Allison Amend Stares Into “The Aleph”

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I first met Allison Amend in the audience at a ceremony for the annual Story Prize, honoring the best short story collection published in America, introduced by a mutual friend. She mentioned she’d written some stories of her; I made a note to keep an eye out for them—and now I’m glad to be able to tell you that Things That Pass for Love is a marvelous collection that can turn from brutal realism with a dash of weirdness (“Dominion Over Every Erring Thing”) to disturbing portraits of emotional breakdown (“Carry the Water, Hustle the Hole”) with the flip of a page. In this essay, Allison celebrates a story which, now that I think of it, brings a disturbing psychological portrait into a story that starts out realistic and quickly gets weird…

There are stories you like and stories you don’t like, but it isn’t until you teach a story that you can really love or loathe it. I discovered this when teaching a course in Magical Realist Fiction, where Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” went on the nice-story-but-I-don’t-ever-need-to-read-this-again list and Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph” was catapulted to my personal all-time top five canon.

The protagonist of “The Aleph” (who we will later learn, in an almost nonchalant afterthought, is named Borges too) mourns the death of his unrequited love Beatriz, forging a reluctant relationship with her cousin, Danieri. Both are writers; Danieri a hack: “He dealt in pointless analogies and in trivial scruples…. Danieri’s real work lay not in the poetry but in the invention of reasons why the poetry should be admired” while the reader assumes the first person narrator’s erudition indicates his superior literary skills. Danieri then shows Borges his secret muse, the Aleph, viewed through a hole in his basement stairs, “the only place on earth where all places are—seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending.”

Borges the author/narrator, unlike his self-aggrandizing frenemy Danieri, starts describing this experience by first claiming that it is out of the reach of description. ” And here begins my despair as a writer. All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass?”

And yet he does manage to pen the most fantastic diorama (for it seems almost three-dimensional), a paragraph which manages to do all that the narrator claims Danieri’s poem does not. He ranges from the enormous to the infinitesimal, the theoretical to the tangible, the poetic to the grotesque:

“I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall;… I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror;…I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth….”

What makes this story so wonderful? It simultaneously conforms to and transcends its genre. It begins in a recognizable world; something happens that has no scientific explanation; the characters are neither surprised nor disbelieving when the magic occurs.

Most magical realist authors are bounded by its limitations. Magical Realism is a regional literature; it is a response to the clash of indigenous beliefs with colonizing influences; it is a literature of protest against totalitarian regimes. It therefore often deals in allegory and didacticism rather than universal truth and emotional resonance. Even the masters of the genre (García Márquez, Paz, Cortázar) begin to read like juvenile literature once the veneer of the beautiful prose and the pyrotechnics of imagination wear thin (about the fifth reading).

Borges’s magic, however, is secondary to his characters and his story unlike other examples of the genre, where the magic and the moral seem to be the point of origin. Desiring only revenge, Borges (character) pretends to Danieri that he could not see the Aleph, and suggests that Danieri seek professional help. Borges becomes mired in research, trying to prove that the Aleph he saw was a “false Aleph.” He is unable to accept or examine his own limitations and instead of investigating his fortunate glimpse of the entire universe, he would rather focus on disproving what he saw, denying the experience. Such a devastating insight into human character resonates more deeply than the genre usually allows.

Having read this story a dozen times and tried to explain its meaning to undergraduates (or, in a more pedagogically-progressive mood, to lead them toward posing their own questions about the text) it seems (like the Aleph) to grow even more complex. I become envious (like Borges–the character) of how Borges (the author) is able to deceive the reader, gradually letting the truth of the situation emerge. Of Borges’ humor when writing about weighty subjects (like, you know, death, and unrequited love and the universe and stuff). Of his ability to make the impossible seem plausible; of making his characters intelligent but not self-aware; of his naming his character after himself without seeming self-consciously post-modern; of his powers of description; of the last line, which is devastating. And, ultimately, is this not the highest compliment you can pay to a story, the wish that you’d written it yourself?

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13 October 2008 | selling shorts |