Funes is first mentioned in an obituary of James Joyce, “A Fragment on Joyce,” published in 1941 in the magazine Sur.3 There, with some measure of sarcasm, Borges says that to read straight through a “monster” like Joyce’s Ulysses—a 400,000-word reconstruction of a single day in Dublin—requires another monster able to remember an infinite number of details. The strange thing about the obituary is that Borges barely refers to Joyce or his work and instead describes Ireneo Funes, the main character of the story he was writing at the time.
Entre las obras que no he escrito ni escribiré (pero que de alguna manera me justifican, siquiera misteriosa y rudimental) hay un relato de unas ocho o diez páginas cuyo profuso borrador se titula “Funes el memorioso”.
. . . Del compadrito mágico de mi cuento cabe afirmar que es un precursor de los superhombres, un Zaratustra suburbano y parcial; lo indiscutible es que es un monstruo. Lo he recordado porque la consecutiva y recta
lectura de las cuatrocientas mil palabras de Ulises exigiría monstruos análogos.4
[Among the works that I have not written and will never write (but that somehow justify me, in however mysterious and rudimentary a way) there is a short story, some eight to ten pages long, whose copious draft is entitled “Funes the Memorious.” . . . Of the magical compadrito of my story I can state that he is a precursor to supermen, a suburban, incomplete Zarathustra; what cannot be denied is that he is a monster. I have remembered him because a straight, uninterrupted reading of Ulysses’s four hundred thou- sand words would require similar monsters.]
Title page of the first volume of a 1669 edition of Pliny’s Naturalis historia.
In the preface to “Artifices,” the second part of Ficciones, Borges argues that “Funes the Memorious” is a long metaphor of insomnia. In fact, toward the end of the story he mentions that Funes found sleeping difficult, because to sleep is to get distracted from the world. Borges gives more details on the way he conceived Funes during his own sleepless nights (perhaps during a sticky summer night at the quinta in Adrogué), in an interview published in the United States:
When I suffered from insomnia I tried to forget myself, to forget my body, the position of my body, the bed, the furniture, the three gardens of the hotel, the eucalyptus tree, the books on the shelf, all the streets of the village, the station, the farmhouses. And since couldn’t forget, I kept on being conscious and couldn’t fall asleep. Then I said to myself, let us suppose there was a person who couldn’t forget anything he had perceived, and it’s well known that this happened to James Joyce, who in the course of a single day could have brought out Ulysses, a day in which thousands of things happened. I thought of someone who couldn’t forget those events and who in the end dies swept away by his infinite memory. In a word that fragmentary hoodlum is me, or is an image I stole for literary purposes but which corresponds to my own insomnia.5
Already in the literature of the first millennium there are references to people with prodigious memory, particularly in the Naturalis historia (Natural History) of Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, 23–79 A.D.), a sort of encyclopedia that in 37 books describes everything from the geography, science, and technology to the agriculture, medicinal herbs, and insects of ancient Rome. In chapter 24 of book VII, on the topic of memory, Pliny mentions king Cyrus of Persia, who knew the names of all his soldiers; Scipio, who knew the names of all in Rome; Cineas, king Pyrrhus’s ambassador, who learned the names of all the Roman senators just one day after arriving in Rome; Mithridates Eupator, who administered justice in the 22 languages spoken in his empire; Simonides, inventor of mnemonics; or Charmadas the Greek, who could recite by heart any book from a library as though he were reading it.6