Short Reviews

In Praise of Darkness

by Jorges Luis Borges, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni
Dutton, $3.95 (paper)

Lost Chance in China: The World War II Despatches of John S. Service

edited by Joseph W. Esherick
Random House, 409 pp., $10.00

The Fearful Void

by Geoffrey Moorhouse
Lippincott, 288 pp., $10.00

Bright Eyes: The Story of Susette La Flesche, an Omaha Indian

by Dorothy Clarke Wilson
McGraw-Hill, 396 pp., $8.95

Confessions of a Bird Watcher

by Roger Barton
McGraw-Hill, 180 pp., $7.95

Borges is the modern poet who best expresses not the power of the imagination but the seductiveness of the imaginative intellect, not one who evokes emotion raw or lyrical on the page but one who offers a highly idiosyncratic consciousness just prior to the awakening of an emotion or just after the emotion has passed. Immediacy has always been lacking in his works. And yet the world of Borges has its own majesty, its own penetrating cadences and charm, full of spheres within spheres, thought about thought, a parabolic shadow play continually unfolding, doubling back, and then returning (to use one of Borges’s persistent motifs) like a river to its unimaginable source.

In Borges, of course, there can be no release from these cyclic modes of consciousness: “I think (what I have thought before) / that this winter holds in it all winters past, / back to those of the elders who wrote / that our way is marked out, / that we already belong to Love or to Fire.” So when he tells us that “perhaps universal history is the history of a few metaphors,” he is really describing his own sparse particular art, his meditative way of eliciting the illusion of freedom or chance from among the iron-bound laws of time, his lonely eloquent way of celebrating the labyrinth that is man’s fate.

If these new poems have a certain twilit convalescent air, recording Borges’s familiar fascination with mirrors and mazes, to which have been added two new themes, “old age and ethics,” they nevertheless have the beauty of faded cameos, of museums of shifting forms, as well as Borges’s poignant, stoical apprehension of his approaching death: “I reach my center, / my algebra and my key…. Soon I shall know who I am.”

A collection of communiqués by the Chinese-born, US Foreign Service officer who was arrested under the Espionage Act for delivering ten memoranda to the controversial magazine Amerasia (he was later exonerated by the Supreme Court). During the McCarthy era, Service was accused of wanton pro-communism in his State Department reports; but his position is surely vindicated now.

The despatches reveal remarkable lucidity in a labyrinthine imbroglio of political and military turmoil. Service scrutinizes Kuomintang mismanagement (the Honan famine) and its astonishing aloofness from the Chinese people. In 1944 Service wrote, “China is a mess…. For the sorry situation as a whole, Chiang and only Chiang is responsible.” Of the Communists, Service said, “This is obviously a people’s movement. It is clearly gaining strength and solidarity.” Should a civil war occur, “a Communist victory will be inevitable” (1944). It was this position that brought him into conflict with Ambassador Hurley, a dispute which eventually resulted in his dismissal from the State Department.

His study of wall slogans—such communications had enormous significance for a “semifeudal” culture lacking other media—is particularly incisive. The despatches reveal a penetrating political mind. They are interesting not only as personal exculpation but as history: the crosscurrents of Chinese politics during World…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.