The Library of Babel
The Lottery in Babylon
Death and The Compass
Man on Pink Corner
"Borges and I"
The Story from Rosendo Juárez
The Garden of Forking Paths
Parable of Cervantes and The Quixote
The Circular Ruins
August 25, 1983
The Universe, which others call the Library, is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below—one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon's six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian.
One of the hexagon's free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first— identical in fact to all. To the left and right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one's physical necessities. Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance. In the vestibule there is a mirror, which faithfully duplicates appearances. Men often infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite—if it were, what need would there be for that illusory replication? I prefer to dream that burnished surfaces are a figuration and promise of the infinite.... Light is provided by certain spherical fruits that bear the name "bulbs." There are two of these bulbs in each hexagon, set crosswise. The light they give is insufficient, and unceasing.
Like all the men of the Library, in my younger days I traveled; I have journeyed in quest of a book, perhaps the catalog of catalogs. Now that my eyes can hardly make out what I myself have written, I am preparing to die, a few leagues from the hexagon where I was born. When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite. I declare that the library is endless. Idealists argue that the hexagonal rooms are the necessary shape of absolute space, or at least of our perception of space. They argue that a triangular or pentagonal chamber is inconceivable.
(Mystics claim that their ecstasies reveal to them a circular chamber containing an enormous circular book with a continuous spine that goes completely around the walls. But their testimony is suspect, their words obscure. That cyclical book is God.) Let it suffice for the moment that I repeat the classic dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable.
Each wall of each hexagon is furnished with five bookshelves; each bookshelf holds thirty- two books identical in format; each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty black letters. There are also letters on the front cover of each book; those letters neither indicate nor prefigure what the pages inside will say. I am aware that that lack of correspondence once struck men as mysterious. Before summarizing the solution of the mystery (whose discovery, in spite of its tragic consequences, is perhaps the most important event in all history), I wish to recall a few axioms.
First: The Library has existed ab aeternitate. That truth, whose immediate corollary is the future eternity of the world, no rational mind can doubt. Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the work of chance or of malevolent demiurges; the universe, with its elegant appointments—its bookshelves, its enigmatic books, its indefatigable staircases for the traveler, and its water closets for the seated librarian—can only be the handiwork of a god. In order to grasp the distance that separates the human and the divine, one has only to compare these crude trembling symbols which my fallible hand scrawls on the cover of a book with the organic letters inside—neat, delicate, deep black, and inimitably symmetrical.
Second: There are twenty-five orthographic symbols. (The original manuscript has neither numbers nor capital letters; punctuation is limited to the comma and the period. Those two marks, the space, and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet are the twenty-five sufficient symbols that our unknown author is referring to.)
That discovery enabled mankind, three hundred years ago, to formulate a general theory of the Library and thereby satisfactorily solve the riddle that no conjecture had been able to divine—the formless and chaotic nature of virtually all books. One book, which my father once saw in a hexagon in circuit 15-94, consisted of the letters M C V perversely repeated from the first line to the last. Another (much consulted in this zone) is a mere labyrinth of letters whose penultimate page contains the phrase O Time thy pyramids. This much is known: For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency. (I know of one semi-barbarous zone whose librarians repudiate the "vain and superstitious habit" of trying to find sense in books, equating such a quest with attempting to find meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of the palm of one's hand.... They will acknowledge that the inventors of writing imitated the twenty-five natural symbols, but contend that that adoption was fortuitous, coincidental, and that books in themselves have no meaning. That argument, as we shall see, is not entirely fallacious.)
For many years it was believed that those impenetrable books were in ancient or far- distant languages. It is true that the most ancient peoples, the first librarians, employed a language quite different from the one we speak today; it is true that a few miles to the right, our language devolves into dialect and that ninety floors above, it becomes incomprehensible. All of that, I repeat, is true—but four hundred ten pages of unvarying M C V's cannot belong to any language, however dialectal or primitive it may be. Some have suggested that each letter influences the next, and that the value of M C V on page 71, line 3, is not the value of the same series on another line of another page, but that vague thesis has not met with any great acceptance. Others have mentioned the possibility of codes; that conjecture has been universally accepted, though not in the sense in which its originators formulated it.
Some five hundred years ago, the chief of one of the upper hexagons (In earlier times, there was one man for every three hexagons. Suicide and diseases of the lung have played havoc with that proportion. An unspeakably melancholy memory: I have sometimes traveled for nights on end, down corridors and polished staircases, without coming across a single librarian.) came across a book as jumbled as all the others, but containing almost two pages of homogeneous lines.
He showed his find to a traveling decipherer, who told him that the lines were written in Portuguese; others said it was Yiddish. Within the century experts had determined what the language actually was: a Samoyed-Lithuanian dialect of Guaraní, with inflections from classical Arabic. The content was also determined: the rudiments of combinatory analysis, illustrated with examples of endlessly repeating variations. Those examples allowed a librarian of genius to discover the fundamental law of the Library.
This philosopher observed that all books, however different from one another they might be, consist of identical elements: the space, the period, the comma, and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. He also posited a fact which all travelers have since confirmed: In all the Library, there are no two identical books. From those incontrovertible premises, the librarian deduced that the Library is "total"— perfect, complete, and whole—and that its bookshelves contain all possible combinations of the twenty-two orthographic symbols (a number which, though unimaginably vast, is not infinite)—that is, all that is able to be expressed, in every language. All —the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus.
When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist—somewhere in some hexagon. The universe was justified; the universe suddenly became congruent with the unlimited width and breadth of humankind's hope. At that period there was much talk of The Vindications—books of apologià and prophecies that would vindicate for all time the actions of every person in the universe and that held wondrous arcana for men's futures. Thousands of greedy individuals abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed downstairs, up-stairs, spurred by the vain desire to find their Vindication. These pilgrims squabbled in the narrow corridors, muttered dark imprecations, strangled one another on the divine staircases, threw deceiving volumes down ventilation shafts, were themselves hurled to their deaths by men of distant regions. Others went insane.... The Vindications do exist (I have seen two of them, which refer to persons in the future, persons perhaps not imaginary), but those who went in quest of them failed to recall that the chance of a man's finding his own Vindication, or some perfidious version of his own, can be calculated to be zero.
At that same period there was also hope that the fundamental mysteries of mankind—the origin of the Library and of time—might be revealed. In all likelihood those profound mysteries can indeed be explained in words; if the language of the philosophers is not sufficient, then the multiform Library must surely have produced the extraordinary language that is required, together with the words and grammar of that language. For four centuries, men have been scouring the hexagons.... There are official searchers, the "inquisitors." I have seen them about their tasks: they arrive exhausted at some hexagon, they talk about a staircase that nearly killed them—rungs were missing—they speak with the librarian about galleries and staircases, and, once in a while, they take up the nearest book and leaf through it, searching for disgraceful or dishonorable words. Clearly, no one expects to discover anything.
That unbridled hopefulness was succeeded, naturally enough, by a similarly disproportionate depression.
The certainty that some bookshelf in some hexagon contained precious books, yet that those precious books were forever out of reach, was almost unbearable. One blasphemous sect proposed that the searches be discontinued and that all men shuffle letters and symbols until those canonical books, through some improbable stroke of chance, had been constructed. The authorities were forced to issue strict orders. The sect disappeared, but in my childhood I have seen old men who for long periods would hide in the latrines with metal disks and a forbidden dice cup, feebly mimicking the divine disorder.
Others, going about it in the opposite way, thought the first thing to do was eliminate all worthless books.
They would invade the hexagons, show credentials that were not always false, leaf disgustedly through a volume, and condemn entire walls of books. It is to their hygienic, ascetic rage that we lay the senseless loss of millions of volumes. Their name is execrated today, but those who grieve over the "treasures" destroyed in that frenzy overlook two widely acknowledged facts: One, that the Library is so huge that any reduction by human hands must be infinitesimal. And two, that each book is unique and irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles—books that differ by no more than a single letter, or a comma. Despite general opinion, I daresay that the consequences of the depredations committed by the Purifiers have been exaggerated by the horror those same fanatics inspired. They were spurred on by the holy zeal to reach—someday, through unrelenting effort—the books of the Crimson Hexagon— books smaller than natural books, books omnipotent, illustrated, and magical.
We also have knowledge of another superstition from that period: belief in what was termed the Book Man. On some shelf in some hexagon, it was argued, there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books, and some librarian must have examined that book; this librarian is analogous to a god. In the language of this zone there are still vestiges of the sect that worshiped that distant librarian. Many have gone in search of Him. For a hundred years, men beat every possible path— and every path in vain. How was one to locate the idolized secret hexagon that sheltered Him? Someone proposed searching by regression: To locate book A, first consult book B, which tells where book A can be found; to locate book B, first consult book C, and so on, to infinity....
It is in ventures such as these that I have squandered and spent my years. I cannot think it unlikely that there is such a total book; I repeat: In order for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible. Only the impossible is excluded. For example, no book is also a staircase, though there are no doubt books that discuss and deny and prove that possibility, and others whose structure corresponds to that of a staircase on some shelf in the universe. I pray to the unknown gods that some man—even a single man, tens of centuries ago—has perused and read that book. If the honor and wisdom and joy of such a reading are not to be my own, then let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my own place be in hell. Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated, but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification.
Infidels claim that the rule in the Library is not "sense," but "nonsense," and that "rationality" (even humble, pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception. They speak, I know, of "the feverish Library, whose random volumes constantly threaten to transmogrify into others, so that they affirm all things, deny all things, and confound and confuse all things, like some mad and hallucinating deity." Those words, which not only proclaim disorder but exemplify it as well, prove, as all can see, the infidels' deplorable taste and desperate ignorance. For while the Library contains all verbal structures, all the variations allowed by the twenty-five orthographic symbols, it includes not a single absolute piece of nonsense. It would be pointless to observe that the finest volume of all the many hexagons that I myself administer is titled Combed Thunder, while another is titled The Plaster Cramp, and another, Axaxaxasmio. Those phrases, at first apparently incoherent, are undoubtedly susceptible to cryptographic or allegorical "reading"; that reading, that justification of the words' order and existence, is itself verbal and, ex hypothesis, already contained somewhere in the Library. There is no combination of characters one can make— dhcmrlchtdj, for example—that the divine Library has not foreseen and that in one or more of its secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance. There is no syllable one can speak that is not filled with tenderness and terror, that is not, in one of those languages, the mighty name of a god. To speak is to commit tautologies. This pointless, verbose epistle already exists in one of the thirty volumes of the five bookshelves in one of the countless hexagons—as does its refutation. (A number n of the possible languages employ the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol "library" possesses the correct definition "everlasting, ubiquitous system of hexagonal galleries," while a library— the thing—is a loaf of bread or a pyramid or something else, and the six words that define it themselves have other definitions. You who read me—are you certain you understand my language?) Methodical composition distracts me from the present condition of humanity. The certainty that everything has already been written annuls us, or renders us phantasmal. I know districts in which the young people prostrate themselves before books and like savages kiss their pages, though they cannot read a letter. Epidemics, heretical discords, pilgrimages that inevitably degenerate into brigandage have decimated the population. I believe I mentioned the suicides, which are more and more frequent every year. I am perhaps misled by old age and fear, but I suspect that the human species— the only species—teeters at the verge of extinction, yet that the Library— enlightened, solitary, infinite, perfectly unmoving, armed with precious volumes, pointless, incorruptible, and secret— will endure.
I have just written the word "infinite." I have not included that adjective out of mere rhetorical habit; I hereby state that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who believe it to have limits hypothesize that in some remote place or places the corridors and staircases and hexagons may, inconceivably, end—which is absurd. And yet those who picture the world as unlimited forget that the number of possible books is not. I will be bold enough to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited but periodic. If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder—which, repeated, becomes order: the Order. My solitude is cheered by that elegant hope.
Like all the men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave. I have known omnipotence, ignominy, imprisonment. Look here— my right hand has no index finger. Look here—through this gash in my cape you can see on my stomach a crimson tattoo—it is the second letter, Beth.
On nights when the moon is full, this symbol gives me power over men with the mark of Gimel, but it subjects me to those with the Aleph, who on nights when there is no moon owe obedience to those marked with the Gimel. In the half-light of dawn, in a cellar, standing before a black altar, I have slit the throats of sacred bulls. Once, for an entire lunar year, I was declared invisible—I would cry out and no one would heed my call, I would steal bread and not be beheaded. I have known that thing the Greeks knew not—uncertainty. In a chamber of brass, as I faced the strangler's silent scarf, hope did not abandon me; in the river of delights, panic has not failed me. Heraclides Ponticus reports, admiringly, that Pythagoras recalled having been Pyrrhus, and before that, Euphorbus, and before that, some other mortal; in order to recall similar vicissitudes, I have no need of death, nor even of imposture.
I owe that almost monstrous variety to an institution—the Lottery— which is unknown in other nations, or at work in them imperfectly or secretly. I have not delved into this institution's history. I know that sages cannot agree. About its mighty purposes I know as much as a man untutored in astrology might know about the moon. Mine is a dizzying country in which the Lottery is a major element of reality; until this day, I have thought as little about it as about the conduct of the indecipherable gods or of my heart.
Now, far from Babylon and its beloved customs, I think with some bewilderment about the Lottery, and about the blasphemous conjectures that shrouded men whisper in the half-light of dawn or evening.
My father would tell how once, long ago— centuries? years?—the lottery in Babylon was a game played by commoners. He would tell (though whether this is true or not, I cannot say) how barbers would take a man's copper coins and give back rectangles made of bone or parchment and adorned with symbols.
Then, in broad daylight, a drawing would be held; those smiled upon by fate would, with no further corroboration by chance, win coins minted of silver. The procedure, as you can see, was rudimentary.
Naturally, those so-called "lotteries" were a failure. They had no moral force whatsoever; they appealed not to all a man's faculties, but only to his hopefulness. Public indifference soon meant that the merchants who had founded these venal lotteries began to lose money. Someone tried something new: including among the list of lucky numbers a few unlucky draws. This innovation meant that those who bought those numbered rectangles now had a twofold chance: they might win a sum of money or they might be required to pay a fine—sometimes a considerable one. As one might expect, that small risk (for every thirty "good" numbers there was one ill-omened one) piqued the public's interest. Babylonians flocked to buy tickets. The man who bought none was considered a pusillanimous wretch, a man with no spirit of adventure. In time, this justified contempt found a second target: not just the man who didn't play, but also the man who lost and paid the fine. The Company (as it was now beginning to be known) had to protect the interest of the winners, who could not be paid their prizes unless the pot contained almost the entire amount of the fines. A lawsuit was filed against the losers: the judge sentenced them to pay the original fine, plus court costs, or spend a number of days in jail. In order to thwart the Company, they all chose jail. From that gauntlet thrown down by a few men sprang the Company's omnipotence—its ecclesiastical, metaphysical force.
Some time after this, the announcements of the numbers drawn began to leave out the lists of fines and simply print the days of prison assigned to each losing number. That shorthand, as it were, which went virtually unnoticed at the time, was of utmost importance: It was the first appearance of non- pecuniary elements in the lottery. And it met with great success—indeed, the Company was forced by its players to increase the number of unlucky draws.
As everyone knows, the people of Babylon are great admirers of logic, and even of symmetry. It was inconsistent that lucky numbers should payoff in round silver coins while unlucky ones were measured in days and nights of jail. Certain moralists argued that the possession of coins did not always bring about happiness, and that other forms of happiness were perhaps more direct.
The lower-caste neighborhoods of the city
voiced a different complaint. The members of the priestly class gambled heavily, and so enjoyed all the vicissitudes of terror and hope; the poor (with understandable, or inevitable, envy) saw themselves denied access to that famously delightful, even sensual, wheel. The fair and reasonable desire that all men and women, rich and poor, be able to take part equally in the Lottery inspired indignant demonstrations—the memory of which, time has failed to dim. Some stubborn souls could not (or pretended they could not) understand that this was a novu sordo sedorum, a necessary stage of history.... A slave stole a crimson ticket; the drawing determined that that ticket entitled the bearer to have his tongue burned out. The code of law provided the same sentence for stealing a lottery ticket. Some Babylonians argued that the slave deserved the burning iron for being a thief; others, more magnanimous, that the executioner should employ the iron because thus fate had decreed.... There were disturbances, there were regrettable instances of bloodshed, but the masses of Babylon at last, over the opposition of the well-to-do, imposed their will; they saw their generous objectives fully achieved. First, the Company was forced to assume all public power. (The unification was necessary because of the vastness and complexity of the new operations.) Second, the Lottery was made secret, free of charge, and open to all. The mercenary sale of lots was abolished; once initiated into the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically took part in the sacred drawings, which were held in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights and determined each man's destiny until the next drawing. The consequences were incalculable. A lucky draw might bring about a man's elevation to the council of the magi or the imprisonment of his enemy (secret, or known by all to be so), or might allow him to find, in the peaceful dimness of his room, the woman who would begin to disturb him, or whom he had never hoped to see again; an unlucky draw: mutilation, dishonor of many kinds, death itself. Sometimes a single event—the murder of C in a tavern, B's mysterious apotheosis—would be the inspired outcome of thirty or forty drawings. Combining bets was difficult, but we must recall that the individuals of the Company were (and still are) all-powerful, and clever. In many cases, the knowledge that certain happy turns were the simple result of chance would have lessened the force of those outcomes; to forestall that problem, agents of the Company employed suggestion, or even magic. The paths they followed, the intrigues they wove, were invariably secret. To penetrate the innermost hopes and innermost fears of every man, they called upon astrologers and spies. There were certain stone lions, a sacred latrine called Qaphqa, some cracks in a dusty aqueduct— these places, it was generally believed, gave access to the Company, and well- or ill-wishing persons would deposit confidential reports in them. An alphabetical file held those dossiers of varying veracity.
Incredibly, there was talk of favoritism, of corruption. With its customary discretion, the Company did not reply directly; instead, it scrawled its brief argument in the rubble of a mask factory. This apologia is now numbered among the sacred Scriptures. It pointed out, doctrinally, that the Lottery is an interpolation of chance into the order of the universe, and observed that to accept errors is to strengthen chance, not contravene it. It also noted that those lions, that sacred squatting-place, though not disavowed by the Company (which reserved the right to consult them), functioned with no official guarantee.
This statement quieted the public's concerns. But it also produced other effects perhaps unforeseen by its author. It profoundly altered both the spirit and the operations of the Company. I have but little time remaining; we are told that the ship is about to sail—but I will try to explain.
However unlikely it may seem, no one, until that time, had attempted to produce a general theory of gaming. Babylonians are not a speculative people; they obey the dictates of chance, surrender their lives, their hopes, their nameless terror to it, but it never occurs to them to delve into its labyrinthine laws or the revolving spheres that manifest its workings. Nonetheless, the semiofficial statement that I mentioned inspired numerous debates of a legal and mathematical nature. From one of them, there emerged the following conjecture: If the Lottery is an intensification of chance, a periodic infusion of chaos into the cosmos, then is it not appropriate that chance intervene in every aspect of the drawing, not just one? Is it not ludicrous that chance should dictate a person's death while the circumstances of that death—whether private or public, whether drawn out for an hour or a century—should not be subject to chance? Those perfectly reasonable objections finally prompted sweeping reform; the complexities of the new system (complicated further by its having been in practice for centuries) are understood by only a handful of specialists, though I will attempt to summarize them, even if only symbolically.
