A New Universal History of Infamy

By Rhys Hughes

Ministry of Whimsy Press, 2003, ISBN 1-892389-83-5; 150 Pages, Hardcover $25.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Allen B. Ruch

Preface
No, the title is not a misprint, and the author is not another Borgesian alias. A New Universal History of Infamy is the latest offering from the Ministry of Whimsy Press, and it is exactly what it claims to be: a new version of Borges’ 1935 classic book of rogues and forgeries, penned by Welsh fabulist Rhys Hughes. It is a most unusual work, and in order to take its full measure, it is necessary to first place it in context.

The Idolized Dead Man
Published in 1935 by Editorial Tor, Jorge Luis Borges’ Historia universal de la infamia is a collection of sketches that first appeared in Crítica, a Buenos Aires newspaper, from August 1933 to January 1934. Consisting of “falsifications and distortions” of pieces Borges read elsewhere, Borges used these primary sources to shape his first forays into literary invention, each sketch outlining the career of a legendary scoundrel. Influenced by his reading of Stevenson and Chesterton as well as the gangster films of von Sternberg, the sketches are lurid but cheerfully ironic, filled with sudden violence, sly paradox, and the occasional twist. The seven “histories” were followed by five short parodies collected under the heading of “Etcetera” – fragments of original writing that Borges brazenly attributed to authors such as Burton and Swedenborg. Historia universal de la infamia is also notable for its inclusion of “Hombre de la esquina rosada,” a short story about a knife-wielding compradito. Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni as “Streetcorner Man,” this violent tale brought Borges some notoriety, though it was originally written under the pseudonym “Francisco Bustos.” Although Borges would later look upon it as a “laboured composition,” it marks his first attempt at a completely original story, and has been much anthologized over the years.
Borges revised Historia in 1954, at which time he added three additional pieces to the “Etcetera” section. He also wrote a second preface, which begins: “I should define as baroque that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody.” In an attempt to place some distance between himself and his infamous sketches, he dismissed them as the “irresponsible games” of a “shy young man.”

Digesting the Past
Like many of Borges’ remarks about his own writing, his genial self-effacement misdirects a reader from what is, in truth, an acute self-awareness of his development as an artist. In the twenty years between editions, Borges had published two masterpieces, Ficciones and El Alef, and French translations of his work were establishing his reputation in Europe. In a very real way, when he returned to Historia, Borges closed the arc of a turning circle – after the 1950s, he would shift his creative focus from short stories to poetry, the literary passion that animated his youth. Although a few prose works in El Hacedor (1960) and The Book of Sand (1970) bear typical “Borgesian” trademarks, he would never completely return to the format and style of Ficciones. In fact, with the help of collaborator Adolfo Bioy-Casares, Borges went on to whimsically parody his own work – the pieces found in The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq (1969) are the true “deliberate exhaustions,” deconstructing the Borgesian style by carrying its aesthetic conceits into the realm of absurdity. Far from overworked self-parodies, the stories in Historia are filled with audacity and youthful invention: shimmering with creative possibility, Historia clearly reveals the seeds from which Ficciones’ garden of forking paths would bloom. Despite the modesty of his second preface, Borges surely realized this – after all, in declining to revise the pieces, he invoked none other than the Apostle John: “What I have written I have written.” It is not too difficult to detect a flash of pride behind his ironic twinkle.

A Character Sketch
So who, then, is Rhys Hughes – this fellow who comes along fifty-odd years later with the impudence to publish A New Universal History of Infamy? After all, Borges’ Historia is considered not just an essential work in the Latin American canon, but a cornerstone to the very edifice of modern literature. Surely one would need to be a bit, what – reckless? brilliant? mad? to append one’s name to a new version. Not that postmodern literature doesn’t have its share of Borges disciples, imitators, and parodists; but while their work varies in quality from dreadful to luminous, no one has yet possessed the nerve to toss out Son of Ficciones or El Beta. Nor is Rhys Hughes exactly a household name – although he has numerous books in print in the UK, his reputation (and it is a good one) in the States rests mainly on a few stories found in anthologies such as Leviathan, Breaking Windows, and Album Zutique.

