Updated February 03, 2019


Reality being a fiction that we apprehend in a combination of intertwined languages — which include scientific theory, religious belief and the symbols projected by art — the evolution of the novel has historically been driven to the creation of new forms of fictions that convey the sharpest illusion of a believable reality. When we talk of a ‘realistic’ novel, we employ the term to indicate that we believe the content of that work to conform to our perception of the world we live in and more or less to coincide with what is happening, or could very possibly happen, in our own lives. This, however, presumes that we know the world we live in.

Concerning our perception of the world, Machado de Assis satirises the complacent human notion of reality in his short story ‘A Canary’s Ideas’ by showing it from the point of view of a canary. When it is in a second-hand shop crammed full of “old, bent, broken, tarnished articles” usually found in junk shops, the canary thinks that the world is “a second-hand shop with the small rectangular bamboo cage”; it believes itself “lord of the cage it lives in” beyond which “everything is illusion and deception.”

Then, bought by an owner who creates a large cage for it in his garden, the canary believes that the world is a “broad garden with a fountain ... flowers ... clear air, and a bit of blue up above.” Now it is lord of a “spacious cage ... from which it looks out on the rest of the world. Everything else is illusion and deception.” Next, escaping from that cage and living in the open, the canary thinks that the world “is an infinite blue space, with the sun above it.”

We could be in Plato’s cave with our backs to the light looking at ourselves as shadows cast on the wall in front of us, we could be Samuel Beckett’s “Lost Ones” trying eternally to climb out of the well in the bottom of which we’re sunk, we could be Franz Kafka’s beetle or Machado’s canary, or we could be sitting in a spacecraft launched by NASA and hurtling towards a black hole.

That the world is a collection of fictions is put forward by Jorge Luis Borges in his book of short stories, Ficciones (ed. John Sturrock, Everyman’s Library, 1993). In his introduction, Sturrock points out that Borges’s interest in the philosophical doctrines propounded by Plato, George Berkeley and Arthur Schopenhauer is behind his own speculations about reality as a mental construct. Some of the stories read like essays while intriguing the reader with some absorbing biographical puzzle.

‘The Approach to Al Mu’tasim’ begins with information of a detective novel written by Mir Bahadur Ali and published in Bombay [Mumbai] in 1932. Writing with the formal precision of a learned scholar with references and footnotes, Borges is so deeply convincing that Bahadur Ali was a real person that even a reader born in the subcontinent, such as myself, is persuaded that Borges is presenting a true reality. His brief summary of Bahadur Ali’s novel enlarges itself in the reader’s mind into a long narrative of what must surely be historically true until the end when one is left puzzled and enchanted by the elaborate literary invention.

Each of the other stories in Ficciones, most notably the one titled ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, presents an alternate conjecture of reality that is a marvel of intellectual invention for which there could be scientific and even religious validation. Curiously, writers such as Borges, Machado and Kafka, giving us fantastic versions of reality, leave us with a greater impression of truth than do novelists writing in the widely accepted realistic mode, and they are certainly much more exciting to read than the popular producers of “page-turners.”

The most common form of the novel, often referred to as mainstream fiction, absorbs the reader with what is essentially a biographical account of a character living in its canary’s idea of reality, focusing on some dramatically crucial event in the character’s life, such as being diagnosed with cancer just when one’s marriage is breaking down, or being the victim of some contemporary horror, such as a family fleeing from Afghanistan or Syria, presented in a piling up of events with flashbacks.

Current social and political problems are considered important subject matter, the author’s revelations released as a medical diagnostician’s analysis of the given facts. Each generation re-assembles these novels with robotic facility that the unthinking readers see as a true picture of reality. This common form produces the commercial successes of the publishing industry, novels that are promoted as ‘great’ by newspapers in which the publishers buy advertisements, and then consigned to oblivion.

The modern masters of mainstream fiction were Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck, both old-fashioned storytellers. The latter’s The Grapes of Wrath presents a moving picture of the Great Depression, but what makes the obvious unfolding of the not unexpected events illustrative of human suffering still readable is Steinbeck’s superior prose that nearly transforms the basically banal story into a metaphor for the human condition; otherwise, his story would be as common as any report of a social disaster.

How such reality can be captured without recourse to a simplistic and journalistic telling of events is shown by Steinbeck’s Brazilian contemporary, Graciliano Ramos, whose Vidas Secas (translated as Barren Lives) is a gem of 20th century literature, its brilliance radiating from its sparse imagistic prose. Though superficially Ramos’s story is generally the same as Steinbeck’s, the form in which Ramos projects it makes it revolve like a lighthouse beam in the reader’s imagination, glowing there with philosophical revelation, while Steinbeck’s story, once grasped, is put back on the shelf to collect dust.

Another problem with Steinbeck’s novel is that photography had already taken over the dramatic reporting of human suffering, making his kind of ‘epic’ rendering obsolete: Dorothea Lange’s one picture of the ‘Migrant Mother’ and her starving children says it all, instantly conveying the pain of the Great Depression and transforming it into a symbolic projection of universal human suffering.

In our present time, when some novelists have written about the 21st century equivalent of the Great Depression — the migrations into Europe from the Middle East and Africa — the most heart-rending image that stays in our minds is that one photograph of the little boy on a beach where the foam of the dying waves that have cast him ashore from the drowned, overloaded boat is seen to be washing over his dead body.

Many variations of realism have been advanced by successive generations of writers, each claiming to be closest to the common idea of reality. What we claim to be truth is no more than a dogmatic choice we make of one among a multitude of conjectures; it is only human vanity that persuades us that ours is the truest version of reality, though, with hypocritical humility, some of us ascribe that choice to our pious submission to a religion and some of us — with arrogant pride — to science, leaving the rest of us to echo the canary that all else is illusion and deception.

A Borgesian footnote: Having begun writing this column in my home in Texas, I travelled to Brazil with it on my laptop expecting to finish it during some moments of leisure. That opportunity came when I found myself in a friend’s country estate in the heart of the Atlantic rainforest north of Rio de Janeiro, his house surrounded by a glorious variety of very tall trees rising out of the darkness of the thick vegetation and seeking the sun. Dozens of birds of various sizes and colour flew in and out of the trees.

All that one imagines of beauty in nature, seeing that which compels us to say that we are in paradise, was there before me. Remembering the column I’d begun, I thought of my finding myself in paradise as a substitute reality, then wondered whether this was not my true reality and the one I had travelled from a dream. The image of a ‘garden of forking paths’ came to my mind and I remembered that that, of course, was the title of one of Borges’s stories in his collection titled Ficciones. I recalled his other stories in that book and it occurred to me that if only I could look them up again — in my tattered old edition back in Texas — I could refer to them in my column.

A bird jumped down from the tree and began to hop about the grass, a beautiful multi-coloured bird I’d not seen before, and my attention returned to the idea of paradise as a reality to which human beings, exiled to the dust and noise of cities, dreamed of returning, and rehearsed doing so on weekend trips to the country. Leaving the garden, I re-entered the house. The door led to the large drawing room where one wall was covered with books. I glanced at it vaguely. One slim volume caught my eye. The pattern on its spine made it out to be an Everyman’s Library edition, but it was too slim on which the title had been printed in very small print. So, I pulled it out to look at the title printed on its cover and read ‘Jorge Luis Borges’ across the top and below it in bold FICCIONES.

The columnist is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion. He is Professor emeritus at the University of Texas.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 3rd, 2019