Let us imagine a first drawing, which condemns a man to death. In pursuance of that decree, another drawing is held; out of that second drawing come, say, nine possible executors. Of those nine, four might initiate a third drawing to determine the name of the executioner, two might replace the unlucky draw with a lucky one (the discovery of a treasure, say), another might decide that the death should be exacerbated (death with dishonor, that is, or with the refinement of torture), others might simply refuse to carry out the sentence----That is the scheme of the Lottery, put symbolically. In reality, the number of drawings is infinite. No decision is final; all branch into others. The ignorant assume that infinite drawings require infinite time; actually, all that is required is that time be infinitely sub-divisible, as in the famous parable of the Race with the Tortoise. That infinitude coincides remarkably well with the sinuous numbers of Chance and with the Heavenly Archetype of the Lottery beloved of Platonists.... Some distorted echo of our custom seems to have reached the Tiber: In his Life of Antoninus Heliogabalus, AElius Lampridius tells us that the emperor wrote out on seashells the fate that he intended for his guests at dinner—some would receive ten pounds of gold; others, ten houseflies, ten dormice, ten bears. It is fair to recall that Heliogabalus was raised in Asia Minor, among the priests of his eponymous god.
There are also impersonal drawings, whose purpose is unclear. One drawing decrees that a sapphire from Taprobana be thrown into the waters of the Euphrates; another, that a bird be released from the top of a certain tower; another, that every hundred years a grain of sand be added to (or taken from) the countless grains of sand on a certain beach. Sometimes, the consequences are terrible.
Under the Company's beneficent influence, our customs are now steeped in chance. The purchaser of a dozen amphorae of Damascene wine will not be surprised if one contains a talisman, or a viper; the scribe who writes out a contract never fails to include some error; I myself, in this hurried statement, have misrepresented some splendor, some atrocity— perhaps, too, some mysterious monotony.... Our historians, the most perspicacious on the planet, have invented a method for correcting chance; it is well known that the outcomes of this method are (in general) trust-worthy— although, of course, they are never divulged without a measure of deception. Besides, there is nothing so tainted with fiction as the history of the Company....A paleographie document, unearthed at a certain temple, may come from yesterday's drawing or from a drawing that took place centuries ago. No book is published without some discrepancy between each of the edition's copies. Scribes take a secret oath to omit, interpolate, alter. Indirect falsehood is also practiced.
The Company, with godlike modesty, shuns all publicity. Its agents, of course, are secret; the orders it constantly (perhaps continually) imparts are no different from those spread wholesale by impostors.
Besides—who will boast of being a mere impostor? The drunken man who blurts out an absurd command, the sleeping man who suddenly awakes and turns and chokes to death the woman sleeping at his side—are they not, perhaps, implementing one of the Company's secret decisions? That silent functioning, like God's, inspires all manner of conjectures. One scurrilously suggests that the Company ceased to exist hundreds of years ago, and that the sacred disorder of our lives is purely hereditary, traditional; another believes that the Company is eternal, and teaches that it shall endure until the last night, when the last god shall annihilate the earth. Yet another declares that the Company is omnipotent, but affects only small things: the cry of a bird, the shades of rust and dust, the half dreams that come at dawn. Another, whispered by masked heresiarchs, says that the Company has never existed, and never will. Another, no less despicable, argues that it makes no difference whether one affirms or denies the reality of the shadowy corporation, because Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.
Of the many problems on which Lönnrot’s reckless perspicacity was exercised, none was so strange—so rigorously strange, one might say— as the periodic series of bloody deeds that culminated at the Villa Triste-le-Roy, amid the perpetual fragrance of the eucalyptus. It is true that Erik Lönnrot did not succeed in preventing the last crime, but he did, indisputably, foresee it. Nor did he divine the identity of Yarmolinsky's unlucky murderer, but he did perceive the evil series' secret shape and the part played in it by Red Scharlach, whose second sobriquet is Scharlach the Dandy. That criminal (like so many others) had sworn upon his honor to kill Lönnrot, but Lönnrot never allowed himself to be intimidated. He thought of himself as a reasoning machine, an Auguste Dupin, but there was something of the adventurer in him, even something of the gambler.
The first crime occurred in the Hôtel du Nord, that tall prism sitting high above the estuary whose waters are the color of the desert. To that tower (which is notorious for uniting in itself the abhorrent whiteness of a sanatorium, the numbered divisibility of a prison, and the general appearance of a house of ill repute) there came, on December 3, the delegate from Podolsk to the Third Talmudic Congress — Dr. Marcelo Yarmolinsky, a man of gray beard and gray eyes. We will never know whether he found the Hôtel du Nord to his liking; he accepted it with the ancient resignation that had allowed him to bear three years of war in the Carpathians and three thousand years of pogroms and oppression. He was given a room on R Floor, across the hall from the suite occupied—not without some splendor—by the Tetrarch of Galilee. Yarmolinsky had dinner, put off till the next day his examination of the unfamiliar city, set out his many books and very few articles of jewelry on a bureau, and, before midnight, turned off the light. (Thus testified the tetrarch's driver, who was sleeping in the adjoining room.) On the fourth, at 11:30a.m., a writer for the Yiddische Zeitung telephoned Yarmolinsky, but Dr. Yarmolinsky did not answer. He was found lying on the floor of his room, his face by now slightly discolored, his body almost naked beneath an anachronistic cape. He was lying not far from the door to the hallway; a deep knife wound had rent his chest. A couple of hours later, in the same room, standing amid journalists, photographers, and gendarmes, police commissioner Treviranus and Lönnrot serenely discussed the problem.
"No need to go off on wild-goose chases here," Treviranus was saying, as he brandished an imperious cigar. "We all know that the Tetrarch of Galilee owns the finest sapphires in the world. Somebody intending to steal the sapphires broke in here by mistake. Yarmolinsky woke up, the burglar had to kill him. —What do you think?"
"Possible, but uninteresting, "Lönnrot replied. "You will reply that reality has not the slightest obligation to be interesting. I will reply in turn that reality may get along without that obligation, but hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis that you suggest, here, on the spur of the moment, chance plays a disproportionate role. What we have here is a dead rabbi; I would prefer a purely rabbinical explanation, not the imaginary bunglings of an imaginary burglar."
Treviranus' humor darkened.
"I'm not interested in 'rabbinical explanations,' as you call them; what I'm interested in is catching the blackguard that stabbed this unknown man."
"Unknown?" asked Lönnrot. "Here are his complete works." He gestured to the bureau with its row of tall books: A Vindication of the Kabbalah; A Study of the Philosophy of Robert Fludd; a literal translation of the Sefer Yetsirah; a Biography of the Baal Shem; A History of the Hasidim; a monograph in German on the Tetragrammaton; another on the divine nomenclature of the Pentateuch. The commissioner looked at them with fear, almost with revulsion. Then he laughed.
"I'm a poor Christian fellow," he replied. "You can take those things home with you, if you want them; I can't be wasting my time on Jewish superstitions."
"This crime may, however, belong to the
history of Jewish superstitions," Lönnrot muttered.
"As Christianity does," the writer from the Yiddische Zeitung added, scathingly. He was nearsighted, quite shy, and an atheist.
No one answered him. In the little typewriter, one of the agents had found a slip of paper, with this unfinished declaration:
The first letter of the Name has been written.
Lönnrot resisted a smile. Suddenly turned bibliophile or Hebraist, he ordered one of the officers to wrap up the dead man's books, and he took them to his apartment. Then, indifferent to the police investigation, he set about studying them. One book, an octavo volume, revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God; yet another, the notion that God has a secret name, which (much like the crystal sphere attributed by the Persians to Alexander of Macedonia) contains His ninth attribute, the eternity—that is, immediate knowledge— of all things that shall be, are, and have been in the universe. Tradition reckons the names of God at ninety-nine; while Hebraists attribute that imperfect sum to the magical fear of even numbers, the Hasidim argue that the lacuna points toward a hundredth name — the Absolute Name.
From his erudition Lönnrot was distracted, a few days later, by the writer from the Yiddische Zeitung. The young man wanted to talk about the murder; Lönnrot preferred to talk about the many names of God.
The journalist filled three columns with the story that the famed detective Erik Lönnrot had taken up the study of the names of God in order to discover the name of the murderer. Lönnrot, accustomed to journalists' simplifications, did not take offense. One of those shopkeepers who have found that any given man may be persuaded to buy any given book published a popular edition of A History of the Hasidim. The second crime took place on the night of January 3, in the emptiest and most
godforsaken of the echoing suburbs on the western outskirts of the capital. Sometime around dawn, one of the mounted gendarmes that patrolled the solitudes of those blocks saw a man, wrapped in a poncho, lying in the doorway of an old paint factory. His hard face looked as though it were wearing a mask of blood; a deep knife wound split his chest. On the wall, across the red and yellow rhombuses, someone had chalked some words, which the gendarme spelled out to himself.... That afternoon, Treviranus and Lönnrot made their way to the distant scene of the crime. To the left and right of their automobile, the city crumbled away; the sky expanded, and now houses held less and less importance, a brick kiln or a poplar tree more and more. They came to their miserable destination; a final alleyway lined with pink-colored walls that somehow seemed to reflect the rambunctious setting of the sun. By this time, the dead man had been identified. He was Daniel Simón Azevedo, a man of some reputation in the old slums of the Northside, where he had risen from wagon driver to election-day thug, only to degenerate thereafter into a thief and even an informer. (The singular manner of his death seemed fitting: Azevedo was the last representative of a generation of outlaws who used a knife but not a revolver.) The chalked words read as follows:
The second letter of the Name has been written.
The third crime took place on the night of February 3. A few minutes before one, the telephone rang in Commissioner Treviranus' office. Keenly secretive, the guttural voice of a man came on the line; he told the commissioner his name was Ginzberg (or Ginsburg) and said that for a reasonable fee he was willing to reveal certain details of the two sacrifices, Azevedo's and Yarmolinsky's. A cacophony of whistles and party horns drowned out the informer's voice. Then, the line went dead. Without discarding the possibility of a prank (it was carnival time, after all), Treviranus made inquiries and found that the call had come from Liverpool House, a tavern on the rue de Toulon—that brackish street shared by a popular museum of wonders and a milk store, a brothel and a company of Bible sellers. Treviranus telephoned the owner of the place—Black Finnegan, former Irish criminal now overwhelmed, almost crushed, by honesty. Finnegan told Treviranus that the last person to use the telephone in the tavern had been a tenant, one Gryphius, who'd just gone out with some friends. Treviranus drove immediately to Liverpool House.
The owner had the following to say: Eight days earlier, Gryphius—a man with sharp features, a nebulous gray beard, and a nondescript black suit—had rented a room above the bar. Finnegan (who generally put the room to a use that Treviranus had no difficulty guessing) had named an exorbitant rent; Gryphius had unhesitatingly paid it. He almost never left the room; he had both lunch and dinner there and hardly ever showed his face in the bar. That night he had come down to Finnegan's office to make a call. A closed coupe had stopped in front of the tavern. The driver hadn't left the driver's seat; some of the customers recalled that he was wearing a bear mask. Two harlequin figures got out of the car; they were short, and no one could fail to notice that they were drunk. They burst into Finnegan's office, party horns bleating, and threw their arms around Gryphius, who apparently recognized them but greeted them somewhat coldly. They exchanged a few words in Yiddish—Gryphius in a low, guttural voice, the harlequins in a sort of falsetto—and then all went up to Gryphius' room. Fifteen minutes later the three men came down again, quite happy; Gryphius was staggering, and seemed to be as drunk as the others.
Tall and unsteady, his head apparently spinning, he was in the middle, between the masked harlequins.
(One of the women in the bar recalled the yellow, red, and green lozenges.) Twice he stumbled; twice the harlequins steadied him. The three men got into the coupe and disappeared in the direction of the nearby pier, with its rectangular water. But just as he stepped on the running board of the car, the last harlequin scrawled an obscene figure and a sentence on one of the blackboards in the entryway.
Treviranus looked at the sentence, but it was almost predictable:
The last letter of the Name has been written.
Then he examined Gryphius-Ginsburg's little room. On the floor, there was a brusque star, in blood; in the corners, the remains of cigarettes, Hungarian; on a bureau, a book in Latin— Leusden's Philologus hebrœogrœcus (1739)— with several handwritten notes. Treviranus looked at it indignantly, and sent for Lönnrot. Lönnrot did not take his hat off before plunging into the book, while the commissioner interrogated the contradictory witnesses to the possible kidnapping. At four they left. Out in the twisting rue de Toulon, as they walked through the dawn's dead streamers and confetti, Treviranus said: "What if tonight's story were a sham, a simulacrum?"
Erik Lönnrot smiled and in a grave voice read the commissioner a passage (which had been underlined) from the Philologus' thirty- third dissertation: Dies Judœorum incipita solis occasu usque ad soils occasum diei sequentis. "Which means," he added, " 'The Jewish day begins at sundown and lasts until sundown of the following day.' "
The other man made an attempt at irony. "And is that the most valuable piece of information you've picked up tonight, then?"
"No. The most valuable piece of information is the word Ginsburg used."
The afternoon papers had not overlooked these periodic deaths and disappearances. The Cross and Sword contrasted them with the admirable discipline and order of the last Hermetic congress; Ernst Palast of The Martyr denounced "the intolerable delays of a clandestine and niggardly pogrom, which has taken three months to wipe out three Jews"; the Yiddische Zeitung rejected the horrifying theory of an anti-Semitic conspiracy, "though many insightful spirits will hear of no other solution for the triple mystery"; the most famous gunman of the Southside, Dandy Red Scharlach, swore that in his territory no crime such as that had ever taken place, and he accused Police Commissioner Franz Treviranus of criminal negligence.
On March 1, this same Treviranus received an impressive-looking sealed envelope. He opened it; it contained a letter signed "Baruch Spinoza" and a detailed map of the city, clearly torn out of a Baedeker.
The letter predicted that on the third of March there would not be a fourth crime, because the paint factory in the west, the tavern on the Rue de Toulon, and the Hôtel du Nord were "the perfect points of a mystical, equilateral triangle"; red ink on the map demonstrated its regularity. Treviranus read over that argument-by-geometry resignedly and then sent both letter and map to Lönnrot's house, Lönnrot indisputably being a man who deserved this sort of claptrap. Erik Lönnrot studied the map and letter. The three locations were indeed equidistant. Symmetry in time (December 3, January 3, February 3); symmetry in space, as well...Lönnrot sensed, abruptly, that he was on the brink of solving the riddle. A drawing- compass and a navigational compass completed that sudden intuition. He smiled, spoke the word Tetragrammaton (a word he had recently acquired), and telephoned the commissioner.
"Thanks for that equilateral triangle you sent me last night. It was what I needed to solve the puzzle. Tomorrow, Friday, the perpetrators will be in prison; we can relax."
"Then they're not planning a fourth crime?"
"It's precisely because they are planning a fourth crime that we can relax," Lönnrot said as he hung up.
An hour later, he was riding on a Southern Railway train toward the abandoned Villa Triste-le-Roy.
South of the city of my story flows a sluggish stream of muddy water, choked with refuse and thick with the runoff of tanneries. On the other side is a suburb filled with factories where, under the protection of a Barcelona gangster, gunmen prosper. Lönnrot smiled to think that the most famous of these criminals—Red Scharlach—would have given anything to know about his clandestine visit. Azevedo had been one of Scharlach's gang; Lönnrot considered the remote possibility that Scharlach was to be the fourth victim, but then rejected it.... He had virtually solved the problem; the mere circumstances, the reality (names, arrests, faces, the paperwork of trial and imprisonment), held very little interest for him now. He wanted to go for a walk, he wanted a respite from the three months of sedentary investigation. He reflected that the explanation for the crimes lay in an anonymous triangle and a dusty Greek word. The mystery seemed so crystal clear to him now, he was embarrassed to have spent a hundred days on it.
The train stopped at a silent loading platform. Lönnrot got off. It was one of those deserted evenings that have the look of dawn. The air of the murky plains was wet and cold. Lönnrot began to walk cross-country. He saw dogs, he saw a van or lorry in a dead-end alleyway, he saw the horizon, he saw a silvery horse lapping at the rank water of a puddle. It was growing dark when he saw the rectangular belvedere of Villa Triste-le-Roy, which stood almost as high as the black eucalyptus trees that surrounded it. The thought occurred to him that one dawn and one sunset (an ancient glow in the east and another in the west) were all that separated him from the hour yearned for by the seekers of the Name.
A rusty fence defined the irregular perimeter of the villa's grounds. The main gate was closed. Lönnrot, with no great expectation of finding a way in, walked all the way around. Back at the impregnable gate, he stuck his hand almost mechanically between the bars and came upon the latch. The creaking of the iron startled him. With laborious passivity, the entire gate yielded.
Lönnrot made his way forward through the eucalyptus trees, treading upon confused generations of stiff red leaves. Seen at closer quarters, the house belonging to the Villa Triste-le-Roy abounded in pointless symmetries and obsessive repetitions; a glacial Diana in a gloomy niche was echoed by a second Diana in a second niche; one balcony was reflected in another; double stairways opened into a double balustrade. A two-faced Hermes threw a monstrous shadow. Lönnrot walked all around the outside of the house as he had made the circuit of the villa's grounds. He inspected everything; under the level of the terrace, he spotted a narrow shutter.
He pushed at it; two or three marble steps descended into a cellar. Lönnrot, who by now had a sense of the architect's predilections, guessed that there would be another set of steps in the opposite wall. He found them, climbed them, raised his hands, and opened the trapdoor out.
A glowing light led him toward a window. This he also opened; a round yellow moon defined two leaf-clogged fountains in the dreary garden. Lönnrot explored the house. Through foyers that opened onto dining rooms and on through galleries, he would emerge into identical courtyards—often the same courtyard. He climbed dusty stairs to circular antechambers; he would recede infinitely in the facing mirrored walls; he wearied of opening or half opening windows that revealed to him, outside, the same desolate garden from differing heights and differing angles—inside, the furnishings in yellowing covers, chandeliers swathed in muslin. A bedchamber stopped him; there, a single flower in a porcelain vase; at the first brush of his fingertips, the ancient petals crumbled. On the second floor, on the uppermost floor, the house seemed infinite yet still growing. The house is not so large, he thought. It seems larger because of its dimness, its symmetry, its mirrors, its age, my unfamiliarity with it, and this solitude.
A stairway took him to the belvedere. The moonlight of the evening shone through the lozenges of the windows; they were yellow, red, and green. He was stopped by an astonished, dizzying recollection.
Two fierce, stocky men leaped upon him and disarmed him; another, quite tall, greeted him gravely: "You are so kind. You have saved us a night and a day."
It was Red Scharlach. The men tied Lönnrot's hands. Lönnrot at last found his voice.
"Scharlach— you are looking for the secret Name?"
Scharlach stood there, impassive. He had not participated in the brief struggle, and now moved only to put out his hand for Lönnrot's revolver. But then he spoke, and Lönnrot heard in his voice a tired triumphance, a hatred as large as the universe, a sadness no smaller than that hatred.