The Framing Device
Before we end this preamble and finally examine the book itself, a word about its structure. A New Universal History of Infamy is not one of those creative endeavors best described as “loosely inspired by…” In point of fact, A New Universal History of Infamy is exactly inspired by Borges’ Historia. Hughes’ book features two prefaces, seven infamous histories, a centerpiece story, and a series of additional pieces collected under the title “Et Al.” It also retains the original’s curious subheadings and multiple dedications to other writers, and true to the 1954 edition, three extra pieces have been tossed in to round things off.
But Rhys Hughes is no Pierre Menard, setting forth to recreate a previous work from scratch. His intentions are neither to slavishly duplicate Borges, nor to use him as a crutch for his own creative failings, and his book is as much an original work of fiction as a loving homage. Striking the perfect balance between self-confidence and respect, Hughes confronts his own project in a charmingly direct preface: “I define as Borgesian that excessive interest in possibilities which never (or rarely) succeeds in exhausting itself with awe, terror or time… The very title of this little book flaunts its Borgesian character. To apologise for it would be tantamount to admitting I am incapable of paying the great man tribute.”

The Virtues of Disparity
Happily, Rhys Hughes is correct in his self-assessment – his imagination is astonishing, and there is much in A New Universal History of Infamy that equals or even surpasses the original. But, to quote William Gaddis, its force is also its flaw: Hughes’ imagination is so wildly prodigious it occasionally outpaces the other elements that make a work truly Borgesian: refinement, subtlety, and control. There is an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to Hughes’ fiction, and at times his imagination could be better served by a measure of discrimination. Even his prose style reflects a certain uncontrolled creativity – his writing is sharp and vigorous, but his sentences are telegraphed in a staccato rhythm, marching too quickly from one idea to the next. His imagery can swing from evocative and startling to awkward and inscrutable; from “Perhaps her silence is like a pair of unused scissors leering at a tapestry,” to “so full of sadness that if her eyes burst, lobsters could scuttle up the ladders of her tears.”
Yet despite this unevenness, the intensity of Hughes’ imagination and the sheer exuberance of his writing compensate for the rough edges. His subject material, too, is generally compelling, and there is something very Borgesian indeed about his fascination with “awe, terror, and time.” When Hughes writes, “Sometimes I suspect that finishing a book and starting it, whether as reader or author, are the only two defining moments of existence,” one realizes that he is not simply mimicking or even channeling Borges; it is a sentence as natural to Rhys Hughes as to “the great man” himself. Another example may be found in Hughes’ observation, “And forgetfulness is a vital tool, equal to blades and dungeons, for honing and seasoning tyrants.” This dry, almost amused tone of irony appears throughout A New Universal History of Infamy, and is entirely consonant with the original.

The Simulator of Infamy
Of course, this is part of the problem – Borges’ original looms large; and though no discerning reader would desire an exact replica, it is important to evaluate whether or not Hughes’ book is engaging on the same levels as Borges’ Historia. While it’s neither useful nor fair to use the original as a hammer to bash Hughes’ every misstep, the book necessarily invites comparisons to its namesake.
For this very reason, A New Universal History of Infamy shows the greatest strain when placed most closely aside the original, and the titular infamous histories are the weakest part of the book. Even allowing for differences in style and content, Hughes falls short of Borges on several critical points. The seven sketches in Borges’ Historia have the quality of a rapier: quick-witted and sharp, they draw blood through the deft maneuvering of a dexterous hand. Hughes’ profiles leave the impression of a savage cutlass, its blade heavy with dried blood and damp with the decay of the deep jungle.
In the original Historia, Borges assembled a cast of multi-faceted characters, scoundrels of all natures and temperaments. For every crime of shocking violence, there was an act of cowardice or subterfuge, and along with its sensationalism, Historia also served up moments of quiet wonder, such as the rain of paper dragons upon the Widow Ching’s fleet; clever deceptions, such as Lazarus Morrell’s intricate system of slave stealing; and unexpected mysteries, such as the spectral cosmogony and ultimate identity of Hakim of Merv. Hughes’ infamous histories have neither the variety nor the subtlety of Borges’ – despite the occasional flash of wit, most of Hughes’ rogues are insane sociopaths, responsible for much useless death and misery, their misdeeds all too easily accessorized. Indeed, not much differentiates one villain from another – all seem to be variations of the same wicked, insane character, with attributes and adventures arbitrarily assigned. There is no real sense of personality in the profiles, no reason that this particular scoundrel should have performed that particular atrocity, and the result is a lack of internal cohesion.
Even though these infamous histories fall short of their precursors, there is still much to recommend them. As previously mentioned, Hughes has a prolific imagination, and original ideas fly from every page in a shower of sparks – if one falls utterly flat and another fizzles too quickly, the third is sure to dazzle and delight. On the “dazzling” side, we have an alchemist who conceals his true talent by debunking his trade; a plucky arms dealer who escapes death by purchasing the rifles pointed at his head; and a curse that is both refuted and confirmed by the final sentence of the sketch itself. On the other hand, Hughes has a penchant for absurdity that springs less from satirical insight than from a simple fondness for low comedy. Like intrusions of crude magical realism, the sketches feature such improbable elements as a dictator whose brain has become permanently saturated with chocolate syrup; a tyrant who wears a medal so large it prevents him from moving; and a highwayman sentenced to death by being planted in the ground, seeded with vegetables, and watered until crushed by the weight of growing parsnips.
Thankfully, Hughes’ humor is not always doled out in such broad strokes, and his attachment to silliness is balanced by fine appreciation of irony and paradox. The droll manner in which he begins and ends his histories is deliciously satisfying, and the sketches abound with marvelous touches of sardonic humor. (My favorite is a list of “rewards” for piracy which begins: “Rum, Girls, Parrots, Pieces of Eight…” and ends with “…Immortality, Fetters, Prison, Gallows.”) Not surprisingly, Hughes enjoys literary in-jokes, and his text is full of references to Borgesian characters, plots, and situations. At one point, Hughes describes a play that “anticipates the techniques” of Herbert Quain, one of Borges’ many fictional authors. In the process, Hughes produces a passage that would not seem out of place in Ficciones:

