borges created fantastic worlds out of legends , humanizing them and making them more real as if made of flesh and blood as the examples quoted in this write-up would show which is in line with Wilde’s observation : ‘The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations and not boast of them as copies.

The justification of a character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is’. (David Scott-Okamura, 1998). Wilde is right when to emphasize his theory that fiction is more interesting than fact, he says, ‘In fact what is interesting about people in good society… is the mask each one of them wears, not the reality that lies behind the mask. ’ Borges’ portrayal of the character in his stories adds credence to this observation.

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