So I had this great idea to write a separate review for every short story every written by the master of short stories (or short fictions as they’re often called, for reasons that will become apparent), Jorge Luis Borges. I’m not sure how great this great idea is, but I’ll get started anyway.
I’m going to move chronologically, using the order in the Collected Fictions, from the first book ‘A Universal History of Iniquity’ (1935) right through to ‘Shakespeare’s Memory (1983). That means that the first story to review is The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell. It’s not my favourite story by any means, but it does introduce quite a few typical Borges elements, so perhaps it’s not a bad place to start.
A quick note of warning: in reviewing these stories, I’m going to talk about the endings. It’s pretty much unavoidable with a short story, especially as some of Borges’s fictions are only a few pages long. I hope that people will be more forgiving of having the ending of such short pieces spoilt than they would be if I gave away the ending of a 500-page novel. That said, if you’re desperate not to know the ending, look away now. So here we go.
What struck me when I first read The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell is something that I soon realised is common in Borges. He uses non-fictional techniques to tell a fictional story, making it seem much more credible and serious than it would otherwise. So he refers to sources (sometimes made-up, sometimes real but grossly distorted), and writes in a historical, almost scholarly way. Even though it’s almost impossible to tell what’s real and what isn’t, the assured scholarly tone does make you believe every word. He’s not trying to convince you of anything – he’s just writing dispassionately about events, as historians do when they know they’re dealing with real events. Fiction writers often try too hard to convince their readers that their world is real, and so make it sound more false.
This first story is about a man, Lazarus Morell, who lives in the deep South of the United States during slavery, making money by tricking slaves into thinking he’s helping them escape, only to keep reselling them to new plantations. In typical historical/scholarly/deliberately obtuse fashion, Borges does not begin with a dramatic episode in Morell’s life – he doesn’t even begin with Morell’s life at all. He starts with what he calls the “Remote Cause”:
In 1517, Fray Bartolome de las Casas, feeling great pity for the Indians who grew worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines, proposed to Emperor Charles V that Negroes be brought to the isles of the Caribbean, so that they might grow worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines.
He then draws up a long list of effects of the African presence in the Americas, one of which is the existence of the cruel redeemer Lazarus Morell. After the “Remote Cause”, he proceeds through more subtitles to discuss “The Place”, “The Men”, then “The Man” himself, then “The Method”, “The Final Freedom”, “The Catastrophe” and “The Interruption”. These subtitles, combined with references to other sources and language like “It is probably safe to assume that…”, give a feeling of an academic text, heightened by the “Index of Sources” given at the end of the collection, in which we are told that this story is based on a book by Mark Twain and another by Bernard de Voto. Yet there are changes and distortions – the real historical figure was John Murrell, for example, but Borges invents the name Lazarus, perhaps referring to the Biblical character who rose from the dead – Morell does give the slaves he frees a new life, even if he then takes it away almost immediately by selling them back into slavery (or, if they show signs of talking too much, by killing them).
“The Catastrophe” is Morell’s betrayal at the hands of one of his men, which leads him to desperate measures – since he is now a wanted man and an outlaw, he decides to start a slave rebellion to overthrow the authorities who are trying to imprison him (the slaves still support him – having seen their friends escaping and not being brought back, they assumed they’d found freedom. Borges sets up the resolution, with Morell killing a man and stealing his horse and riding around the plantations to whip up rebellion.
Then there’s the final passage, “The Interruption”, in which Borges not only frustrates our expectations but even lays out all the better endings there could have been, before giving us a massive anticlimax:
Morell leading uprisings of Negroes that dreamed of hanging him … Morell hanged by armies of Negroes that he had dreamed of leading … it pains me to admit that the history of the Mississippi did not seize upon those rich opportunities. Nor, contrary to all poetic justice (and poetic symmetry), did the river of his crimes become his tomb. On the 2nd of January, 1835, Lazarus Morell died of pulmonary congestion in the hospital at Natchez, where he’d been admitted under the name Silas Buckley. Another man in the ward recognized him. On that day, and on the 4th of January, slaves on scattered plantations attempted to revolt, but they were put down with no greet loss of blood.
An infuriating ending, yes, but for me it’s one that says something about the futility and unpredictability of life, the frailty of human plans, the way in which successful and powerful people can very suddenly fall from power and even die – this happens often in other Borges stories, and often in the same way, with the narrative reflecting the events and the life ended in a sentence or two. I think it also says something about the time and place of the story, a time and place in which heroes were rare, in which victories and happy endings were almost impossible, in which lives just fizzled out while the monstrous system went on and on. Most of all the ending feels true, more true (if less poetic) than the other possibilities, and for some reason that’s what we want from fiction – even though we know it’s made up, we want it to feel absolutely true.