31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 19: “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges (Andrew Hurley, trans.); “The Region of Unlikeliness” by Rivka Galchen

May 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Collected Fictions; American Innovations

Collected_Fictions_Jorge_Luis_BorgesThe flap copy on Rivka Galchen’s debut collection of stories indicates that the individual pieces in Galchen’s book “are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters.” It is unclear whether this is meant simply as marketing bumf: American Innovations contains no author’s note explaining Galchen’s intentions in this regard, and the connections between her stories and their putative inspirations are often loose and baggy (the title story, for instance, which apparently references Gogol’s “The Nose,” has at least as much resonance with Philip Roth’s novella The Breast.)

It is certainly not necessary (nor even desirable) to know that Galchen’s story “The Region of Unlikeliness” is “a smoky and playful mirror” of Borges’s classic story “The Aleph,” but since the comparison has been drawn for us, it might be worthwhile to consider the two stories in tandem.

One of Borges’s most famous stories, “The Aleph” is told in the first person by a narrator also named “Borges,” whose beloved Beatriz Viterbo dies in Buenos Aires “after an imperious confrontation with her illness.” Each year on the anniversary of her death, Borges makes it a habit – “an irreproachable, perhaps essential act of courtesy” – to call on her father and her first cousin to pay his respects.

The cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri, “holds some sort of subordinate position in an illegible library in the outskirts toward the south of the city.” He is also a particularly atrocious poet. Through a series of circumstances, Daneri invites Borges to attend the home of his parents, in the basement of which there exists an Aleph – “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist.”

The first thing to recognize about Borges’s story is its genre. In an afterword to the 1949 collection The Aleph and Other Stories, Borges indicates that the story belongs “to the genre of fantasy.” That is, Borges acknowledges the fantastical nature of the eponymous phenomenon, the “point at which all points converge”; his narrator even admits to “hopelessness” in trying to describe the Aleph: “the central problem – the enumeration, even partial enumeration, of infinity – is irresolvable.” The Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and has particular meaning in the Kabbalah, where, Borges points out, the letter “signifies En Soph, the pure and unlimited godhead.”American_Innovations_Galchen

Galchen retains the fantastical aspect, but dispenses with Jewish mythology in favour of quantum physics. In her version of the story, the protagonist, a female graduate student in civil engineering, encounters two men, Jacob and Ilan, in a New York coffee shop, and the three strike up a conversation. When Ilan disappears, Jacob approaches the narrator with a proposition: he wants her to kill him in order to test the viability of what in science fiction is known as “the grandfather paradox”:

Simply stated, the paradox is this: if travel to the past is possible – and much physics suggests that it is – then what happens if you travel back in time and set out to murder your grandfather? If you succeed, then you will never be born, and therefore you won’t murder your grandfather, so therefore you will be born, and will be able to murder him, et cetera, ad paradox.

The fantastical element in Galchen’s story involves Ilan, whom Jacob insists is his son from the future, as yet unborn. The paradox, if you will, is that quantum theory has made this science-fiction premise, if not likely, at the least theoretically possible. “The general theory of relativity is compatible with the existence of space-times in which travel to the past or remote future is possible,” Galchen writes. “[We] are told by those who would know that the logician Kurt Gödel proved this in the late 1940s.”

The invocation of the 20th-century Austrian mathematician is significant. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems suggest that pure mathematics is limited, that is, that theoretical mathematics will never solve all of the riddles of the universe. This is incompatible with what some quantum physicists posit as a theory of everything (ToE) – a theory that might explain every physical phenomenon, including tunneling, wormholes, and, presumably, time travel. The ToE is a theoretical catch-all, a place where all physical phenomenon, observed and unobserved, coexist. In other words, a Borgesian Aleph.

It is thus possible to note nodes of commonality between Galchen’s story and Borges’s (the central meetings between characters – Borges and Daneri in the latter; the narrator and Jacob in the former – even share the fact that they represent the only time the characters in question call the respective narrators on the telephone). However, it is equally interesting to note what doesn’t survive Galchen’s transliteration: Borges’s tone.

Simply put, “The Aleph” is one of Borges’s funniest stories. Daneri’s abominable poetry, and the poet’s own outrageously overinflated estimation of his abilities, is fodder for much comedy: at one point, Borges says that Daneri has “written a poem that seemed to draw out to infinity the possibilities of cacophony and chaos” (which, in addition to being a humorous assessment on its face, also alludes to Milton, whose idea of chaos shares resonance with Borges’s Aleph). The fact that Daneri comes in second for an Argentinian national literary prize, and that this “goes without saying,” is a bit of sarcastic literary criticism worthy of Mencken. And Borges’s belated recognition of the potential peril he has opened himself up to by allowing Daneri to display the Aleph for him – “Suddenly I realized the danger I was in; I had allowed myself to be locked underground by a madman, after first drinking down a snifter of poison” – is similarly inspired.

Galchen, by contrast, treats her material with a po-faced earnestness that renders it somehow flatter, less vibrant than Borges’s gleeful literary trickery. This is only apparent when the two stories are read together; it is probable that, on its own, the relative lack of humour in “The Region of Unlikeliness” would go entirely unremarked. One is left to wonder, then, whether it is advantageous to draw attention to the way Galchen’s story is “secretly in conversation” with Borges’s, or whether that tidbit might more profitably have remained a secret.