"No," he said. "I am looking for something more fleeting and more perishable than that—I am looking for Erik Lönnrot. Three years ago, in a gambling den on the rue de Toulon, you arrested my brother and saw that he was sent to prison. My men rescued me from the shoot-out in a coupe, but not before I'd received a policeman's bullet in my gut. Nine days and nine nights I lay between life and death in this desolate symmetrical villa, consumed by fever, and that hateful two-faced Janus that looks toward the sunset and the dawn lent horror to my deliriums and my sleeplessness. I came to abominate my own body, I came to feel that two eyes, two hands, two lungs are as monstrous as two faces. An Irishman tried to convert me to belief in Christ; he would repeat, over and over, the goyim's saying: All roads lead to Rome. At night, my delirium would grow fat upon that metaphor: I sensed that the world was a labyrinth, impossible to escape— for all roads, even if they pretended to lead north or south, returned finally to Rome, which was also the rectangular prison where my brother lay dying, and which was also the Villa Triste-le-Roy. During those nights, I swore by the god that sees with two faces, and by all the gods of fever and of mirrors, to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it, and it has stood firm: its materials are a dead heresiologue, a compass, an eighth- century cult, a Greek word, a dagger, the rhombuses of a paint factory....
"The first term of the series was given me quite by chance. With some friends of mine— among them Daniel Azevedo—I had figured out a way to steal the tetrarch's sapphires. Azevedo, however, double-crossed us; he got drunk on the money we had advanced him and pulled the job a day early. But then he got lost in that huge hotel, and sometime around two o'clock in the morning he burst into Yarmolinsky's room. Yarmolinsky, who suffered from insomnia, was sitting at his typewriter typing. As coincidence would have it, he was making some notes, or writing an article perhaps, on the Name of God; he had just typed the words The first letter of the Name has been written. Azevedo told him to keep quiet; Yarmolinsky put out his hand toward the bell that would wake everyone in the hotel; Azevedo stabbed him once in the chest. The movement was almost reflexive; a half century of violence had taught him that the easiest and safest way is simply to kill.... Ten days later I learned from the Yiddische Zeitung that you were trying to find the key to Yarmolinsky's death among Yarmolinsky's writings. I read A History of the Hasidim; I learned that the reverent fear of speaking the Name of God had been the origin of the doctrine that that Name is omnipotent and occult. I learned that some Hasidim, in the quest for that secret Name, had gone so far as to commit human sacrifice.... I realized that you would conjecture that the Hasidim had sacrificed the rabbi; I set about justifying that conjecture.
"Marcelo Yarmolinsky died on the night of December third; I chose the third of January for the second 'sacrifice.' Yarmolinsky died in the north; for the second 'sacrifice,' the death should take place in the west. Daniel Azevedo was the necessary victim. He deserved to die; he was a man that acted on impulse and he was a traitor—if he were captured, he could destroy my plan. One of my men stabbed him; in order to link his body to the first one, I wrote The second letter of the Name has been written across the rhombuses of the paint factory.
"The third 'crime' was committed on the third of February. It was, as Treviranus guessed, a mere sham, a simulacrum. I am Gryphius-Ginzberg-Ginsburg; I spent one interminable week (supplemented by a tissue- thin false beard) in that perverse cubicle on the rue de Toulon, until my friends kidnapped me.
Standing on the running board of the coupe, one of them scrawled on a pillar the words that you recall: The last letter of the Name has been written. That sentence revealed that this was a series of three crimes. At least that was how the man in the street interpreted it—but I had repeatedly dropped clues so that you, the reasoning Erik Lönnrot, would realize that there were actually four. One sign in the north, two more in the east and west, demand a fourth sign in the south—after all, the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God, YHVH, consists of four letters; the harlequins and the paint manufacturer's emblem suggest four terms. It was I who underlined that passage in Leusden's book. The passage says that Jews compute the day from sunset to sunset; the passage therefore gives one to understand that the deaths occurred on the fourth of each month. It was I who sent the equilateral triangle to Treviranus. I knew you would add the missing point, the point that makes a perfect rhombus, the point that fixes the place where a precise death awaits you. I have done all this, Erik Lönnrot, planned all this, in order to draw you to the solitudes of Triste-le-Roy."
Lönnrot avoided Scharlach's eyes. He looked at the trees and the sky subdivided into murky red, green, and yellow rhombuses. He felt a chill, and an impersonal, almost anonymous sadness. The night was dark now; from the dusty garden there rose the pointless cry of a bird. For the last time, Lönnrot considered the problem of the symmetrical, periodic murders.
"There are three lines too many in your labyrinth," he said at last. "I know of a Greek labyrinth that is but one straight line. So many philosophers have been lost upon that line that a mere detective might be pardoned if he became lost as well. When you hunt me down in another avatar of our lives, Scharlach, I suggest that you fake (or commit) one crime at A, a second crime at B, eight kilometers from A, then a third crime at C, four kilometers from A and B and halfway between them. Then wait for me at D, two kilometers from A and C, once again halfway between them. Kill me at D, as you are about to kill me at Triste-le-Roy."
"The next time I kill you," Scharlach replied, "I promise you the labyrinth that consists of a single straight line that is invisible and endless."
He stepped back a few steps. Then, very carefully, he fired.
Imagine you bringing up Francisco Real that way, out of the clear blue sky, him dead and gone and all.
Because I met the man, even if this wa'n't exactly his stomping ground—his was more up in the north, up around Guadalupe Lake and Batería. Truth is, I doubt if I crossed paths with the man more than three times, and all three were on a single night—though it's not one I'll be likely ever to forget. It was the night La Lujanera came home to sleep at my place—just like that, just up and came—and the same night Rosendo Juárez left Maldonado never to return. Of course you probably haven't had the experience you'd need to recognize that particular individual's name, but in his time Rosendo Juárez—the Sticker, they called him— was one of the toughest customers in Villa Santa Rita. He was fierce with a knife, was Rosendo Juárez, as you'd expect with a moniker like that, and he was one of don Nicolás Paredes' men—don Nicolás being one of Morel's men. He'd come into the cathouse just as dandified as you can imagine, head to foot in black, with his belt buckle and studs and all of silver. Men and dogs, both, had a healthy respect for him, and the whores did too; everybody knew two killings'd been laid to him already. He wore a tall sort of hat with a narrow brim, which sat down like this on a long mane of greasy hair. Rosendo was favored by fortune, as they say, and we boys in the neighborhood would imitate him right down to the way he spit. But then there came a night that showed us Rosendo Juarez's true colors.
It's hard to believe, but the story of that night—a night as strange as any I've ever lived through—began with an insolent red-wheeled hack crammed with men, banging and rattling along those streets of hard-packed clay, past brick kilns and vacant lots. There was two men in black, strumming guitars and lost in their own thoughts, and the man on the driver's seat using his whip on any loose dogs that took a mind to mess with the piebald in the traces, and one fellow wrapped tight in a poncho riding in the middle
—which was the Yard master that everybody always talked about, and he was spoiling for a fight, spoiling for a kill. The night was so cool it was like a blessing from heaven; two of these fellows were riding up on the folded-back cloth top of the hack—and it was as though the loneliness made that rattletrap a veritable parade. That was the first event of the many that took place, but it wa'n't till a while afterward that we found out this part. Me and my friends, meantime, we'd been over at Julia's place since early that evening, Julia's place being a big old barracks-like building made out of sheets of zinc, between the Gauna road and the Maldonado. It was a place you could pick out from quite a distance off, on account of the light from a brazen big red light—and on account of the hullabaloo too. This Julia, although she was a colored woman, was as reliable and honest as you could ask for, so there wa'n't ever any lack of musicians, good drinks, and girls that could dance all night if they was asked to. But this Lujanera I mentioned, who was Rosendo's woman, she outdid 'em all, and by a good long ways. La Lujanera's dead now, señor, and I have to admit that sometimes whole years go by that I don't think about her, but you ought to have seen her in her time, with those eyes of hers. Seeing' her wouldn't put a man to sleep, and that's for sure.
Rotgut, milongas, women, a simpático kind of curse at you from the mouth of Rosendo Juárez, a slap on the back from him that you tried to feel was friendly-like—the truth is, I was as happy as a man could be. I was paired up with a girl that could follow like she could read my mind; the tango was having its way with us, whirling us this way and then that and losing us and calling us back again and finding us.... To make a long story short, we boys were dancing, 'most like bein' in a dream, when all of a sudden the music seemed to get louder, and what it was was that you could begin to hear the guitar- strumming of those two fellows I mentioned, mixing in with the music there at Julia's, and coming nearer every minute.
Then the gust of wind that had brought it to us changed direction, and I went back to my own body and my partner's, and the conversations of the dance. A good while later, there came a knock at the front door—a big knock and a big voice, too. At that, everybody got still; then a man's chest bumped the swinging doors open and the man himself stepped inside. The man resembled the voice a good deal.
For us, he wa'n't Francisco Real yet, but you couldn't deny he was a tall, muscular sort of man, dressed head to foot in black, with a shawl around his shoulders about the color of a bay horse. I remember his face being Indian-like, unsociable.
One of the swinging doors hit me when it banged open. Like the damn fool I am, I reached out and swung at the fellow with my left hand while with my right I went for the knife I kept sharp and waiting in the armhole of my vest, under my left arm. If we'd've tangled, I wouldn't have lasted long. The man put out his arm—and it was all he had to do—and brushed me aside, like he was brushing away a fly. So there I was—half sprawled there behind the door, with my hand still under my vest, holding on to my useless weapon, while he just kept walking, like nothing had happened, right on into the room. Just kept walking—taller than any of the boys that were stepping aside to make way for him, and acting like we were all invisible. The first row of fellows—pure Eye- talians, an' all eyes—opened out like a fan, and fast. But that wa'n't about to last. In the pack just behind those first fellows, the Englishman was waiting for him, and before that Englishman could feel the stranger's hand on his shoulder, he floored him with a roundhouse he had waitin'—and no sooner had he landed his punch than the party started in for serious.
The place was yards and yards deep, but they herded the stranger from one end of it to the other, bumping him and shoving him and whistling and spitting. At first they'd hit him with their fists, but then when they saw that he didn't so much as put up a hand to try to block their punches, they started slapping him— sometimes with their open hands and sometimes just with the harmless fringe on their shawls, like they were makin' fun of him. And also like they were reserving him for Rosendo, who hadn't budged from where he was standing, back against the back wall, and without saying a word. He was taking quick puffs of his cigarette—I will say that—like he already had an inkling of what the rest of us would see clear enough later on. The Yardmaster—straight and bloody, and the wind from that jeering mob behind him—was getting pushed and shoved back to Rosendo. Whistled at, beaten, spit on, as soon as he came face to face with Rosendo, he spoke. He looked at him and he wiped off his face with his arm, and he said this:
"I'm Francisco Real, from up on the Northside. Francisco Real, and they call me the Yardmaster. I've let these poor sons of bitches lift their hands to me because what I'm looking for is a man. There are people out there—I figure they're just talkers, you know—saying there's some guy down here in these boondocks that fancies himself a knife fighter, and a bad'un—say he's called the Sticker. I'd like to make his acquaintance, so he could show me— me being nobody, you understand—what it means to be a man of courage, a man you can look up to."
He said that, and he never took his eyes off him. Now a sticker for real glinted in his right hand—no doubt he'd had it up his sleeve the whole time. All around, the fellows that had been pushing to get close started backing away, and every one of us was looking at the two of them, and you could have heard a pin drop. Why, even the black gentleman that played the violin, a blind man he was, he had his face turned that way.
Just then I hear movement behind me, and I
see that in the doorway there's standing six or seven men, which would be the Yardmaster's gang, you see. The oldest of them, a weather- beaten, country-looking man with a gray- streaked mustache, steps forward and stands there like he's dazzled by all the women and all the light, and he very respectfully takes his hat off. The others just stood there watching, keeping their eyes open, ready to step in, you see, if somebody wanted to start playing dirty.
Meantime, what was happening with Rosendo—why hadn't he come out slashing at that swaggering son of a bitch? He hadn't said a word yet, hadn't so much as raised his eyes. His cigarette, I don't know whether he spit it out or whether it just fell out of his face. Finally he managed to get a few words out, but so quiet that those of us down at the other end of the room couldn't hear what he was saying. Then Francisco Real called him out again, and again Rosendo refused to rise to the occasion. So at that, the youngest of the strangers—just a kid he was—he whistled. La Lujanera looked at him with hate in her eyes and she started through that crowd with her braid down her back— through that crowd of men and whores—and she walked up to her man and she put her hand to his chest and she pulled out his naked blade and she handed it to him.
"Rosendo, I think you're needing this," she said.
Right up next to the roof there was this long kind of window that looked out over the creek. Rosendo took the knife in his two hands and he seemed to be trying to place it, like he didn't recognize it. Then all of a sudden he reared back and flung that knife straight through the window, out into the Maldonado. I felt a cold chill run down my spine.
"The only reason I don't carve you up for beefsteak is that you make me sick," said the stranger. At that, La Lujanera threw her arms around this Yardmaster's neck, and she looked at him with those eyes of hers, and she said, with anger in her voice:
"Forget that dog—he had us thinking he was a man."
Francisco Real stood there perplexed for a second, and then he put his arms around her like it was going to be forever, and he yelled at the musicians to play something—a tango, a milonga—and then yelled at the rest of us to dance. The milonga ran like a grass fire from one end of the room to the other. Real danced straight-faced, but without any daylight between him and her, now that he could get away with it.
They finally came to the door, and he yelled: "Make ways, boys—she's gettin' sleepy!" That's what he said, and they walked out
cheek to cheek, like in the drunken dizziness of the tango, like they were drowning in that tango.
I ought to be ashamed of myself. I spun around the floor a couple of times with one of the girls and then I just dropped her—on account of the heat and the crowdedness, I told her—and I slunk down along the wall till I got to the door. It was a pretty night—but a pretty night for who? Down at the corner stood that hack, with those two guitars sitting up straight on the seat, like two Christian gentlemen. It galled me to see those guitars left out like that, to realize that those boys thought so little of us that they'd trust us not even to walk off with their cheap guitars. It made me mad to feel like we were a bunch of nobodies.
I grabbed the carnation behind my ear and threw it in a mud puddle and then I stood there looking at it, more or less so I wouldn't have to think of anything else. I wished it was already the next day, so I'd have this night behind me. Just then, somebody elbowed me, and it felt almost like a relief. It was Rosendo, slipping through the neighborhood all by himself.
"Seems like you're always in the way, asshole," he muttered as he passed by me—I couldn't say whether to get it off his chest or because he had his mind on something else. He took the direction where it was darkest, down along the Maldonado; I never saw the man again.
I stood there looking at the things I'd been seeing all my life—a sky that went on forever, the creek flowing angry-like down below there, a sleeping horse, the dirt street, the kilns—and I was struck by the thought that I was just another weed growing along those banks, coming up between the soap-worts and the bone piles of the tanneries. What was supposed to grow out of trash heaps if it wa'n't us? —We was big talkers, but soft when it came to a fight, all mouth and no backbone. Then I told myself it wa'n't like that— the tougher the neighborhood, the tougher a man necessarily had to be. A trash heap? —
The milonga was having itself a ball, there was plenty of racket in the houses, and the wind brought the smell of honeysuckle. The night was pretty, but so what? There were enough stars that you got dizzy lookin' at 'em, one on top of another up there. I struggled, I tell you, to make myself feel like none of what had happened meant anything to me, but Rosendo's turning tail, that stranger's insufferable bullying
—it wouldn't let me alone. The tall son of a bitch had even gotten himself a woman for the night out of it.
For that night and many more nights besides, I thought to myself, and maybe for all the rest of his nights, because La Lujanera was serious medicine. Lord knows which way they'd gone. But they couldn't be far. Probably at it hammer and tongs right now, in the first ditch they'd come to.
When I finally got back inside, that perfectly pleasant little dance was still going on, like nothing had ever happened.
Making myself as inconspicuous as I could, I peered around through the crowd, and I saw that one and another of our boys had slipped out, but the guys from the Northside were tangoing along with everybody else. There was no elbowing or words or anything; everything was real polite, but everybody was keeping their eyes open. The music was kind of sleepy, and the girls that were dancing with the Northside boys were as meek as mice.
I was expecting something, but not what turned out to happen.
Outside we heard a woman crying, and then a voice that was familiar in a way, but calm, almost too calm, as though it didn't belong to a real person, saying to her:
"Go ahead, darlin', go on in," and then some more of the woman's crying. Then the voice seemed to be getting a little desperate.
"Open the door, I said! Open the door, you motherless bitch, open the door!"
At that, the rickety doors swung open and La Lujanera stepped in, alone. She came in kind of looking over her shoulder, like somebody was herding her inside.
"She's got a spirit back there commanding her," said the Englishman.
"A dead man, my friend," said the Yardmaster then. His face was like a drunkard's. He came in, and he took a few unsteady steps into the clearing that we all made for him, like we had before. He stood there tall, and unseeing, and then he toppled like a post. One of the boys that had come with him turned him over on his back and put his poncho under his head for a pillow. The boy's hands came away bloody.
That was when we saw that he had a big knife wound in his chest; his blood was pooling up and turnin' black this bright red neckerchief he was wearing, but that I hadn't noticed before because his shawl had covered it. To try to stop the blood, one of the girls brought over some rotgut and scorched rags. He was in no condition to tell us what'd happened, and La Lujanera was looking at him sort of vacant-like, with her arms just hanging down at her sides. Everybody was asking her what happened with their eyes, and finally she managed to find her voice. She said that after she'd gone outside with the Yardmaster there, they went off to a little vacant lot, and just then a stranger appeared and desperately called out the Yardmaster to fight, and he stabbed him, gave him that wound there, and she swore she didn't know who the man was, but it wa'n't Rosendo.
Who was going to believe that?
The man at our feet was dying. My thought was, whoever had fixed his clock, his hand had been pretty steady. But the Yardmaster was tough, you had to give him that. When he came to the door just now, Julia had been brewing up some mate, and the mate went around the room and came all the way back to me before he was finally dead. "Cover my face," he said, when he knew he couldn't last anymore. His pride was all he had left, and he wa'n't going to let people gawk at the expressions on his face while he lay there dyin'. Somebody put that high- crowned black hat over his face, and he died under it, without a sound. When his chest stopped rising and falling, somebody got up the nerve to uncover him—he had that tired look that dead men get. He was one of the toughest men there was back then, from Bateríato the Southside—but no sooner was he dead and his mouth shut for all time, I lost all my hate for him.
"All it takes to die is to be alive," one of the girls back in the crowd said, and then another one said something else, in a pensive sort of way:
"Man thought so highly of himself, and all he's good for now is to draw flies."
At that, the Northsiders all muttered something to each other, real low, and then two of 'em at the same time said it out loud:
"The woman killed'im."
One of 'em yelled in her face, asking her if it
was her that did it, and they all surrounded her. At that I forgot all about being meek and not getting in anybody's way, and I pushed through to her like a shot.
I'm such a damn fool, it's a wonder as mad as I was I didn't pull out the little dagger I always carried on me. I could feel almost everybody— not to say everybody—looking at me.
