The stories found within Historia universal de la infamia may be seen as a sort of bridge between the erudite non-fictions that Borges had been producing in the late 1920s and early 1930s and the short fictions that later appeared in the two short books that were later combined to form Ficciónes in 1944. Almost without exception, each of the stories that appears here are at least somewhat based on real people and events. One can read the story of that "terrible redeemer," Lazarus Morell, in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, for example. Or one can turn to innumerable non-fictions, novels, and movies based on the life of Bill Harrigan, better known as Billy the Kid. The value in reading their stories is not in learning facts, because here one may be wise to question what one has read, at least in some particulars, but rather in the way that Borges frames these tales.
In his original prologue, Borges states:
Los ejercicios de prosa narrativa que integran este libro fueron ejecutados de 1933 a 1934. Derivan, creo, de mis relecturas de Stevenson y de Chesterton y aun de los primeros films de von Sternberg y tal vez de cierta biografía de Evaristo Carriego. Abusan de algunos procedimientos: las enumeraciones dispares, la brusca solución de continuidad, la reducción de la vida entera de un hombre a dos o tres escenas (Es propósito visual rige también el cuento "Hombre de la Esquina Rosada".) No son, no tratan de ser, psicológicos. (p. 7)This is something worth keeping in mind when reading them, these distortions, often deliberate in nature, that are introduced to these histories. Each reads well as visual scenes, full of vitality and with each character's motives captured vividly with short, sparse statements of their deeds. But what is being left unsaid? What has been altered or removed to create certain reactions?
The exercises of the prose narrative which constitute this book were done from 1933 to 1934. They derive, I believe, from my re-readings of Stevenson and of Chesterton and also from the first films of von Sternberg and maybe from a certain biography of Evaristo Carriego. They take advantage of some proceeding: the disparate enumerations, the brusque solution of continuity, the reduction of a man's entire life to two or three scenes (It is the visual intent which also governs the story "The Man on Pink Corner.") They are not, nor do they try to be, psychological [stories].
This collection also marks the first appearance in his collected writings of Borges' penchant for creating literary forgeries. It is an issue which he obliquely addresses in his prologue to the 1954 edition, where he notes that this collection was the product of a shy young man who ended up distorting the accounts of those writers who first set out the histories of these infamous persons described in this semi-history. This alteration, or the creation of a forged or faked non-fiction, is something for which Borges became known, starting from his time writing for the magazine Martín Fierro and continuing into the 1970s with the purposely pompous writings he and Adolfo Bioy Casares would co-create under the pseudonym of H. Bustos Domecq. It is worth noting here, in large part because Historia universal de la infamia served as a sort of experiment where he could mix factual information with false narrators and faked situations to see what would result.
The end result were a collection of stories (later appended with tales such as "The Man on Pink Corner") that show a Borges that has begun to adapt his ideas on metaphysics, on how to structure a story, fitting them together in ways that are still surprising to a reader upon multiple re-reads and which ended up containing the germ of the story approaches that he would later develop in the 1940s.