Reprinted from Borges and Memory: Encounters with the Human Brain, by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga. Copyright © 2013, by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Used with permission of the publisher The MIT Press.
FUNES AND OTHER CASES OF EXTRAORDINARY MEMORY
June 7, 1942, was a Sunday like any other amid the altered routine of the Second World War. The front page of the newspaper La Nación1 reported on the British onslaught, which continued with a bombing campaign over the German industrial area in the Ruhr. On the same page one could read about the casualties inflicted on the Japanese fleet at Midway and about British infantry tanks’ attacking German positions in the desert. Pages 5 and 6 of the paper, in between advertisements for Eno’s “Fruit Salt” (a digestive aid selling at $0.70 per vial) and Fernet Branca (a beverage that should be brought home as one brings a friend), give an account of an earthquake without victims in Mendoza and announce that tire factories can start restoring used tires. In sports, Argentinos Juniors beat Sportivo Alsina by 4 goals to 1 in their campaign to reach the premier league, and the entertainment pages promote Pirates of the Caribbean, in Technicolor, and a new movie starring Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda at $1.50 a superpullman seat. June 7, 1942, a day like any other according to La Nación, except for a short story appearing in the Arts and Letters section that would turn this issue of the newspaper into a historic document. The first page of this Sunday supplement features a story by Stefan Zweig; the second page contains an essay by Ernesto Sabato praising Galileo; and on the third page, almost hidden in plain sight, for the first time appears “Funes the Memorious,” Jorge Luis Borges’s monumental short story, with an illustration by Alejandro Sirio.
“Funes the Memorious” tells the vicissitudes of Ireneo Funes, a peasant from Fray Bentos, who after falling off a horse and hitting his head hard recovers consciousness with the incredible skill—or perhaps curse—of remembering absolutely everything.
Says Borges of Funes:
Nosotros, de un vistazo, percibimos tres copas en una mesa; Funes, todos los vástagos y racimos y frutos que comprende una parra. Sabía las formas de las nubes australes del amanecer del 30 de abril de 1882 y podía com- pararlas en el recuerdo con las vetas de un libro en pasta española que sólo había mirado una vez y con las líneas de la espuma que un remo levantó en el Río Negro la víspera de la acción del Quebracho.2
Page 3 of the Arts and Letters section of La Nación of June 7, 1942, where "Funes the Memorious" was first published.
[We, at a stroke, perceive three cups lying on a table; Funes would see all the shoots and clusters and fruit comprised by a vine. He knew the shapes of the southern clouds at dawn on April 30, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the streaks on a book of Spanish cover that he had seen only once and with the swirls on the foam raised by an oar in the Río Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho.]
Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) has received universal acclaim for the depth with which he approached matters of philosophic and scientific import in his writings. In Borges’s hands, the topic of infinity comes alive either as a point that contains the universe (“The Aleph”), impregnable labyrinths (“The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths”), a library that is eternally repeated (“The Library of Babel”), stories that subdivide into innumerable possibilities (“The Garden of Forking Paths”), or an imperial map so perfectly detailed that it ends up having the size of the empire itself (“Of Rigor in Science”). In “Funes the Memorious,” a story of barely 12 pages that was eventually published as part of Ficciones (1944), Borges again plays with the infinite in a context no less fascinating: the vast labyrinths of memory and the consequences of having an unlimited capacity to remember.