"Look at this woman's hands," I said with a sneer. "Do they look steady enough—does she look like she'd have heart enough—to put a Yardmaster like that?"
Then I added, cool but tough at the same time:
"Who'd've thought the dear departed, who they say was a man to be reckoned with on his own turf, would've ended up this way, and in a back-water as dead as this is, where nothin' ever happens unless some strangers wander in to give us somethin' to talk about and stay around to get spit on afterward?" Nobody rose to that bait, either.
Just then through the silence came the sound of riders. It was the police. For one reason or another, everybody there had reason to keep the law out of this, so they decided that the best thing was to move the body down to the creek. You'll recall that long window that the gleam of the knife sailed through?
Well, that's the very same way the man in black went. A bunch of them lifted him up and after they'd separated him from all the money and whatnot he had on him, somebody hacked off his finger to get to the ring he wore. Vultures, señor, to pick over a poor defenseless dead man like that, after another, better man has fixed'im. Then a heave-ho, and that rushing, long-suffering water carried him away. I couldn't say whether they gutted him—I didn't want to look. The gray-mustached individual never took his eyes off me. La Lujanera took advantage of all the shuffling- about to disappear.
By the time the law came in to have their look around, the dance had a pretty good head of steam up again. The blind man on the violin knew how to play habaneras the likes of which you won't hear anymore. Outside, the day began to want to dawn a little. There was a line of arborvitae posts along the top of a hill, standing there all alone-like, because you couldn't see the thin strands of wire between 'em that early in the morning.
I strolled nice and easy on home to my place, which was about three blocks away. There was a light burning in the window, but then it went out. When I saw that, I can tell you I moved a good bit faster.
And then, Borges, for the second time I pulled out that short, sharp-edged knife I always carried here, under my vest, under my left arm, and I gave it another long slow inspection—and it was just like new, all innocent, and there was not the slightest trace of blood on it.
Those who read the news each morning do so simply to forget it again, or for the sake of the evening's conversation, and so it should surprise no one that people no longer remember, or remember as though in a dream, the once-famous and much-discussed case of Maneco Uriarte and a man named Duncan.
Of course the event took place in 1910, the year of the comet and the Centennial, and we have had and lost so many things since
then-----The protagonists are dead now; those who were witness to the
event swore an oath of solemn silence. I too raised my hand to swear, and I felt, with all the romantic seriousness of my nine or ten years, the gravity of that rite. I can't say whether the others noticed that I gave my word; I can't say whether they kept their own. However that may be, this is the story—with the inevitable changes that time, and good (or bad) literature, occasion.
That evening, my cousin Lafinur had taken me to an asado, one of those gatherings of men with the roasting of the fatted calf (or lamb, as it turned out to be), at a country place called Los Laureles. I cannot describe the topography; we should picture a town in the north of the country— peaceful and shady, and sloping down gently toward the river—rather than some flat, sprawling city. The journey by train lasted long enough for me to find it boring, but childhood's time, as we all know, flows slowly. Dusk had begun to settle when we drove through the gate to the large country house. There, I sensed, were the ancient elemental things: the smell of the meat as it turned golden on the spit, the trees, the dogs, the dry branches, the fire that brings men together.
There were no more than a dozen guests, all adults. (The oldest, I discovered later, was not yet thirty.) They were learned, I soon realized, in subjects that to this day I am unworthy of: racehorses, tailoring, automobiles, notoriously expensive women. No one disturbed my shyness, no one paid any mind to me.
The lamb, prepared with slow skillfulness by one of the peons that worked on the estate, held us long in the dining room. The dates of the wines were discussed. There was a guitar; my cousin, I think I recall, sang Elias Regules' La tapera and El gaucho and a few décimas in Lunfardo,which was de rigueur back then— verses about a knife fight in one of those houses on Calle Junín.Coffee was brought in, and cigars.
Not a word about heading back home. I felt, as Lugones once put it, "the fear of the late-ness of the hour." I couldn't bring myself to look at the clock. To hide the loneliness I felt at being a boy among men, I drank down, without much pleasure, a glass or two of wine. Suddenly, Uriarte loudly challenged Dun-can to a game of poker, just the two of them, mano a mano. Someone objected that two-handed poker usually was a sorry sort of game, and suggested a table of four. Duncan was in favor of that, but Uriarte, with an obstinacy that I didn't understand (and didn't try to), insisted that it be just the two of them. Outside of truco(whose essential purpose is to fill time with verses and good-natured mischief) and the modest labyrinths of solitaire, I have never cared much for cards. I slipped out of the room without anyone's noticing.
A big house that one has never been in before, its rooms in darkness (there was light only in the dining room), means more to a boy than an un-explored country to a traveler. Step by step I explored the house; I recall a billiard room, a conservatory with glass panes of rectangles and lozenges, a pair of rocking chairs, and a window from which there was a glimpse of a gazebo. In the dimness, I became lost; the owner of the house—whose name, after all these years, might have been Acevedo or Acebal—finally found me. Out of kindness, or, being a collector, out of vanity, he led me to a sort of museum case.
When he turned on the light, I saw that it contained knives of every shape and kind, knives made famous by the circumstances of their use. He told me he had a little place near Pergamino, and that he had gathered his collection over years of traveling back and forth through the province. He opened the case and without looking at the little show cards for each piece he recounted the knives' histories, which were always more or less the same, with differences of place and date. I asked if among his knives he had the dagger that had been carried by Moreira(at that time the very archetype of the gaucho, as Martín Fierro and Don Segundo Sombrawould later be). He had to admit he didn't, but he said he could show me one like it, with the same U-shaped cross guard. Angry voices interrupted him. He closed the case immediately; I followed him.
Uriarte was shouting that Duncan had been cheating. The others were standing around them. Duncan, I recall, was taller than the others; he was a sturdy-looking, inexpressive man a bit heavy in the shoulders, and his hair was so blond that it was almost white. Maneco Uriarte was a man of many nervous gestures and quick movements; he was dark, with features that revealed, perhaps, some trace of Indian blood, and a sparse, petulant mustache. Clearly, they were all drunk; I cannot say for certain whether there were two or three bottles scattered about on the floor or whether the cinematographer's abuses have planted that false memory in my mind. Uriarte's cutting (and now obscene) insults never ceased. Duncan seemed not to hear him; finally he stood up, as though weary, and hit Uriarte, once, in the face. Uriarte screamed—from the floor where he now lay sprawling—that he was not going to tolerate such an affront, and he challenged Duncan to fight.
Duncan shook his head.
"To tell the truth, I'm afraid of you," he added, by way of explanation.
A general burst of laughter greeted this.
"You're going to fight me, and now," Uriarte replied, once more on his feet.
Someone, God forgive him, remarked that there was no lack of weapons.
I am not certain who opened the vitrine. Maneco Uriarte selected the longest and showiest knife, the one with the U-shaped cross guard; Duncan, almost as though any one of them would serve as well as any other, chose a wood-handled knife with the figure of a little tree on the blade. Someone said it was like Maneco to choose a sword. No one was surprised that Maneco's hand should be shaking at such a moment; everyone was surprised to see that Duncan's was. Tradition demands that when men fight a duel, they not sully the house they are in, but go outside for their encounter. Half in sport, half serious, we went out into the humid night. I was not drunk from wine, but I was drunk from the adventure; I yearned for someone to be killed, so that I could tell about it later, and remember it. Perhaps just then the others were no more adult than 1.1 also felt that a whirlpool we seemed incapable of resisting was pulling us down, and that we were about to be lost. No one really took Maneco's accusation seriously; everyone interpreted it as stemming from some old rivalry, tonight exacerbated by the wine.
We walked through the woods that lay out beyond the gazebo. Uriarte and Duncan were ahead of us; I thought it odd that they should watch each other the way they did, as though each feared a surprise move by the other. We came to a grassy patch.
"This place looks all right," Duncan said with soft authority.
The two men stood in the center indecisively. "Throw down that hardware—it just gets in the way. Wrestle each other down for real!" a voice shouted.
But by then the men were fighting. At first they fought clumsily, as though afraid of being wounded; at first they watched their opponent's blade, but then they watched his eyes. Uriarte had forgotten about his anger; Duncan, his indifference or disdain. Danger had transfigured them; it was now two men, not two boys, that were fighting. I had imagined a knife fight as a chaos of steel, but I was able to follow it, or almost follow it, as though it were a game of chess. Time, of course, has not failed both to exalt and to obscure what I saw. I am not sure how long it lasted; there are events that cannot be held to ordinary measures of time.
As their forearms (with no ponchos wrapped around them for protection) blocked the thrusts, their sleeves, soon cut to ribbons, grew darker and darker with their blood. It struck me that we'd been mistaken in assuming they were unfamiliar with the knife. I began to see that the two men handled their weapons differently. The weapons were unequal; to overcome that disadvantage, Duncan tried to stay close to the other man, while Uriarte drew away in order to make long, low thrusts.
"They're killing each other! Stop them!" cried the same voice that had mentioned the showcase.
No one summoned the courage to intervene. Uriarte had lost ground; Duncan then charged him. Their bodies were almost touching now. Uriarte's blade sought Duncan's face. Abruptly it looked shorter; it had plunged into his chest. Duncan lay on the grass. It was then that he spoke, his voice barely audible:
"How strange. All this is like a dream."
He did not close his eyes, he did not move, and I had seen one man kill another.
Maneco Uriarte leaned down to the dead man and begged him to forgive him. He was undisguisedly sobbing. The act he had just committed overwhelmed and terrified him. I now know that he regretted less having committed a crime than having committed an act of senselessness.
I couldn't watch anymore. What I had longed to see happen had happened, and I was devastated.
Lafinur later told me that they had to wrestle with the body to pull the knife out. A council was held among them, and they decided to lie as little as possible; the knife fight would be elevated to a duel with swords. Four of the men would claim to have been the seconds, among them Acebal.Everything would be taken care of in Buenos Aires; somebody always has a friend....
On the mahogany table lay a confusion of playing cards and bills that no one could bring himself to look at or touch.
In the years that followed, I thought more than once about confiding the story to a friend, but I always suspected that I derived more pleasure from keeping the secret than I would from telling it. In 1929, a casual conversation suddenly moved me to break the long silence. José Olave, the re-tired chief of police, had been telling me stories of the knife fighters that hung out in the tough neighborhoods of Retiro, down near the docks—El Bajo and that area. He said men such as that were capable of anything— ambush, betrayal, trickery, the lowest and most infamous kind of villainy— in order to get the better of their opponents, and he remarked that before the Podestás and the Gutierrezes, there'd been very little knife fighting, the hand- to-hand sort of thing. I told him that I'd once actually witnessed such a fight, and then I told the story of that night so many years before.
He listened to me with professional attention, and then he asked me a question:
"Are you sure Uriarte and the other man had never used a knife in a fight before? That a stretch in the country at one time or another hadn't taught them something?"
"No," I replied. "Everyone there that night knew everyone else, and none of them could believe their eyes."
Olave went on unhurriedly, as though thinking out loud.
"You say one of those daggers had a U- shaped cross guard-- There were two famous daggers like that—the one that Moreira used and the one that belonged to Juan Almada, out around Tapalquén."
Something stirred in my memory.
"You also mentioned a wood-handled knife,"
Olave went on, "with the mark of a little tree on the blade.
There are thousands of knives like that; that was the mark of the company that made them. But there was one..."
He stopped a moment, then went on:
"There was an Acevedo that had a country place near Pergamino. And there was another brawler of some repute that made his headquarters in that area at the turn of the century—Juan Almanza. From the first man he killed, at the age of fourteen, he always used one of those short knives, because he said it brought him luck. There was bad blood between Juan Almanza and Juan Almada, because people got them mixed up—their names, you see... They kept their eyes open for each other a long time, but somehow their paths never crossed. Juan Almanza was killed by a stray bullet in some election or other. The other one, I think, finally died of old age in the hospital at Las Flores."
Nothing more was said that afternoon; we both sat thinking.
Nine or ten men, all of them now dead, saw what my eyes saw—the long thrust at the body and the body sprawled beneath the sky—but what they saw was the end of another, older story. Maneco Uñarte did not kill Duncan; it was the weapons, not the men, that fought. They had lain sleeping, side by side, in a cabinet, until hands awoke them. Perhaps they stirred when they awoke; perhaps that was why Uriarte's hand shook, and Duncan's as well. The two knew how to fight—the knives, I mean, not the men, who were merely their instruments— and they fought well that night. They had sought each other for a long time, down the long roads of the province, and at last they had found each other; by that time their gauchos were dust. In the blades of those knives there slept, and lurked, a human grudge.
Things last longer than men. Who can say whether the story ends here; who can say that they will never meet again.
The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.
Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.
In London, in early June of the year 1929, the rare book dealer Joseph Cartaphilus, of Smyrna, offered the princess de Lucinge the six quarto minor volumes (1715-1720) of Pope's Iliad. The princess purchased them; when she took possession of them, she exchanged a few words with the dealer. He was, she says, an emaciated, grimy man with gray eyes and gray beard and singularly vague features. He expressed himself with untutored and uncorrected fluency in several languages; within scant minutes he shifted from French to English and from English to an enigmatic cross between the Spanish of Salonika and the Portuguese of Macao. In October, the princess heard from a passenger on the Zeus that Cartaphilus had died at sea while returning to Smyrna, and that he had been buried on the island of Cos.
In the last volume of the Iliad she found this manuscript.
It is written in an English that teems with Latinisms; this is a verbatim transcription of the document.
As I recall, my travails began in a garden in hundred-gated Thebes, in the time of the emperor Diocletian. I had fought (with no glory) in the recent Egyptian wars and was tribune of a legion quartered in Berenice, on the banks of the Red Sea; there, fever and magic consumed many men who magnanimously coveted the steel blade. The Mauritanians were defeated; the lands once occupied by the rebel cities were dedicated in œternitatem to the Plutonian gods; Alexandria, subdued, in vain sought Caesar's mercy; within the year the legions were to report their triumph, but I myself barely glimpsed the face of Mars. That privation grieved me, and was perhaps why I threw myself into the quest, through vagrant and terrible deserts, for the secret City of the Immortals.
My travails, I have said, began in a garden in Thebes. All that night I did not sleep, for there was a combat in my heart. I rose at last a little before dawn. My slaves were sleeping; the moon was the color of the infinite sand. A bloody rider was approaching from the east, weak with exhaustion. A few steps from me, he dismounted and in a faint, insatiable voice asked me, in Latin, the name of the river whose waters laved the city's walls. I told him it was the Egypt, fed by the rains. "It is another river that I seek," he replied morosely, "the secret river that purifies men of death." Dark blood was welling from his breast. He told me that the country of his birth was a mountain that lay beyond the Ganges; it was rumored on that mountain, he told me, that if one traveled westward, to the end of the world, one would come to the river whose waters give immortality. He added that on the far shore of that river lay the City of the Immortals, a city rich in bulwarks and amphitheaters and temples. He died before dawn, but I resolved to go in quest of that city and its river. When interrogated by the torturer, some of the Mauritanian prisoners confirmed the traveler's tale: One of them recalled the Elysian plain, far at the ends of the earth, where men's lives are everlasting; another, the peaks from which the Pactolus flows, upon which men live for a hundred years. In Rome, I spoke with philosophers who felt that to draw out the span of a man's life was to draw out the agony of his dying and multiply the number of his deaths. I am not certain whether I ever believed in the City of the Immortals; I think the task of finding it was enough for me. Flavius, the Getulian proconsul, entrusted two hundred soldiers to me for the venture; I also recruited a number of mercenaries who claimed they knew the roads, and who were the first to desert.
Subsequent events have so distorted the memory of our first days that now they are impossible to put straight. We set out from Arsinoë and entered the ardent desert. We crossed the lands of the Troglodytes, who devour serpents and lack all verbal commerce; the land of the Garamantas, whose women are held in common and whose food is lions; the land of the Augiles, who worship only Tartarus.
We ranged the width and breadth of other deserts—deserts of black sand, where the traveler must usurp the hours of the night, for the fervency of the day is unbearable. From afar I made out the mountain which gives its name to the Ocean; on its slopes grows the euphorbia, an antidote to poisons, and on its peak live the Satyrs, a nation of wild and rustic men given to lasciviousness. That the bosom of those barbaric lands, where the Earth is the mother of monsters, might succor a famous city—such a thing seemed unthinkable to us all. Thus we continued with our march, for to have regressed would have been to dishonor ourselves. Some of the men, those who were most temerarious, slept with their faces exposed to the moon; soon they burned with fever. With the depraved water of the watering holes others drank up insanity and death. Then began the desertions; a short time afterward, the mutinies. In repressing them I did not hesitate to employ severity. In that I acted justly, but a centurion warned me that the mutineers (keen to avenge the crucifixion of one of their number) were weaving a plot for my death. I fled the camp with the few soldiers who were loyal to me; in the desert, among whirlwinds of sand and the vast night, we became separated. A Cretan arrow rent my flesh. For several days I wandered without finding water—or one huge day multiplied by the sun, thirst, and the fear of thirst. I left my path to the will of my horse. At dawn, the distance bristled with pyramids and towers. I dreamed, unbearably, of a small and orderly labyrinth at whose center lay a well; my hands could almost touch it, my eyes see it, but so bewildering and entangled were the turns that I knew I would die before I reached it.
When I disentangled myself at last from that nightmare, I found that my hands were bound behind my back and I was lying in an oblong stone niche no bigger than a common grave, scraped into the caustic slope of a mountain. The sides of the cavity were humid, and had been polished as much by time as by human hands. In my chest I felt a painful throbbing, and I burned with thirst. I raised my head and cried out weakly. At the foot of the mountain ran a noiseless, impure stream, clogged by sand and rubble; on the far bank, the patent City of the Immortals shone dazzlingly in the last (or first) rays of the sun. I could see fortifications, arches, frontispieces, and forums; the foundation of it all was a stone plateau. A hundred or more irregular niches like my own riddled the mountain and the valley. In the sand had been dug shallow holes; from those wretched holes, from the niches, emerged naked men with gray skin and neglected beards. I thought I recognized these men: they belonged to the bestial lineage of the Troglodytes, who infest the shorelines of the Persian Gulf and the grottoes of Ethiopia; I was surprised neither by the fact that they did not speak nor by seeing them devour serpents.
Urgent thirst lent me temerity. I estimated that I was some thirty paces from the sand; I closed my eyes and threw myself down the mountain, my hands bound behind my back. I plunged my bloodied face into the dark water and lapped at it like an animal. Before I lost myself in sleep and delirium once more, I inexplicably repeated a few words of Greek: Those from Zeleia, wealthy Trojans, who drink the water of dark Aisepos...
I cannot say how many days and nights passed over me. In pain, unable to return to the shelter of the caverns, naked on the unknown sand, I let the moon and the sun cast lots for my bleak fate. The Troglodytes, childlike in their barbarity, helped me neither survive nor die. In vain did I plead with them to kill me. One day, with the sharp edge of a flake of rock, I severed my bonds. The next, I stood up and was able to beg or steal—I, Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of the legions of Rome
—my first abominated mouthful of serpent's flesh.