In ten acts, Realms of the Lost shows how all objects which can no longer be found have actually skipped into another dimension, a world which contains nothing but these objects. So all the lost men and women must dwell among all the lost furniture of our dimension, telling the time with lost watches and eating crumbs of lost food. However, when objects in that dimension become lost they end up in yet another dimension which contains even fewer things, and this process continues until the tenth act (and tenth dimension) is reached. Everything there has been lost ten times and in fact very few objects have made it that far. Indeed, that dimension contains nothing but a bare landscape, a road, a tree and two men with the appearance of tramps.

A wonderful idea with a Beckett punch-line; but it underlines the sketches’ main weakness as well – there is no real reason that the arms dealer Basil Zaharoff should have written the play rather than, say, the alchemist Denis Zachaire or the “maddest” king, Henri Christophe.

The Lunatic Ride
The original “Streetcorner Man” was one of Borges’ earliest stories, a tale of machismo, revenge, and tango set among the hoodlums of Buenos Aires. A rather romanticized version of a world more accessible to Borges through fiction than reality, he later regarded it with an amused fondness.
Hughes answer to this youthful tale is the colorful – and extremely bizarre – “Streetcorner Mouse.” Perhaps realizing the impossibility of capturing the earnestness and naïveté of the original, Hughes shifts the story in the opposite direction, creating a parody so extravagant it borders on complete reinvention. While all the pieces of Borges’ original tale are present, Hughes has freely transposed them to a different – and infinitely more surreal – key. Gone are the knife-wielding compraditos and their seedy tango hall; the setting is now a Welsh pub frequented by shape-changing bards, with “Wenglish” dialogue taking the place of Borges’ lunfardo slang. The plot remains essentially the same, but the characters are comically inflated to mythic proportions, and events unfold in an overly vivid, almost hallucinatory space. Despite the fantastic alterations, Hughes has remained faithful to the original story in the truest sense, taking free reign to re-imagine and even celebrate his own cultural mythos.

Other Names
A New Universal History of Infamy continues following the layout of the original with “Et Al,” a collection of pieces corresponding to “Etcetera,” with “Surplus Parodies” standing in for the three 1954 additions. Unlike the previous works, these pieces are not one-to-one parallels – although Hughes maintains the convention of ascribing their authorship to other writers, they are all very original stories, boldly written and filled with color.
“Et Al” begins with “City of Blinks.” Perhaps the best work in the entire collection, it is attributed to Herbert Quain. Taking the form of a fable, the story describes a city structured as a feudal panopticon, with a central ruler keeping watch on his subjects through a geometric progression of observers arranged in concentric circles. On one level, the story functions as an allegory depicting the futility – and dangers – of maintaining a police state, but it also works on a purely imaginative level, evoking the exact sense of awe and terror called “Borgesian” in Hughes’ preface. Hughes develops his conceit brilliantly from start to finish, the final sentence delivering a perfectly-timed master stroke.
After “City of Blinks” comes five more “ficciones,” each a showcase for Hughes’ talent at blending remarkable ideas, unpredictable twists, and offbeat humor: “The Landscape Player,” which speaks to the impossibility of understanding music through metaphor; “The Spanish Cyclops,” a simple but mischievous tall tale; “The Unsubtle Cages,” a parable of solitude pitched somewhere between Franz Kafka and Thomas Ligotti; “Celia the Impaler,” a bawdy story of a woman with an insatiable lust for monuments; and “Alone with a Longwinded Soul,” which accurately describes itself as “the shortest ghost story in the world extended by pretentious turns of phrase and unnecessary similes.”
The section closes with a pair of alleged nonfictions: “Monkeybreath,” an outtake from the Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, and “Of Exactitude in Theology.” The latter is a pitch-perfect companion to Borges’ “Of Exactitude in Science,” his famous fragment describing a map that eventually covers the globe. The shortest piece in the book, it is attributed to another Borgesian creation, the philosopher Jaromir Hladik, and bears quoting in full:

…IN THAT LAND, the art of Theology attained such perfection that to discuss even the smallest aspect of one of the gods took the study of a lifetime. It was thus decreed that the full nature of such gods was wholly beyond the understanding of man and that all metaphysics was therefore worthless. In the course of time, the college of Theologians continued to encourage further religious speculations with the sole aim of dismantling them as essentially inadequate. Succeeding generations came to judge such a system of dismantling as inadequate, and, not without irreverence, they dismantled it in turn. In the western deserts, a few dissolute scholars are still to be found, muttering an ontological proposition or two; in the whole nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Theology.

A New Universal History of Infamy closes with a trio of “Surplus Parodies.” Freewheeling fantasies exploding with flamboyant style, these stories are similar to “Streetcorner Mouse” in length and feel. In “Finding the Book of Sand,” Borges’ book of infinite pages is positioned as a real object, subject to the laws of physics. As the ramifications of such a book are explored, it soon leads to a series of catastrophic events. “The Hyperacusis of Chumbley Mucker” is “a parody of John Sladek in the style of a John Sladek parody.” Like the previous story, it imagines an unlikely subject – in this case, a boy with hyper-acute hearing – and proceeds to pursue the idea through increasing levels of absurdity. The final story is “Ictus Purr,” about a Welsh rock band invited to play a gig in another dimension.
Subtitled as “A parody of myself in the style of you,” the story is the most forthright comedy in the book, and brings to mind a glorious confusion of elements, from Monty Python to Douglas Adams to Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space. It is also reminiscent of Michael Moorcock’s “Jerry Cornelius” series, in which Moorcock fictionalized his various musician friends and shuffled them through outlandish multidimensional settings. (It evokes another Moorcock story as well – “The Stone Thing,” a self-parody in which Moorcock took his eccentric characters, cosmic plots, and unpronounceable names and cheerfully dialed the volume up to “11.”) Whether “Ictus Purr” is perceived as a “madcap, zany romp” or a “self-indulgent, incoherent mess” may be purely a matter of taste. The story is sure to gain as many new fans for Rhys Hughes as it will raise the eyebrows of more sober readers, drawn to the book by its title and expecting something more faithful to the source.

The Mysterious, Logical End
Which returns us to the difficulties of appraising this book – a work that will, at least initially, most appeal to two groups of readers: fans of Rhys Hughes, and fans of Jorge Luis Borges. Naturally, one of these groups has a bit of a head start on the other, and so this book stands to bring Hughes a considerable number of new readers. But will they end up as new fans? Will an enthusiast of the original be startled at Hughes’ departures from Borges, or delighted to discover a kindred imagination? Is A New Universal History of Infamy an act of hubris or tribute?
Make no mistake; Rhys Hughes is a talented writer with a very distinct voice of his own. To cast his own fictions into Borges’ mold may take a certain amount of brilliance, recklessness, and madness: but Hughes seems well aware of this, and his writing proudly embraces all three. Although one may wish his sense of refinement and control were on par with Borges, this Welsh fellow has nonetheless created a remarkable book; and in the end, his audacity and irreverence are more welcome than timidity or blind idolatry. To paraphrase Martin Luther (and if Borges can quote St. John, surely we can be allowed our own indulgence?), Rhys Hughes may have sinned boldly, but only because he believes and rejoices more boldly still. Whatever expectations a reader may bring to A New Universal History of Infamy, it is a work that deserves to be read.

Allen B. Ruch
20 March 2004

Additional Information

Night Shade BooksA New Universal History of Infamy is a Ministry of Whimsy title is distributed by Night Shade Books. This page features information about the book and an excerpt.

Rhys Hughes Spotlight – A profile of the author; at Night Shade Books.

Rhys Hughes Discussion Board – Also hosted by Night Shade Books.

The Garden of Forking Paths – The Modern Word’s Jorge Luis Borges site.

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.