Review: A Universal History of Iniquity

I suspect A Universal History of Iniquity was the wrong place to start with Borges, which is what happens when you pick up books on a random whim at the library. It was shelved under “Short Stories”; this was a lie. It’s actually a collection of short, pulpy biographical pieces about renowned criminals and con artists from history, including such colourful and varied individuals as Billy the Kid, Arthur Orton (the claimant in the Tichborne case) and female Chinese pirate captain Ching Shih.

They were first published in a newspaper called Critica, which seems to have been the 1930s Argentinian equivalent of The Sun. Which gives you a good idea of what these pieces are like, tonally.

Probably the most interesting thing about them is their truth-value, which, as you’d expect from a writer of Borges’ reputation, is very dubious. As translator Andrew Hurley helpfully explains, Borges plays merry hell with his sources, quoting them extensively in some passages without mentioning it, while fabricating direct quotes elsewhere. (Which is, come to think of it, not unlike the kind of journalism employed in The Sun. YES, I WENT THERE.)

I’m not sure, though, exactly what the point of this is. The pieces themselves feel slight, unstriking, forgettable, if reasonably nicely written; Borges describes them in an introduction as “baroque”,

that style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature…the final stage in all art, when art flaunts and squanders its resources.

I’d be interested in thinking with this quotation about Gothic texts like Gormenghast or House of Leaves, but I have no idea how to engage with it in the context of A Universal History of Iniquity. The pieces are too insubstantial to claim that they exhaust their own possibilities.

It’s possible that this is all an elaborate joke about the ephemerality of authorship, the flimsiness of authority, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’d enjoy that joke more if I’d actually read any of Borges’ major works. Which I will! A Universal History of Iniquity hasn’t put me off, but it hasn’t exactly whetted my curiosity either.

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