Out of avidity to see the Immortals, to touch that more than human City, I could hardly sleep. And as though the Troglodytes could divine my goal, they did not sleep, either. At first I presumed they were keeping a watch over me; later, I imagined that my uneasiness had communicated itself to them, as dogs can be infected in that way. For my departure from the barbarous village I chose the most public of times, sunset, when almost all the men emerged from their holes and crevices in the earth and gazed out unseeingly toward the west. I prayed aloud, less to plead for divine favor than to intimidate the tribe with articulate speech. I crossed the stream bed clogged with sandbars and turned my steps toward the City.
Two or three men followed me confusedly; they were of short stature (like the others of that species), and inspired more revulsion than fear. I had to skirt a number of irregular pits that I took to be ancient quarries; misled by the City's enormous size, I had thought it was much nearer. Toward midnight, I set my foot upon the black shadow—bristling with idolatrous shapes upon the yellow sand—of the City's wall. My steps were halted by a kind of sacred horror. So abhorred by mankind are novelty and the desert that I was cheered to note that one of the Troglodytes had accompanied me to the last. I closed my eyes and waited, unsleeping, for the dawn.
I have said that the City was builded on a stone plateau. That plateau, with its precipitous sides, was as difficult to scale as the walls. In vain did my weary feet walk round it; the black foundation revealed not the slightest irregularity, and the invariance of the walls proscribed even a single door. The force of the day drove me to seek refuge in a cavern; toward the rear there was a pit, and out of the pit, out of the gloom below, rose a ladder. I descended the ladder and made my way through a chaos of squalid galleries to a vast, indistinct circular chamber. Nine doors opened into that cellar- like place; eight led to a maze that returned, deceitfully, to the same chamber; the ninth led through another maze to a second circular chamber identical to the first. I am not certain how many chambers there were; my misery and anxiety multiplied them. The silence was hostile, and virtually perfect; aside from a subterranean wind whose cause I never discovered, within those deep webs of stone there was no sound; even the thin streams of iron-colored water that trickled through crevices in the stone were noiseless. Horribly, I grew used to that dubious world; it began to seem incredible that anything could exist save nine-doored cellars and long, forking subterranean corridors. I know not how long I wandered under the earth; I do know that from time to time, in a confused dream of home, I conflated the horrendous village of the barbarians and the city of my birth, among the clusters of grapes.
At the end of one corridor, a not unforeseen wall blocked my path— and a distant light fell upon me. I raised my dazzled eyes; above, vertiginously high above, I saw a circle of sky so blue it was almost purple. The metal treads of a stairway led up the wall. Weariness made my muscles slack, but I climbed the stairs, only pausing from time to time to sob clumsily with joy. Little by little I began to discern friezes and the capitals of columns, triangular pediments and vaults, confused glories carved in granite and marble. Thus it was that I was led to ascend from the blind realm of black and intertwining labyrinths into the brilliant City.
I emerged into a kind of small plaza—a courtyard might better describe it. It was surrounded by a single building, of irregular angles and varying heights. It was to this heterogeneous building that the many cupolas and columns belonged. More than any other feature of that incredible monument, I was arrested by the great antiquity of its construction. I felt that it had existed before humankind, before the world itself.
Its patent antiquity (though somehow terrible to the eyes) seemed to accord with the labor of immortal artificers. Cautiously at first, with indifference as time went on, desperately toward the end, I wandered the staircases and inlaid floors of that labyrinthine palace. (I discovered afterward that the width and height of the treads on the staircases were not constant; it was this that explained the extraordinary weariness I felt.) This palace is the work of the gods, was my first thought. I explored the uninhabited spaces, and I corrected myself: The gods that built this place have died. Then I reflected upon its peculiarities, and told myself: The gods that built this place were mad. I said this, I know, in a tone of incomprehensible reproof that verged upon remorse—with more intellectual horror than sensory fear.
The impression of great antiquity was joined by others: the impression of endlessness, the sensation of oppressiveness and horror, the sensation of complex irrationality. I had made my way through a dark maze, but it was the bright City of the Immortals that terrified and repelled me. A maze is a house built purposely to confuse men; its architecture, prodigal in symmetries, is made to serve that purpose. In the palace that I imperfectly explored, the architecture had no purpose. There were corridors that led nowhere, unreachably high windows, grandly dramatic doors that opened onto monklike cells or empty shafts, incredible upside-down staircases with upside-down treads and balustrades. Other staircases, clinging airily to the side of a monumental wall, petered out after two or three landings, in the high gloom of the cupolas, arriving nowhere. I cannot say whether these are literal examples I have given; I do know that for many years they plagued my troubled dreams; I can no longer know whether any given feature is a faithful transcription of reality or one of the shapes unleashed by my nights. This City, I thought, is so horrific that its mere existence, the mere fact of its having endured — even in the middle of a secret desert— pollutes the past and the future and somehow compromises the stars. So long as this City endures, no one in the world can ever be happy or courageous. I do not want to describe it; a chaos of heterogeneous words, the body of a tiger or a bull pullulating with teeth, organs, and heads monstrously yoked together yet hating each other—those might, perhaps, be approximate images.
I cannot recall the stages by which I returned, nor my path through the dusty, humid crypts. I know only that I was accompanied by the constant fear that when I emerged from the last labyrinth I would be surrounded once again by the abominable City of the Immortals. I remember nothing else. That loss of memory, now insurmountable, was perhaps willful; it is possible that the circumstances of my escape were so unpleasant that on some day no less lost to memory I swore to put them out of my mind.
Those who have read the story of my travails attentively will recall that a man of the Troglodyte tribe had followed me, as a dog might have, into the jagged shadow of the walls. When I emerged from the last cellar, I found him at the mouth of the cavern. He was lying in the sand, clumsily drawing and rubbing out a row of symbols that resembled those letters in dreams that one is just on the verge of understanding when they merge and blur. At first I thought that this was some sort of barbaric writing; then I realized that it was absurd to imagine that men who had never learned to speak should have invented writing.
Nor did any one of the shapes resemble any other—a fact that ruled out (or made quite remote) the possibility that they were symbols. The man would draw them, look at them, and correct them. Then suddenly, as though his game irritated him, he would rub them out with his palm and forearm. He looked up at me, though he seemed not to recognize me. Still, so great was the relief I felt (or so great, so dreadful had my loneliness been) that I actually thought that this primitive Troglodyte looking up at me from the floor of a cave had been waiting for me. The sun warmed the plain; as we began our return to the village, under the first stars of evening, the sand burned our feet. The Troglodyte walked ahead of me; that night I resolved to teach him to recognize, perhaps even to repeat, a few words. Dogs and horses, I reflected, are able to do the first; many birds, like the Caesars' nightingale, can do the second.
However scant a man's understanding, it will always be greater than that of unreasoning beasts.
The Troglodyte's lowly birth and condition recalled to my memory the image of Argos, the moribund old dog of the Odyssey, so I gave him the name Argos, and tried to teach it to him. Time and time again, I failed. No means I employed, no severity, no obstinacy of mine availed. Motionless, his eyes dead, he seemed not even to perceive the sounds which I was attempting to imprint upon him. Though but a few paces from me, he seemed immensely distant. Lying in the sand like a small, battered sphinx carved from lava, he allowed the heavens to circle in the sky above him from the first dusky light of morning to the last dusky light of night. It seemed simply impossible that he had not grasped my intention. I recalled that it is generally believed among the Ethiopians that monkeys deliberately do not speak, so that they will not be forced to work; I attributed Argos' silence to distrust or fear. From that vivid picture I passed on to others, even more extravagant. I reflected that Argos and I lived our lives in separate universes; I reflected that our perceptions were identical but that Argos combined them differently than I, constructed from them different objects; I reflected that perhaps for him there were no objects, but rather a constant, dizzying play of swift impressions. I imagined a world without memory, without time; I toyed with the possibility of a language that had no nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable adjectives. In these reflections many days went by, and with the days, years. Until one morning, something very much like joy occurred—the sky rained slow, strong rain.
Nights in the desert can be frigid, but that night had been like a cauldron. I dreamed that a river in Thessaly (into whose waters I had thrown back a golden fish) was coming to save me; I could hear it approaching over the red sand and the black rock; a coolness in the air and the scurrying sound of rain awakened me. I ran out naked to welcome it. The night was waning; under the yellow clouds, the tribe, as joyously as I, was offering itself up to the vivid torrents in a kind of ecstasy—they reminded me of Corybantes possessed by the god. Argos, his eyes fixed on the empyrean, was moaning; streams of water rolled down his face—not just rain, but also (I later learned) tears. Argos, I cried, Argos!
Then, with gentle wonder, as though discovering something lost and forgotten for many years, Argos stammered out these words: Argos, Ulysses' dog. And then, without looking at me, This dog lying on the dungheap.
We accept reality so readily—perhaps because we sense that nothing is real. I asked Argos how much of the Odyssey he knew. He found using Greek difficult; I had to repeat the question.
Very little, he replied. Less than the meagerest rhapsode. It has been eleven hundred years since last I wrote it.
That day, all was revealed to me. The Troglodytes were the Immortals; the stream and its sand-laden waters, the River sought by the rider. As for the City whose renown had spread to the very Ganges, the Immortals had destroyed it almost nine hundred years ago. Out of the shattered remains of the City's ruin they had built on the same spot the incoherent city I had wandered through—that parody or antithesis of City which was also a temple to the irrational gods that rule the world and to those gods about whom we know nothing save that they do not resemble man. The founding of this city was the last symbol to which the Immortals had descended; it marks the point at which, esteeming all exertion vain, they resolved to live in thought, in pure speculation. They built that carapace, abandoned it, and went off to make their dwellings in the caves. In their self- absorption, they scarcely perceived the physical world.
These things were explained to me by Homer as one might explain things to a child. He also told me of his own old age and of that late journey he had made—driven, like Ulysses, by the intention to arrive at the nation of men that know not what the sea is, that eat not salted meat, that know not what an oar might be. He lived for a century in the City of the Immortals, and when it was destroyed it was he who counseled that this other one be built. We should not be surprised by that—it is rumored that after singing of the war of Ilion, he sang of the war between the frogs and rats. He was like a god who created first the Cosmos, and then Chaos.
There is nothing very remarkable about
being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death. What is divine, terrible, and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal. I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one's own immortality is extraordinarily rare. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive. In my view, the Wheel conceived by certain religions in Hindustan is much more plausible; on that Wheel, which has neither end nor beginning, each life is the effect of the previous life and engenderer of the next, yet no one life determines the whole.... Taught by centuries of living, the republic of immortal men had achieved a perfection of tolerance, almost of disdain. They knew that over an infinitely long span of time, all things happen to all men. As reward for his past and future virtues, every man merited every kindness—yet also every betrayal, as reward for his past and future iniquities. Much as the way in games of chance, heads and tails tend to even out, so cleverness and dullness cancel and correct each other. Perhaps the rude poem of El Cid is the counterweight demanded by a single epithet of the Eclogues or a maxim from Heraclitus. The most fleeting thought obeys an invisible plan, and may crown, or inaugurate, a secret design. I know of men who have done evil in order that good may come of it in future centuries, or may already have come of it in centuries past.... Viewed in that way, all our acts are just, though also unimportant. There are no spiritual or intellectual merits. Homer composed the Odyssey; given infinite time, with infinite circumstances and changes, it is impossible that the Odyssey should not be composed at least once. No one is someone; a single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa,I am god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world which is a long-winded way of saying that Aim not.
The notion of the world as a system of exact compensations had an enormous influence on the Immortals. In the first place, it made them immune to pity. I have mentioned the ancient quarries that dotted the countryside on the far bank of the stream; a man fell into the deepest of those pits; he could not be hurt, could not die, and yet he burned with thirst; seventy years passed before he was thrown a rope. Nor was he much interested in his own fate. His body was a submissive domestic animal; all the charity it required each month was a few hours' sleep, a little water, and a scrap of meat. But let no one imagine that we were mere ascetics. There is no more complex pleasure than thought, and it was to thought that we delivered ourselves over. From time to time, some extraordinary stimulus might bring us back to the physical world—for example, on that dawn, the ancient elemental pleasure of the rain. But those lapses were extremely rare; all Immortals were capable of perfect quietude. I recall one whom I never saw standing—a bird had made its nest on his breast.
Among the corollaries to the doctrine that there is no thing that is not counterbalanced by another, there is one that has little theoretical importance but that caused us, at the beginning or end of the tenth century, to scatter over the face of the earth. It may be summarized in these words: There is a river whose waters give immortality; somewhere there must be another river whose waters take it away. The number of rivers is not infinite; an immortal traveler wandering the world will someday have drunk from them all. We resolved to find that river.
Death (or reference to death) makes men precious and pathetic; their ghostliness is touching; any act they perform may be their last; there is no face that is not on the verge of blurring and fading away like the faces in a dream. Everything in the world of mortals has the value of the irrecoverable and contingent.
Among the Immortals, on the other hand, every act (every thought) is the echo of others that preceded it in the past, with no visible beginning, and the faithful presage of others that will repeat it in the future, advertiginem. There is nothing that is not as though lost between indefatigable mirrors. Nothing can occur but once, nothing is preciously in peril of being lost. The elegiac, the somber, the ceremonial are not modes the Immortals hold in reverence. Homer and I went our separate ways at the portals of Tangier; I do not think we said good-bye.
I wandered through new realms, new empires. In the autumn of 1066 I fought at Stamford Bridge, though I no longer recall whether I stood in the ranks of Harold, soon to meet his fate, or in the ranks of that ill-fated Harald Hardrada who conquered only six feet or a little more of English soil. In the seventh century of the Hegira, on the outskirts of Bulaq, I transcribed with deliberate calligraphy, in a language I have forgotten, in an alphabet I know not, the seven voyages of Sindbad and the story of the City of Brass. In a courtyard of the prison in Samarkand I often played chess. In Bikanir I have taught astrology, as I have in Bohemia. In 1638 I was in Kolzsvar, and later in Leipzig. In Aberdeen, in 1714, I subscribed to the six volumes of Pope's Iliad; I know I often perused them with delight. In 1729 or thereabouts, I discussed the origin of that poem with a professor of rhetoric whose name, I believe, was Giambattista; his arguments struck me as irrefutable. On October 4, 1921, the Patna, which was taking me to Bombay, ran aground in a harbor on the Eritrean coast. (Part of the ms. is scratched out just here; the name of the port may have been erased.)
I disembarked; there came to my mind other mornings, long in the past, when I had also looked out over the Red Sea—when I was a Roman tribune, and fever and magic and inactivity consumed the soldiers. Outside the city I saw a spring; impelled by habit, I tasted its clear water. As I scaled the steep bank beside it, a thorny tree scratched the back of my hand. The unaccustomed pain seemed exceedingly sharp. Incredulous, speechless, and in joy, I contemplated the precious formation of a slow drop of blood. I am once more mortal, I told myself over and over, again I am like all other men. That night, I slept until daybreak.
... A year has passed, and I reread these pages. I can attest that they do not stray beyond the bounds of truth, although in the first chapters, and even in certain paragraphs of others, I believe I detect a certain falseness. That is due, perhaps, to an over-employment of circumstantial details, a way of writing that I learned from poets; it is a procedure that infects everything with falseness, since there may be a wealth of details in the event, yet not in memory.... I believe, nonetheless, that I have discovered a more private and inward reason. I will reveal it; it does not matter that I may be judged a fantast.
The story I have told seems unreal because the experiences of two different men are intermingled in it. In the first chapter, the horseman wishes to know the name of the river that runs beside the walls of Thebes; Flaminius Rufus, who had bestowed upon the city the epithet "hundred-gated," tells him that the river is the "Egypt"; neither of those statements belongs to him, but rather to Homer, who in the Iliad expressly mentions "Thebes Hekatompylos" and who in the Odyssey, through the mouths of Proteus and Ulysses, invariably calls the Nile the "Egypt." In the second chapter, when the Roman drinks the immortal water he speaks a few words in Greek. Those words are also Homeric; they may be found at the end of the famous catalog of the ships. Later, in the dizzying palace, he speaks of "a reproof that was almost remorse"; those words, too, belong to Homer, who had foreseen such a horror. Such anomalies disturbed me; others, of an aesthetic nature, allowed me to discover the truth. The clues of this latter type may be found in the last chapter, which says that I fought at Stamford Bridge, that in Bulaq I transcribed the voyages of Sindbad the Sailor, and that in Aberdeen I subscribed to Pope's English Iliad.
The text says, inter alia: "In Bikanir I have taught astrology, as I have in Bohemia." None of those statements is false; what is significant is the fact of their having been chosen to record. The first seems to befit a man of war, but then one sees that the narrator pays little attention to the war, much more to the fate of the men. The "facts" that follow are even more curious. A dark yet elemental reason led me to put them to paper: I knew they were pathetic. They are not pathetic when narrated by the Roman Flaminius Rufus; they are when narrated by Homer. It is odd that Homer, in the thirteenth century, should have copied down the adventures of Sindbad—another Ulysses—and again after many hundreds of years have discovered forms like those of his own Iliad in a northern kingdom and a barbaric tongue. As for the sentence that contains the name "Bikanir," one can see that it has been composed by a man of letters desirous (like the author of the catalog of ships) of wielding splendid words.
(Ernesto Sabato suggests that the "Giambattista" who discussed the origins of the Iliad with the rare book dealer Cartaphilus is Giambattista Vico, the Italian who defended the argument that Homer is a symbolic character, like Pluto or Achilles.)
As the end approaches, there are no longer any images from memory— there are only words. It is not strange that time may have confused those that once portrayed me with those that were symbols of the fate of the person that accompanied me for so many centuries. I have been Homer; soon, like Ulysses, I shall be Nobody; soon, I shall be all men—I shall be dead.
Postcript (1950): Among the commentaries inspired by the foregoing publication, the most curious (if not most urbane) is biblically titled A Coat of Many Colours (Manchester, 1948); it is the work of the supremely persévérant pen of Dr. Nahum Cordovero, and contains some hundred pages. It speaks of the Greek anthologies, of the anthologies of late Latin texts, of that Ben Johnson who defined his contemporaries with excerpts from Seneca, of Alexander Ross's Virgilius evangelizans, of the artifices of George Moore and Eliot, and, finally, of "the tale attributed to the rare-book dealer
Joseph Cartaphilus." In the first chapter it points out brief interpolations from Pliny (Historia naturate, V:8); in the second, from Thomas de Quincey (Writings, III: 439); in the third, from a letter written by Descartes to the ambassador Pierre Chanut; in the fourth, from Bernard Shaw (Back to Methuselah, V). From those
"intrusions" (or thefts) it infers that the entire document is apocryphal.
To my way of thinking, that conclusion is unacceptable. As the end approaches, wrote Cartaphilus, there are no longer any images from memory — there are only words. Words, words, words taken out of place and mutilated, words from other men—those were the alms left him by the hours and the centuries.
It was about eleven o'clock one night; I had gone into the old-fashioned general-store-and- bar, which is now simply a bar, on the corner of Bolivar and Venezuela. As I went in, I noticed that over in a corner, sitting at one of the little tables, was a man I had never seen before. He hissed to catch my eye and motioned me to come over. He must have looked like a man that one didn't want to cross, because I went at once toward his table. I felt, inexplicably, that he had been sitting there for some time, in that chair, before that empty glass. He was neither tall nor short; he looked like an honest craftsman, or perhaps an old-fashioned country fellow. His sparse mustache was grizzled. A bit stiff, as Porteños tend to be, he had not taken off his neck scarf. He offered to buy me a drink; I sat down and we chatted.
All this happened in nineteen-thirty- something.
"You've heard of me, sir, though we've never met," the man began, "but I know you. My name is Rosendo Juárez. It was Nicolás Paredes, no doubt, God rest his soul, that told you about me. That old man was something. I'll tell you—the stories he'd tell... Not so as to fool anyone, of course—just to be entertaining. But since you and I are here with nothing else on our hands just now, I'd like to tell you what really happened that night... the night the Yardmaster was murdered. You've put the story in a novel, sir- and I'm hardly qualified to judge that novel—but I want you to know the truth behind the lies you wrote."
He paused, as though to put his recollections in order, and then he began....
Things happen to a man, you see, and a man only understands them as the years go by. What happened to me that night had been waiting to happen for a long time. I was brought up in the neighborhood of the Maldonado, out beyond Floresta. It was one big open sewage ditch back then, if you know what I mean, but fortunately they've run sewer lines in there now. I've always been of the opinion that nobody has the right to stand in the way of progress. You just do the best you can with the hand you're dealt....
It never occurred to me to find out the name of the father that begot me. Clementina Juárez, my mother, was a good honest woman that earned her living with her iron. If you were to ask me, I'd say she was from Entre Ríos or the Banda Oriental, what people now call Uruguay; be that as it may, she would always talk about her relatives over in Uruguay, in Concepción. For myself, I grew up the best I could. I learned to knife fight with the other boys, using a charred piece of stick. That was before we were all taken over by soccer, which back at that time was still just something the English did. Anyway, while I was sitting in the bar one night, this fellow named Garmendia started trying to pick a fight with me. I ignored him for a while— playing deaf, you might say—but this Garmendia, who was feeling his liquor, kept egging me on. We finally took it outside; out on the sidewalk, Garmendia turned back a second, pushed the door open again a little, and announced—"Not to worry, boys, I'll be right back." I had borrowed a knife. We walked down toward the Maldonado, slow, watching each other. He was a few years older than I was; he and I had practiced knife fighting together lots of times, and I had a feeling I was going to get positively gutted. I was walking down the right- hand side of the alley, and him down the left. Suddenly, he tripped over some big chunks of cement that were lying there. The second he tripped, I jumped him, almost without thinking about it. I cut his cheek open with one slash, then we locked together—there was a second when anything could've happened— and then I stabbed him once, which was all it took.... It was only sometime later that I realized he'd left his mark on me, too—scratches, though, that was about it. I learned that night that it isn't hard to kill a man, or get killed yourself. The creek was down; to keep the body from being found too soon, I half-hid it behind a brick kiln. I was so stunned I suppose I just stopped thinking, because I slipped off the ring Garmendia always wore and put it on. Then I straightened my hat and went back to the bar. I walked in as easy as you please.
"Looks like it's me that's come back," I said.
I ordered a shot of brandy, and the truth is, I
needed it. That was when somebody pointed out the bloodstain.
That night I tossed and turned on my bunk all night; I didn't fall asleep till nearly dawn. About the time of early mass, two cops came looking for me. You should have seen the way my mother carried on, may she rest in peace, poor thing. I was dragged off like a criminal. Two days and two nights I sat in that stinking cell. Nobody came to visit me—except for Luis Irala, a true friend if ever there was one. But they wouldn't let him see me. Then one morning the captain sent for me. He was sitting there in his chair; he didn't even look at me at first, but he did speak.
"So you put Garmendia out of his misery?" he said.
"If you say so," I answered.
"It's 'sir' to you. And we'll have no ducking or dodging, now. Here are the statements from the witnesses, and here's the ring that was found in your house. Just sign the confession and get this over with."
He dipped the pen in the inkwell and handed it to me.
"Let me think about this, captain—Sir," I added.
"I'll give you twenty-four hours to think about it real good, in your very own cell. I won't rush you. But if you decide not to see things in a reasonable way, you'd best start getting used to the idea of a vacation down on Calle Las Heras."
As you might imagine, I didn't understand that right away.
"If you decide to come around, you'll just be in for a few days. I'll let you go—don Nicolás Paredes has promised me he'll fix it for you."
But it was ten days. I'd almost given up hope when they finally remembered me. I signed what they put in front of me to sign and one of the cops took me over to Calle Cabrera....
There were horses tied to the hitching post, and standing out on the porch and all inside the place there were more people than a Saturday night at the whorehouse. It looked like a party committee headquarters. Don Nicolás, who was sipping at a mate, finally called me over. As calm as you please, he told me he was going to send me out to Morón, where they were setting up for the elections. He told me to look up a certain Sr. Laferrer; he'd try me out, he said. The letter I was to take was written by a kid in black that wrote poems about tenement houses and riffraff—or anyway, that's what I was told. I can't imagine that educated people would be much interested in that sort of thing, much less if it's told in poetry. Anyway, I thanked Paredes for the favor, and I left. The cop didn't stay so infernally glued to me on the way back.
So it all turned out for the best. Providence knows what it's doing. Garmendia's killing, which at first had got me in such hot water, was now starting to open doors for me. Of course the cops had me over a barrel—if I didn't work out, if I didn't toe the line for the party, I'd be hauled in again. But I'd got some heart back, and I had faith in myself.
Laferrer warned me right off that I was going to have to walk the straight and narrow with him, but if I did, he said, he might make me his bodyguard. The work I did for'em was all anyone could ask.
In Morón, and later on in the neighborhood too, I gradually won my bosses' trust. The police and the party gradually spread the word that I was a man to be reckoned with; I was an important cog in the wheels of the elections in Buenos Aires, and out in the province too. Elections were fierce back then; I won't bore you, señor, with stories about the blood that would be shed. I did all I could to make life hard on the radicals, though to this day they're still riding on Alem's coattails. But as I say, there was no man that didn't show me respect. I got myself a woman, La Lujanera we called her, and a handsome copper sorrel. For years I pretended to be some kind of Moreira—who in his day was probably imitating some other stage show gaucho. I played a lot of cards and drank a lot of absinthe....
We old folks talk and talk and talk, I know, but I'm coming to what I wanted to tell you. I don't know if I mentioned Luis Irala. A true friend, the likes of which you'll not often find.... He was getting on in years when I knew him, and he'd never been afraid of hard work; for some reason he took a liking to me.
He'd never set foot in a committee room—he earned his living carpentering. He didn't stick his nose in anybody else's business, and he didn't let anybody stick their nose in his. One morning he came to see me.
"I guess you've heard Casilda left me," he said."Rufino Aguilerais, the man that took her away from me."
I'd had dealings with that particular individual in Morón.
"I know Rufino,"I told him. "I'd have to say that of all the Aguileras, he's the least disgusting."
"Disgusting or not, I've got a bone to pick with him."
I thought for a minute.
"Listen," I finally told him, "nobody takes anything away from anybody. If Casilda left you, it's because it's Rufino she wants, and she's not interested in you." "But what'll people say? That I'm yellow? That I don't stand up to a man that wrongs me?"
"My advice to you is not to go looking for trouble because of what people might say, let alone because of a woman that doesn't love you anymore."
"I couldn't care less about her," he said. "A man that thinks longer than five minutes running about a woman is no man, he's a pansy. And Casilda's heartless, anyway. The last night we spent together she told me I was getting old."
"She was telling you the truth."
"And it hurts, but it's beside the point— Rufino's the one I'm after now."
"You want to be careful there," I told him. "I've seen Rufino in action, in the Merlo elections. He's like greased lightning."
"You think I'm afraid of Rufino Aguilera?"
" I know you're not afraid of him, but think about it—one of two things will happen: either you kill him and you get sent off to stir, or he kills you and you get sent off to Chacarita." "One of two things. So tell me, what would you do in my place?"
"I don't know, but then I'm not exactly the best example to follow. I'm a guy that to get his backside out of jail has turned into a gorilla for the party."
"I'm not planning to turn into a gorilla for the party, I'm planning to collect a debt a man owes me."
"You mean you're going to stake your peace of mind on a stranger you've never met and a woman you don't even love anymore?"
But Luis Irala wasn't interested in hearing what I had to say, so he left. The next day we heard that he'd picked a fight with Rufino in some bar over in Morón and that Rufino had killed him.
He went off to get killed, and he got himself killed right honorably, too—man to man. I'd done the best I could, I'd given him a friend's advice, but I still felt guilty.
A few days after the wake, I went to the cockfights. I'd never been all that keen on cockfights, but that Sunday, I'll tell you the truth, they made me sick. What in the world's wrong with those animals, I thought, that they tear each other to pieces this way, for no good reason?
The night of this story I'm telling you, the night of the end of the story, the boys and I had all gone to a dance over at the place that a black woman we called La Pardaran. Funny—all these years, and I still remember the flowered dress La Lujanera was wearing that night.... The party was out in the patio.
There was the usual drunk trying to pick a fight, but I made sure things went the way they were supposed to go. It was early, couldn't have been midnight yet, when the strangers showed up. One of them—they called him the Yardmaster, and he was stabbed in the back and killed that very night, just the way you wrote it, sir—anyway, this one fellow bought a round of drinks for the house. By coincidence this Yardmaster and I were dead ringers for each other. He had something up his sleeve that night: he came up to me and started laying it on pretty thick—he was from up north, he said, and he'd been hearing about me. He couldn't say enough about my reputation. I let him talk, but I was beginning to suspect what was coming, He was hitting the gin hard, too, and I figured it was to get his courage up—and sure enough, pretty soon he challenged me to a fight. That was when it happened—what nobody wants to understand. I looked at that swaggering drunk just spoiling for a fight, and it was like I was looking at myself in a mirror, and all of a sudden I was ashamed of myself. I wasn't afraid of him; if I had been, I might've gone outside and fought him. I just stood there. This other guy, this Yardmaster, who by now had his face about this far from mine, raised his voice so everybody could hear him:
"You know what's wrong with you? You're yellow, that's what's wrong with you!"
"That may be," I said. "I can live with being called yellow. You can tell people you called me a son of a whore, too, and say I let you spit in my face. Now then, does that make you feel better?"
La Lujanera slipped her hand up my sleeve and pulled out the knife I always carried there and slipped it into my hand. And to make sure I got the message, she also said, "Rosendo, I think you're needing this."
Her eyes were blazing.
I dropped the knife and walked out—taking my time about it. People stepped back to make way for me. They couldn't believe their eyes. What did I care what they thought.
To get out of that life, I moved over to Uruguay and became an oxcart driver. Since I came back, I've made my place here. San Telmo has always been a peaceful place to live.
He had never lingered among the pleasures of memory. Impressions, momentary and vivid, would wash over him: a potter's vermilion glaze; the sky-vault filled with stars that were also gods; the moon, from which a lion had fallen; the smoothness of marble under his sensitive, slow fingertips; the taste of wild boar meat, which he liked to tear at with brusque, white bites; a Phoenician word; the black shadow cast by a spear on the yellow sand; the nearness of the sea or women; heavy wine, its harsh edge tempered by honey—these things could flood the entire circuit of his soul. He had known terror, but he had known wrath and courage as well, and once he had been the first to scale an enemy wall. Keen, curious, inadvertent, with no law but satisfaction and immediate indifference, he had wandered the various world and on now this, now that seashore, he had gazed upon the cities of men and their palaces. In teeming marketplaces or at the foot of a mountain upon whose uncertain peak there might be satyrs, he had listened to complex stories, which he took in as he took in reality—without asking whether they were true or false.
Gradually, the splendid universe began drawing away from him; a stub-born fog blurred the lines of his hand; the night lost its peopling stars, the earth became uncertain under his feet. Everything grew distant, and indistinct. When he learned that he was going blind, he cried out. ("Stoicism" had not yet been invented, and Hector could flee without self- diminution.) Now (he felt) I will not be able to see the sky filled with mythological dread or this face that the years will transfigure. Days and nights passed over this despair of his flesh, but one morning he awoke, looked (with calm now) at the blurred things that lay about him, and felt, inexplicably, the way one might feel upon recognizing a melody or a voice, that all this had happened to him before and that he had faced it with fear but also with joy and hopefulness and curiosity. Then he descended into his memory, which seemed to him endless, and managed to draw up from that vertigo the lost remembrance that gleamed like a coin in the rain—perhaps because he had never really looked at it except (perhaps) in a dream.
The memory was this: Another boy had insulted him, and he had run to his father and told him the story.
As though he weren't paying attention, or didn't understand, his father let him talk, but then he took a bronze knife down from the wall—a beautiful knife, charged with power, that the boy had furtively coveted. Now he held it in his hands, and the surprise of pos-session wiped away the insult that he had suffered, but his father's voice was speaking: Let it be known that you are a man, and there was a command in the voice. Night's blindness was upon the paths; clutching to himself the knife in which he sensed a magical power, the boy descended the steep rough hillside that his house stood on and ran to the seashore, dreaming that he was Ajax and Perseus and peopling the dark salt air with wounds and battles. It was the precise flavor of that moment that he sought for now; the rest didn't matter—the insulting words of his challenge, the clumsy combat, the return with the bloodied blade.
Another memory, in which there was also a night and the foretaste of adventure, sprouted from that first one. A woman, the first woman the gods had given him, had awaited him in the darkness of a subterranean crypt, and he searched for her through galleries that were like labyrinths of stone and down slopes that descended into darkness. Why had those memories come to him, and why did they come
without bitterness, like foreshadowing of the present?
With grave wonder, he understood. In this night of his mortal eyes into which he was descending, love and adventure were also awaiting him. Ares and Aphrodite—because now he began to sense (because now he began to be surrounded by) a rumor of glory and hexameters, a rumor of men who defend a temple that the gods will not save, a rumor of black ships that set sail in search of a beloved isle, the rumor of the Odysseys and Iliads that it was his fate to sing and to leave echoing in the cupped hands of human memory. These things we know, but not those that he felt as he descended into his last darkness.
There are devotees of Goethe, of the Eddas, of the late song of the Nibelungen; my fate has been Shakespeare. As it still is, though in a way that no one could have foreseen—no one save one man.
Daniel Thorpe, who has just recently died in Pretoria. There is another man, too, whose face I have never seen.
My name is Hermann Sörgel.The curious reader may have chanced to leaf through my Shakespeare Chronology, which I once considered essential to a proper understanding of the text: it was translated into several languages, including Spanish. Nor is it beyond the realm of possibility that the reader will recall a protracted diatribe against an emendation inserted by Theobald into his critical edition of 1734—an emendation which became from that moment on an unquestioned part of the canon. Today I am taken a bit aback by the uncivil tone of those pages, which I might almost say were written by another man. In 1914, I drafted, but did not publish, an article on the compound words that the Hellenist and dramatist George Chapman coined for his versions of Homer; in forging these terms, Chapman did not realize that he had carried English back to its Anglo-Saxon origins, the Ur- sprung of the language. It never occurred to me that Chapman's voice, which I have now forgotten, might one day be so familiar to me....
A scattering of critical and philological "notes," as they are called, signed with my initials, complete, I believe, my literary biography. Although perhaps I might also be permitted to include an unpublished translation of Macbeth, which I began in order to distract my mind from the thought of the death of my brother, Otto Julius, who fell on the western front in 1917, I never finished translating the play; I came to realize that English has (to its credit) two registers—the Germanic and the Latinate—while our own German, in spite of its greater musicality, must content itself with one.
I mentioned Daniel Thorpe. I was introduced to Thorpe by Major Barclay at a Shakespeare conference.
I will not say where or when; I know all too well that such specifics are in fact vaguenesses.
More important than Daniel Thorpe's face, which my partial blindness helps me to forget, was his notorious lucklessness. When a man reaches a certain age, there are many things he can feign; happiness is not one of them. Daniel Thorpe gave off an almost physical air of melancholy.
After a long session, night found us in a pub—an undistinguished place that might have been any pub in London. To make ourselves feel that we were in England (which of course we were), we drained many a ritual pewter mug of dark warm beer.
"In Punjab," said the major in the course of our conversation, "a fellow once pointed out a beggar to me.
Islamic legend apparently has it, you know, that King Solomon owned a ring that allowed him to understand the language of the birds. And this beggar, so everyone believed, had somehow come into possession of that ring. The value of the thing was so beyond all reckoning that the poor bugger could never sell it, and he died in one of the courtyards of the mosque of Wazil Khan, in Lahore."
It occurred to me that Chaucer must have been familiar with the tale of that miraculous ring, but mentioning it would have spoiled Barclay's anecdote.
"And what became of the ring?" I asked.
"Lost now, of course, as that sort of magical thingamajig always is. Probably in some secret hiding place in the mosque, or on the finger of some chap who's off living somewhere where there're no birds."
"Or where there are so many," I noted, "that one can't make out what they're saying for the racket. Your story has something of the parable about it, Barclay."
It was at that point that Daniel Thorpe spoke up. He spoke, somehow, impersonally, without looking at us. His English had a peculiar accent, which I attributed to a long stay in the East.
"It is not a parable," he said. "Or if it is, it is nonetheless a true story. There are things that have a price so high they can never be sold."
The words I am attempting to reconstruct impressed me less than the conviction with which Daniel Thorpe spoke them. We thought he was going to say something further, but suddenly he fell mute, as though he regretted having spoken at all. Barclay said good night. Thorpe and I re-turned together to the hotel. It was quite late by now, but Thorpe suggested we continue our conversation in his room. After a short exchange of trivialities, he said to me:
"Would you like to own King Solomon's ring? I offer it to you. That's a metaphor, of course, but the thing the metaphor stands for is every bit as wondrous as that ring. Shakespeare's memory, from his youngest boyhood days to early April, 1616—I offer it to you."
I could not get a single word out. It was as though I had been offered the ocean.
Thorpe went on:
"I am not an impostor. I am not insane. I beg you to suspend judgment until you hear me out. Major Barclay no doubt told you that I am, or was, a military physician. The story can be told very briefly. It begins in the East, in a field hospital, at dawn. The exact date is not important. An enlisted man named Adam Clay, who had been shot twice, offered me the precious memory almost literally with his last breath. Pain and fever, as you know, make us creative; I accepted his offer without crediting it—and besides, after a battle, nothing seems so very strange. He barely had time to explain the singular conditions of the gift: The one who possesses it must offer it aloud, and the one who is to receive it must accept it the same way. The man who gives it loses it forever."
The name of the soldier and the pathetic scene of the bestowal struck me as "literary" in the worst sense of the word. It all made me a bit leery.
"And you, now, possess Shakespeare's memory?"
"What I possess," Thorpe answered, "are still two memories—my own personal memory and the memory of that Shakespeare that I partially am. Or rather, two memories possess me. There is a place where they merge, somehow. There is a woman's face ... I am not sure what century it be-longs to."
"And the one that was Shakespeare's—" I asked. "What have you done with it?"
There was silence.
"I have written a fictionalized biography," he then said at last, "which garnered the contempt of critics but won some small commercial success in the United States and the colonies. I believe that's all.... I have warned you that my gift is not a sinecure. I am still waiting for your answer."
I sat thinking. Had I not spent a lifetime, colorless yet strange, in pursuit of Shakespeare? Was it not fair that at the end of my labors I find him?
I said, carefully pronouncing each word:
"I accept Shakespeare's memory."
Something happened; there is no doubt of
that. But I did not feel it happen.
Perhaps just a slight sense of fatigue, perhaps
I clearly recall that Thorpe did tell me: "The memory has entered your mind, but it must be 'discovered.' It will emerge in dreams or when you are awake, when you turn the pages of a book or turn a corner. Don't be impatient; don't invent recollections. Chance in its mysterious workings may help it along, or it may hold it back. As I gradually forget, you will remember. I can't tell you how long the process will take."
We dedicated what remained of the night to a discussion of the character of Shylock. I refrained from trying to discover whether Shakespeare had had personal dealings with Jews. I did not want Thorpe to imagine that I was putting him to some sort of test. I did discover (whether with relief or uneasiness, I cannot say) that his opinions were as academic and conventional as my own.
In spite of that long night without sleep, I hardly slept at all the following night. I found, as I had so many times before, that I was a coward. Out of fear of disappointment, I could not deliver myself up to openhanded hope. I preferred to think that Thorpe's gift was illusory. But hope did, irresistibly, come to prevail. I would possess Shakespeare, and possess him as no one had ever possessed anyone before—not in love, or friendship, or even hatred. I, in some way, would be Shakespeare. Not that I would write the tragedies or the intricate sonnets—but I would recall the instant at which the witches (who are also the Fates) had been revealed to me, the other instant at which I had been given the vast lines: And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-weary flesh.
I would remember Anne Hathaway as I remembered that mature woman who taught me the ways of love in an apartment in Lübeck so many years ago. (I tried to recall that woman, but I could only recover the wall-paper, which was yellow, and the light that streamed in through the window. This first failure might have foreshadowed those to come.)
I had hypothesized that the images of that wondrous memory would be primarily visual. Such was not the case. Days later, as I was shaving, I spoke into the mirror a string of words that puzzled me; a colleague informed me that they were from Chaucer's "A. B. C." One afternoon, as I was leaving the British Museum, I began whistling a very simple melody that I had never heard before.
The reader will surely have noted the common thread that links these first revelations of the memory: it was, in spite of the splendor of some metaphors, a good deal more auditory than visual.
De Quincey says that man's brain is a palimpsest. Every new text covers the previous one, and is in turn covered by the text that follows—but all-powerful Memory is able to exhume any impression, no matter how momentary it might have been, if given sufficient stimulus. To judge by the will he left, there had been not a single book in Shakespeare's house, not even the Bible, and yet everyone is familiar with the books he so often repaired to: Chaucer, Gower, Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Holinshed's Chronicle, Florio's Montaigne, North's Plutarch. I possessed, at least potentially, the memory that had been Shakespeare's; the reading (which is to say the rereading) of those old volumes would, then, be the stimulus I sought. I also reread the sonnets, which are his work of greatest immediacy. Once in a while I came up with the explication, or with many explications. Good lines demand to be read aloud; after a few days I effortlessly recovered the harsh f's and open vowels of the sixteenth century.
In an article I published in the Zeitschrift für germanische Philologie, I wrote that Sonnet 127 referred to the memorable defeat of the Spanish Armada. I had forgotten that Samuel Butler had advanced that same thesis in 1899.
A visit to Stratford-on-Avon was, predictably enough, sterile.
Then came the gradual transformation of my dreams. I was to be granted neither splendid nightmares à la De Quincey nor pious allegorical visions in the manner of his master Jean Paul*; it was unknown rooms and faces that entered my nights. The first face I identified was Chapman's; later there was Ben Jonson's, and the face of one of the poet's neighbors, a person who does not figure in the biographies but whom Shakespeare often saw.
The man who acquires an encyclopedia does not thereby acquire every line, every paragraph, every page, and every illustration; he acquires the possibility of becoming familiar with one and another of those things. If that is the case with a concrete, and relatively simple, entity (given, I mean, the alphabetical order of its parts, etc.), then what must happen with a thing which is abstract and variable—ondoyant et divers? A dead man's magical memory, for example?
No one may capture in a single instant the fullness of his entire past.
That gift was never granted even to Shakespeare, so far as I know, much less to me, who was but his partial heir. A man's memory is not a summation; it is a chaos of vague possibilities. St. Augustine speaks, if I am not mistaken, of the palaces and the caverns of memory. That second metaphor is the more fitting one. It was into those caverns that I descended.
Like our own, Shakespeare's memory
included regions, broad regions, of shadow— regions that he willfully rejected. It was not without shock that I remembered how Ben Jonson had made him recite Latin and Greek hexameters, and how his ear—the incomparable ear of Shakespeare— would go astray in many of them, to the hilarity of his fellows.
I knew states of happiness and darkness that transcend common human experience.
Without my realizing it, long and studious solitude had prepared me for the docile reception of the miracle. After some thirty days, the dead man's memory had come to animate me fully. For one curiously happy week, I almost believed myself Shakespeare. His work renewed itself for me. I know that for Shakespeare the moon was less the moon than it was Diana, and less Diana than that dark drawn-out word moon. I noted another discovery: Shakespeare's apparent instances of inadvertence—those absences dans l'infini of which Hugo apologetically speaks—were deliberate. Shakespeare tolerated them—or actually interpolated them—so that his discourse, destined for the stage, might appear to be spontaneous, and not overly polished and artificial (nicht allzu glatt und gekünstelt). That same goal inspired him to mix his metaphors:
...my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf.
One morning I perceived a sense of guilt deep within his memory. I did not try to define it; Shakespeare himself has done so for all time. Suffice it to say that the offense had nothing in common with perversion.
I realized that the three faculties of the human soul—memory, understanding, and will—are not some mere Scholastic fiction. Shakespeare's memory was able to reveal to me only the circumstances of the man Shakespeare. Clearly, these circumstances do not constitute the uniqueness of the poet; what matters is the literature the poet produced with that frail material.
I was naive enough to have contemplated a biography, just as Thorpe had. I soon discovered, however, that that literary genre requires a talent for writing that I do not possess. I do not know how to tell a story. I do not know how to tell my own story, which is a great deal more extraordinary than Shakespeare's. Besides, such a book would be pointless. Chance, or fate, dealt Shakespeare those trivial terrible things that all men know; it was his gift to be able to transmute them into fables, into characters that were much more alive than the gray man who dreamed them, into verses which will never be abandoned, into verbal music. What purpose would it serve to unravel that wondrous fabric, besiege and mine the tower, reduce to the modest proportions of a documentary biography or a realistic novel the sound and fury of Macbeth?
Goethe, as we all know, is Germany's official religion; the worship of Shakespeare, which we profess not without nostalgia, is more private. (In England, the official religion is Shakespeare, who is so unlike the English; England's sacred book, however, is the Bible.) Throughout the first stage of this adventure I felt the joy of being Shakespeare; throughout the last, terror and oppression. At first the waters of the two memories did not mix; in time, the great torrent of Shakespeare threatened to flood my own modest stream— and very nearly did so. I noted with some nervousness that I was gradually forgetting the language of my parents. Since personal identity is based on memory, I feared for my sanity.
My friends would visit me; I was astonished that they could not see that I was in hell.
I began not to understand the everyday world around me (die alltägliche Umwelt). One morning I became lost in a welter of great shapes forged in iron, wood, and glass. Shrieks and deafening noises assailed and confused me. It took me some time (it seemed an infinity) to recognize the engines and cars of the Bremen railway station.
As the years pass, every man is forced to bear the growing burden of his memory. I staggered beneath two (which sometimes mingled)—my own and the incommunicable other's. The wish of all things, Spinoza says, is to continue to be what they are. The stone wishes to be stone, the tiger, tiger—and I wanted to be Hermann Sörgel again.
I have forgotten the date on which I decided to free myself. I hit upon the easiest way: I dialed telephone numbers at random. The voice of a child or a woman would answer; I believed it was my duty to respect their vulnerable estates. At last a man's refined voice answered.
"Do you," I asked, "want Shakespeare's memory? Consider well: it is a solemn thing I offer, as I can attest."
An incredulous voice replied:
"I will take that risk. I accept Shakespeare's memory." I explained the conditions of the gift.
Paradoxically, I felt both a nostalgie for the book I should have written, and now never would, and a fear that the guest, the specter, would never abandon me.
I hung up the receiver and repeated, like a wish, these resigned words:
Simply the thing I am shall make me live.
I had invented exercises to awaken the antique memory; I had now to seek others to erase it. One of many was the study of the mythology of William Blake, that rebellious disciple of Swedenborg. I found it to be less complex than merely complicated.
That and other paths were futile; all led me to Shakespeare.
I hit at last upon the only solution that gave hope courage: strict, vast music—Bach.
P.S. (1924)— I am now a man among men. In my waking hours I am Professor Emeritus Hermann Sörgel; I putter about the card catalog and compose erudite trivialities, but at dawn I sometimes know that the person dreaming is that other man. Every so often in the evening I am unsettled by small, fleeting memories that are perhaps authentic.
On page 242 of The History of the World War, Liddell Hart tells us that an Allied offensive against the Serre-Montauban line (to be mounted by thirteen British divisions backed by one thousand four hundred artillery pieces) had been planned for July 24, 1916, but had to be put off until the morning of the twenty- ninth. Torrential rains (notes Capt. Liddell Hart) were the cause of that delay—a delay that entailed no great consequences, as it turns out. The statement which follows—dictated, reread, and signed by Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English in the Hochschule at Tsingtao— throws unexpected light on the case. The two first pages of the statement are missing.
... and I hung up the receiver. Immediately afterward, I recognized the voice that had answered in German. It was that of Capt. Richard Madden. Madden's presence in Viktor Runeberg's flat meant the end of our efforts and (though this seemed to me quite secondary, or should have seemed) our lives as well. It meant that Runeberg had been arrested, or murdered. [bizarre and despicable supposition. The
Prussian spy Hans Rabener, alias Viktor Runeberg, had turned an automatic pistol on his arresting officer, Capt. Richard Madden. Madden, in self-defense, inflicted the wounds on Rabener that caused his subsequent death. -- - Ed. note.]
Before the sun set on that day, I would face the same fate. Madden was implacable—or rather, he was obliged to be implacable. An Irishman at the orders of the English, a man accused of a certain lack of zealousness, perhaps even treason, how could he fail to embrace and give thanks for this miraculous favour—the discovery, capture, perhaps death, of two agents of the German Empire? I went upstairs to my room; absurdly, I locked the door, and then I threw myself, on my back, onto my narrow iron bed.
Outside the window were the usual rooftops and the overcast six o'clock sun. I found it incredible that this day, lacking all omens and premonitions, should be the day of my implacable death. Despite my deceased father, despite my having been a child in a symmetrical garden in Hai Feng—was I, now, about to die? Then I reflected that all things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now. Century follows century, yet events occur only in the present; countless men in the air, on the land and sea, yet everything that truly happens, happens to me.... The almost unbearable memory of Madden's horsey face demolished those mental ramblings. In the midst of my hatred and my terror (now I don't mind talking about terror—now that I have foiled Richard Madden, now that my neck hungers for the rope), it occurred to me that that brawling and undoubtedly happy warrior did not suspect that I possessed the Secret—the name of the exact location of the new British artillery park on the Ancre. A bird furrowed the grey sky, and I blindly translated it into an aeroplane, and that aeroplane into many (in the French sky), annihilating the artillery park with vertical bombs. If only my throat, before a bullet crushed it, could cry out that name so that it might be heard in Germany.... But my human voice was so terribly inadequate.
How was I to make it reach the Leader's ear—the ear of that sick and hateful man who knew nothing of Runeberg and me save that we were in Staffordshire, and who was vainly awaiting word from us in his arid office in Berlin, poring infinitely through the newspapers? ...I must flee, I said aloud. I sat up noiselessly, in needless but perfect silence, as though Madden were already just outside my door.
Something—perhaps the mere show of proving that my resources were nonexistent— made me go through my pockets. I found what I knew I would find: the American watch, the nickel-plated chain and quadrangular coin, the key ring with the compromising and useless keys to Runeberg's flat, the notebook, a letter I resolved to destroy at once (and never did), the false passport, one crown, two shillings, and a few odd pence, the red-and-blue pencil, the handkerchief, the revolver with its single bullet. Absurdly, I picked it up and hefted it, to give myself courage. I vaguely reflected that a pistol shot can be heard at a considerable distance. In ten minutes, my plan was ripe. The telephone book gave me the name of the only person able to communicate the information: he lived in a suburb of Fenton, less than a half hour away by train. I am a coward. I can say that, now that I have carried out a plan whose dangerousness and daring no man will deny. I know that it was a terrible thing to do. I did not do it for Germany. What do I care for a barbaric country that has forced me to the ignominy of spying?
Furthermore, I know of a man of England—a modest man—who in my view is no less a genius than Goethe. I spoke with him for no more than an hour, but for one hour he was Goethe-----No—I did it because I sensed that the Leader looked down on the people of my race—the countless ancestors whose blood flows through my veins. I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies. And I had to escape from Madden. His hands, his voice, could beat upon my door at any moment. I silently dressed, said goodbye to myself in the mirror, made my way downstairs, looked up and down the quiet street, and set off. The train station was not far from my flat, but I thought it better to take a cab. I argued that I ran less chance of being recognized that way; the fact is, I felt I was visible and vulnerable— infinitely vulnerable—in the deserted street. I recall that I told the driver to stop a little ways from the main entrance to the station. I got down from the cab with willed and almost painful slowness. I would be going to the village of Ash grove, but I bought a ticket for a station farther down the line. The train was to leave at eight-fifty, scant minutes away. I had to hurry; the next train would not be until nine-thirty. There was almost no one on the platform. I walked through the cars; I recall a few workmen, a woman dressed in mourning weeds, a young man fervently reading Tacit us' Annals, and a cheerful-looking wounded soldier. The train pulled out at last. A man I recognised ran, vainly, out to the end of the platform; it was Capt. Richard Madden. Shattered, trembling, I huddled on the other end of the seat, far from the feared window.
From that shattered state I passed into a state of almost abject cheerfulness. I told myself that my duel had begun, and that in dodging my adversary's thrust—even by forty minutes, even thanks to the slightest smile from fate—the first round had gone to me. I argued that this small win prefigured total victory. I argued that the win was not really even so small, since without the precious hour that the trains had given me, I'd be in gaol, or dead. I argued (no less sophistically) that my cowardly cheerfulness proved that I was a man capable of following this adventure through to its successful end. From that weakness I drew strength that was never to abandon me. I foresee that mankind will resign itself more and more fully every day to more and more horrendous undertakings; soon there will be nothing but warriors and brigands. I give them this piece of advice: He who is to perform a horrendous act should imagine to himself that it is already done, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.
That is what I did, while my eyes—the eyes of a man already dead—registered the flow of that day perhaps to be my last, and the spreading of the night. The train ran sweetly, gently, through woods of ash trees. It stopped virtually in the middle of the countryside. No one called out the name of the station.
"Ashgrove?" I asked some boys on the platform. "Ashgrove," they said, nodding. I got off the train.
A lamp illuminated the platform, but the boys' faces remained within the area of shadow. "Are you going to Dr. Stephen Albert's house?" one queried. Without waiting for an answer, another of them said: "The house is a far way, but you'll not get lost if you follow that road there to the left, and turn left at every crossing." I tossed them a coin (my last), went down some stone steps, and started down the solitary road. It ran ever so slightly downhill and was of elemental dirt. Branches tangled overhead, and the low round moon seemed to walk along beside me. For one instant, I feared that Richard Madden had somehow seen through my desperate plan, but I soon realized that that was impossible. The boy's advice to turn always to the left reminded me that that was the common way of discovering the central lawn of a certain type of maze. I am something of a connoisseur of mazes: not for nothing am I the great- grandson of that Ts'ui Pen who was governor of Yunan province and who renounced all temporal power in order to write a novel containing more characters than the Hung Lu Meng and construct a labyrinth in which all men would lose their way. Ts'ui Pen devoted thirteen years to those disparate labours, but the hand of a foreigner murdered him and his novel made no sense and no one ever found the labyrinth. It was under English trees that I meditated on that lost labyrinth: I pictured it perfect and inviolate on the secret summit of a mountain; I pictured its outlines blurred by rice paddies, or underwater; I pictured it as infinite—a labyrinth not of octagonal pavillions and paths that turn back upon themselves, but of rivers and provinces and kingdoms-----I imagined a labyrinth of labyrinths, amaze of mazes, a twisting, turning, ever-widening labyrinth that contained both past and future and somehow implied the stars. Absorbed in those illusory imaginings, I forgot that I was a pursued man; I felt myself, for an indefinite while, the abstract perceiver of the world.
The vague, living countryside, the moon, the remains of the day did their work in me; so did the gently downward road, which forestalled all possibility of weariness. The evening was near, yet infinite.
The road dropped and forked as it cut through the now-formless meadows. A keen and vaguely syllabic song, blurred by leaves and distance, rain, and I went on the gentle mists of breeze. I was struck by the thought that a man may be the enemy of other men, the enemy of other men's other moments, yet not be the enemy of a country—of fireflies, words, gardens, water-courses, zephyrs. It was amidst such thoughts that I came to a high rusty gate. Through the iron bars I made out a drive lined with poplars, and a gazebo of some kind. Suddenly, I realised two things—the first trivial, the second almost incredible: the music I had heard was coming from that gazebo, or pavillion, and the music was Chinese. That was why unconsciously I had fully given myself over to it. I do not recall whether there was a bell or whether I had to clap my hands to make my arrival known.
The sputtering of the music continued, but from the rear of the intimate house, a lantern was making its way toward me—a lantern cross- hatched and sometimes blotted out altogether by the trees, a paper lantern the shape of a drum and the colour of the moon. It was carried by a tall man. I could not see his face because the light blinded me. He opened the gate and slowly spoke to me in my own language.
"I see that the compassionate Hsi P'eng has undertaken to remedy my solitude. You will no doubt wish to see the garden?"
I recognised the name of one of our consuls, but I could only disconcertedly repeat, "The garden?" "The garden of forking paths."
Something stirred in my memory, and I spoke with incomprehensible assurance.
"The garden of my ancestor Ts'ui Pen."
"Your ancestor? Your illustrious ancestor?” “Please—come in."
The dew-drenched path meandered like the
paths of my childhood. We came to a library of Western and Oriental books. I recognised, bound in yellow silk, several handwritten volumes of the Lost Encyclopedia compiled by the third emperor of the Luminous Dynasty but never printed. The disk on the gramophone revolved near a bronze phoenix. I also recall a vase of famillerose and another, earlier by several hundred years, of that blue colour our artificers copied from the potters of ancient Persia-----Stephen Albert, with a smile, regarded me. He was, as I have said, quite tall, with sharp features, grey eyes, and a grey beard. There was something priest-like about him, somehow, but something sailor-like as well; later he told me he had been a missionary in Tien-tsin "before aspiring to be a Sinologist." We sat down, I on a long low divan, he with his back to the window and a tall circular clock. I figured that my pursuer, Richard Madden, could not possibly arrive for at least an hour. My irrevocable decision could wait.
"An amazing life, Ts'ui Pen's," Stephen Albert said. "Governor of the province in which he had been born, a man learned in astronomy, astrology, and the unwearying interpretation of canonical books, a chess player, a renowned poet and calligraphier—he abandoned it all in order to compose a book and a labyrinth. He renounced the pleasures of oppression, justice, the populous marriage bed, banquets, and even erudition in order to sequester himself for thirteen years in the Pavillion of Limpid Solitude. Upon his death, his heirs found nothing but chaotic manuscripts. The family, as you perhaps are aware, were about to deliver them to the fire, but his counsellor—a Taoist or Buddhist monk—insisted upon publishing them."
"To this day," I replied, "we who are descended from Ts'ui Pen execrate that monk. It was senseless to publish those manuscripts. The book is a contradictory jumble of irresolute drafts. I once examined it myself; in the third chapter the hero dies, yet in the fourth he is alive again. As for Ts'ui Pen's other labor, his Labyrinth ..."
"Here is the Labyrinth," Albert said, gesturing towards a tall lacquered writing cabinet.
"An ivory labyrinth!" I exclaimed. "A very small sort of labyrinth ..."
"A labyrinth of symbols," he corrected me. "An invisible labyrinth of time. I, an English barbarian, have somehow been chosen to unveil the diaphanous mystery. Now, more than a hundred years after the fact, the precise details are irrecoverable, but it is not difficult to surmise what happened. Ts'ui Pen must at one point have remarked, 'I shall retire to write a book,' and at another point, 'I shall retire to construct a labyrinth.' Everyone pictured two projects; it occurred to no one that book and labyrinth were one and the same. The Pavillion of Limpid Solitude was erected in the centre of a garden that was, perhaps, most intricately laid out; that fact might well have suggested a physical labyrinth. Ts'ui Pen died; no one in all the wide lands that had been his could find the labyrinth. The novel's confusion—confusedness, I mean, of course—suggested to me that it was that labyrinth. Two circumstances lent me the final solution of the problem—one, the curious legend that Ts'ui Pen had intended to construct a labyrinth which was truly infinite, and two, a fragment of a letter I discovered."
Albert stood. His back was turned to me for several moments; he opened a drawer in the black-and-gold writing cabinet. He turned back with a paper that had once been crimson but was now pink and delicate and rectangular. It was written in Ts'ui Pen's renowned calligraphy. Eagerly yet uncomprehendingly I read the words that a man of my own lineage had written with painstaking brushstrokes: I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths. I wordlessly handed the paper back to Albert. He continued:
"Before unearthing this letter, I had wondered how a book could be infinite. The only way I could surmise was that it be a cyclical, or circular, volume, a volume whose last page would be identical to the first, so that one might go on indefinitely. I also recalled that night at the centre of the 1001 Nights, when the queen Scheherazade (through some magical distractedness on the part of the copyist) begins to retell, verbatim, the story of the 1001 Nights, with the risk of returning once again to the night on which she is telling it—and so on, ad infinitum. I also pictured to myself a platonic, hereditary sort of work, passed down from father to son, in which each new individual would add a chapter or with reverent care correct his elders' pages. These imaginings amused and distracted me, but none of them seemed to correspond even remotely to Ts'ui Pen's contradictory chapters. As I was floundering about in the mire of these perplexities, I was sent from Oxford the document you have just examined. I paused, as you may well imagine, at the sentence 'I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.'
Almost instantly, I saw it—the garden of
forking paths was the chaotic novel; the phrase 'several futures (not all)' suggested to me the image of a forking in time, rather than in space. A full rereading of the book confirmed my theory. In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible-to-disentangle Ts'ui Pen, the character chooses— simultaneously—all of them. He creates, thereby, 'several futures,' several times, which themselves proliferate and fork. That is the explanation for the novel's contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger knocks at his door; Fang decides to kill him. Naturally, there are various possible outcomes—Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they can both live, they can both be killed, and so on. In Ts'ui Pen's novel, all the outcomes in fact occur; each is the starting point for further bifurcations. Once in a while, the paths of that labyrinth converge: for example, you come to this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another my friend. If you can bear my incorrigible pronunciation, we shall read a few pages."
His face, in the vivid circle of the lamp, was undoubtedly that of an old man, though with something indomitable and even immortal about it. He read with slow precision two versions of a single epic chapter. In the first, an army marches off to battle through a mountain wilderness; the horror of the rocks and darkness inspires in them a disdain for life, and they go on to an easy victory. In the second, the same army passes through a palace in which a ball is being held; the brilliant battle seems to them a continuation of the fête, and they win it easily.
I listened with honourable veneration to those ancient fictions, which were themselves perhaps not as remarkable as the fact that a man of my blood had invented them and a man of a distant empire was restoring them to me on an island in the West in the course of a desperate mission. I recall the final words, repeated in each version like some secret commandment: "Thus the heroes fought, their admirable hearts calm, their swords violent, they themselves resigned to killing and to dying."
From that moment on, I felt all about me and within my obscure body an invisible, intangible pullulation—not that of the divergent, parallel, and finally coalescing armies, but an agitation more inaccessible, more inward than that, yet one those armies somehow prefigured. Albert went on:
"I do not believe that your venerable ancestor played at idle variations. I cannot think it probable that he would sacrifice thirteen years to the infinite performance of a rhetorical exercise. In your country, the novel is a subordinate genre; at that time it was a genre beneath contempt. Ts'ui Pen was a novelist of genius, but he was also a man of letters, and surely would not have considered himself a mere novelist.
The testimony of his contemporaries proclaims his metaphysical, mystical leanings— and his life is their fullest confirmation. Philosophical debate consumes a good part of his novel. I know that of all problems, none disturbed him, none gnawed at him like the unfathomable problem of time. How strange, then, that that problem should be the only one that does not figure in the pages of his Garden. He never even uses the word. How do you explain that willful omission?"
I proposed several
unsatisfactory. We discussed them; finally, Stephen Albert said:
"In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only word that must not be used?"
I thought for a moment.
"The word chess,' " I replied.
"Exactly," Albert said. "The Garden of
Forking Paths is a huge riddle, or parable, whose subject is time; that secret purpose forbids Ts'ui Pen the merest mention of its name. To always omit one word, to employ awkward metaphors and obvious circumlocutions, is perhaps the most emphatic way of calling attention to that word. It is. at any rate, the tortuous path chosen by the
solutions—all devious Ts'ui Pen at each and every one of the turnings of his inexhaustible novel. I have compared hundreds of manuscripts, I have corrected the errors introduced through the negligence of copyists, I have reached a hypothesis for the plan of that chaos, I have reestablished, or believe I've reestablished, its fundamental order—I have translated the entire work; and I know that not once does the word 'time' appear. The explanation is obvious: The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as conceived by Ts'ui Pen. Unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times. That fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries, contains all possibilities. In most of those times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but I do not; in others, I do and you do not; in others still, we both do. In this one, which the favouring hand of chance has dealt me, you have come to my home; in another, when you come through my garden you find me dead; in another, I say these same words, but I am an error, a ghost."
"In all," I said, not without a tremble, "I am grateful for, and I venerate, your recreation of the garden of Ts'ui Pen."
"Not in all," he whispered with a smile. "Time forks, perpetually, into countless futures. In one of them, I am your enemy."
I felt again that pullulation I have mentioned. I sensed that the dew-drenched garden that surrounded the house was saturated, infinitely, with invisible persons. Those persons were Albert and myself—secret, busily at work, multiform—in other dimensions of time. I raised my eyes and the gossamer nightmare faded. In the yellow-and-black garden there was but a single man—but that man was as mighty as a statue, and that man was coming down the path, and he was Capt. Richard Madden.
"The future is with us," I replied, "but I am your friend. May I look at the letter again?" Albert rose once again. He stood tall as he opened the drawer of the tall writing cabinet; he turned his back to me for a moment. I had cocked the revolver. With utmost care, I fired. Albert fell without a groan, without a sound, on the instant. I swear that he died instantly—one clap of thunder.
The rest is unreal, insignificant. Madden burst into the room and arrested me. I have been sentenced to hang. I have most abhorrently triumphed: I have communicated to Berlin the secret name of the city to be attacked. Yesterday it was bombed—I read about it in the same newspapers that posed to all of England the enigma of the murder of the eminent Sinologist Stephen Albert by a stranger, Yu Tsun. The Leader solved the riddle. He knew that my problem was how to report (over the deafening noise of the war) the name of the city named Albert, and that the only way I could find was murdering a person of that name. He does not know (no one can know) my endless contrition, and my weariness.
Weary of his land of Spain, an old soldier of the king sought solace in Ariosto’s vast geographies, in that valley of the moon where misspent dream-time goes, and in the golden idol of Mohammed stolen by Montalban.
In gentle mockery of himself he conceived a credulous man who, unsettled by the marvels he read about, hit upon the idea of seeking noble deeds and enchantments in prosaic places called El Toboso or Montiel.
Defeated by reality, by Spain, Don Quixote died in his native village around 1614. He was survived only briefly by Miguel de Cervantes.
For both of them, for the dreamer and the dreamed, the tissue of that whole plot consisted in the contraposition of two worlds: the unreal world of the books of chivalry and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.
Little did they suspect that the years would end by wearing away the disharmony. Little did they suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s frail figure would be, for the future, no less poetic than Sinbad’s haunts or Ariosto’s vast geographies.
For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at its end.
No one saw him slip from the boat in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe as it sank into the sacred mud, and yet within days there was no one who did not know that the taciturn man had come there from the South, and that his homeland was one of those infinite villages that lie up-river, on the violent flank of the mountain, where the language of the Zend is uncontaminated by Greek and where leprosy is uncommon. But in fact the gray man had kissed the mud, scrambled up the steep bank (without pushing back, probably without even feeling, the sharp-leaved bulrushes that slashed his flesh), and dragged himself, faint and bloody, to the circular enclosure, crowned by the stone figure of a horse or tiger, which had once been the color of fire but was now the color of ashes. That ring was a temple devoured by an ancient holocaust; now, the malarial jungle had profaned it and its god went unhonored by mankind. The foreigner lay down at the foot of the pedestal.
He was awakened by the sun high in the sky. He examined his wounds and saw, without astonishment, that they had healed; he closed his pale eyes and slept, not out of any weakness of the flesh but out of willed determination. He knew that this temple was the place that his unconquerable plan called for; he knew that the unrelenting trees had not succeeded in strangling the ruins of another promising temple downriver—like this one, a temple to dead, incinerated gods; he knew that his immediate obligation was to sleep. About midnight he was awakened by the inconsolable cry of a bird. Prints of unshod feet, a few figs, and a jug of water told him that the men of the region had respectfully spied upon his sleep and that they sought his favor, or feared his magic. He felt the coldness of fear, and he sought out a tomblike niche in the crumbling wall, where he covered himself with unknown leaves.
The goal that led him on was not impossible, though it was clearly supernatural: He wanted to dream a man. He wanted to dream him completely, in painstaking detail, and impose him upon reality. This magical objective had come to fill his entire soul; if someone had asked him his own name, or inquired into any feature of his life till then, he would not have been able to answer. The uninhabited and crumbling temple suited him, for it was a minimum of visible world; so did the proximity of the woodcutters, for they saw to his frugal needs. The rice and fruit of their tribute were nourishment enough for his body, which was consecrated to the sole task of sleeping and dreaming.
At first, his dreams were chaotic; a little later, they became dialectical. The foreigner dreamed that he was in the center of a circular amphitheater, which was somehow the ruined temple; clouds of taciturn students completely filled the terraces of seats. The faces of those farthest away hung at many centuries' distance and at a cosmic height, yet they were absolutely clear. The man lectured on anatomy, cosmography, magic; the faces listened earnestly, intently, and attempted to respond with understanding—as though they sensed the importance of that education that would redeem one of them from his state of hollow appearance and insert him into the real world. The man, both in sleep and when awake, pondered his phantasms' answers; he did not allow himself to be taken in by impostors, and he sensed in certain perplexities a growing intelligence. He was seeking a soul worthy of taking its place in the universe.
On the ninth or tenth night, he realized (with some bitterness) that nothing could be expected from those students who passively accepted his teachings, but only from those who might occasionally, in a reasonable way, venture an objection. The first—the accepting—though worthy of affection and a degree of sympathy, would never emerge as individuals; the latter— those who sometimes questioned—had a bit more préexistence. One afternoon (afternoons now paid their tribute to sleep as well; now the man was awake no more than two or three hours around daybreak) he dismissed the vast illusory classroom once and for all and retained but a single pupil—a taciturn, sallow-skinned young man, at times intractable, with sharp features that echoed those of the man that dreamed him. The pupil was not disconcerted for long by the elimination of his classmates; after only a few of the private classes, his progress amazed his teacher. Yet disaster would not be forestalled. One day the man emerged from sleep as though from a viscous desert, looked up at the hollow light of the evening (which for a moment he confused with the light of dawn), and realized that he had not dreamed. All that night and the next day, the unbearable lucidity of insomnia harried him, like a hawk. He went off to explore the jungle, hoping to tire himself; among the hemlocks he managed no more than a few intervals of feeble sleep, fleetingly veined with the most rudimentary of visions—useless to him. He reconvened his class, but no sooner had he spoken a few brief words of exhortation than the faces blurred, twisted, and faded away. In his almost perpetual state of wakefulness, tears of anger burned the man's old eyes.
He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake, even if he fathom all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres— much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless wind. He understood that initial failure was inevitable. He swore to put behind him the vast hallucination that at first had drawn him off the track, and he sought another way to approach his task. Before he began, he devoted a month to recovering the strength his delirium had squandered. He abandoned all premeditation of dreaming, and almost instantly managed to sleep for a fair portion of the day. The few times he did dream during this period, he did not focus on his dreams; he would wait to take up his task again until the disk of the moon was whole. Then, that evening, he purified himself in the waters of the river, bowed down to the planetary gods, uttered those syllables of a powerful name that it is lawful to pronounce, and laid himself down to sleep. Almost immediately he dreamed a beating heart.
He dreamed the heart warm, active, secret— about the size of a closed fist, a garnet-colored thing inside the dimness of a human body that was still faceless and sexless; he dreamed it, with painstaking love, for fourteen brilliant nights. Each night he perceived it with greater clarity, greater certainty. He did not touch it; he only witnessed it, observed it, corrected it, perhaps, with his eyes. He perceived it, he lived it, from many angles, many distances. On the fourteenth night, he stroked the pulmonary artery with his forefinger, and then the entire heart, inside and out. And his inspection made him proud. He deliberately did not sleep the next night; then he took up the heart again, invoked the name of a planet, and set about dreaming another of the major organs. Before the year was out he had reached the skeleton, the eyelids.
The countless hairs of the body were perhaps the most difficult task. The man had dreamed a fully fleshed man—a stripling—but this youth did not stand up or speak, nor could it open its eyes. Night after night, the man dreamed the youth asleep.
In the cosmogonies of the Gnostics, the demiurges knead up a red Adam who cannot manage to stand; as rude and inept and elementary as that Adam of dust was the Adam of dream wrought from the sorcerer's nights. One afternoon, the man almost destroyed his creation, but he could not bring himself to do it. (He'd have been better off if he had.) After making vows to all the deities of the earth and the river, he threw himself at the feet of the idol that was perhaps a tiger or perhaps a colt, and he begged for its untried aid. That evening, at sunset, the statue filled his dreams. In the dream it was alive, and trembling—yet it was not the dread-inspiring hybrid form of horse and tiger it had been. It was, instead, those two vehement creatures plus bull, and rose, and tempest, too—and all that, simultaneously. The manifold god revealed to the man that its earthly name was Fire, and that in that circular temple (and others like it) men had made sacrifices and worshiped it, and that it would magically bring to life the phantasm the man had dreamed—so fully bring him to life that every creature, save Fire itself and the man who dreamed him, would take him for a man of flesh and blood. Fire ordered the dreamer to send the youth, once instructed in the rites, to that other ruined temple whose pyramids still stood downriver, so that a voice might glorify the god in that deserted place. In the dreaming man's dream, the dreamed man awoke.
The sorcerer carried out Fire's instructions. He consecrated a period of time (which in the end encompassed two full years) to revealing to the youth the arcana of the universe and the secrets of the cult of Fire. Deep inside, it grieved the man to separate himself from his creation. Under the pretext of pedagogical necessity, he drew out the hours of sleep more every day. He also redid the right shoulder (which was perhaps defective). From time to time, he was disturbed by a sense that all this had happened before-----His days were, in general, happy; when he closed his eyes, he would think Now I will be with my son. Or, less frequently, The son I have engendered is waiting for me, and he will not exist if I do not go to him.
Gradually, the man accustomed the youth to reality. Once he ordered him to set a flag on a distant mountaintop. The next day, the flag crackled on the summit. He attempted other, similar experiments—each more daring than the last. He saw with some bitterness that his son was ready— perhaps even impatient—to be born. That night he kissed him for the first time, then sent him off, through many leagues of impenetrable jungle, many leagues of swamp, to that other temple whose ruins bleached in the sun downstream. But first (so that the son would never know that he was a phantasm, so that he would believe himself to be a man like other men) the man infused in him a total lack of memory of his years of education.
The man's victory, and his peace, were dulled by the wearisome sameness of his days. In the twilight hours of dusk and dawn, he would prostrate himself before the stone figure, imagining perhaps that his unreal son performed identical rituals in other circular ruins, downstream. At night he did not dream, or dreamed the dreams that all men dream. His perceptions of the universe's sounds and shapes were somewhat pale: the absent son was nourished by those diminutions of his soul. His life's goal had been accomplished; the man lived on now in a sort of ecstasy. After a period of time (which some tellers of the story choose to compute in years, others in decades), two rowers woke the man at midnight. He could not see their faces, but they told him of a magical man in a temple in the North, a man who could walk on fire and not be burned.
The sorcerer suddenly remembered the god's words. He remembered that of all the creatures on the earth, Fire was the only one who knew that his son was a phantasm. That recollection, comforting at first, soon came to torment him. He feared that his son would meditate upon his unnatural privilege and somehow discover that he was a mere simulacrum. To be not a man, but the projection of another man's dream what incomparable humiliation, what vertigo! Every parent feels concern for the children he has procreated (or allowed to be procreated) in happiness or in mere confusion; it was only natural that the sorcerer should fear for the future of the son he had conceived organ by organ, feature by feature, through a thousand and one secret nights.
The end of his meditations came suddenly, but it had been foretold by certain signs: first (after a long drought), a distant cloud, as light as a bird, upon a mountaintop; then, toward the South, the sky the pinkish color of a leopard's gums; then the clouds of smoke that rusted the iron of the nights; then, at last, the panicked flight of the animals—for that which had occurred hundreds of years ago was being repeated now. The ruins of the sanctuary of the god of Fire were destroyed by fire. In the birdless dawn, the sorcerer watched the concentric holocaust close in upon the walls. For a moment he thought of taking refuge in the water, but then he realized that death would be a crown upon his age and absolve him from his labors. He walked into the tatters of flame, but they did not bite his flesh—they caressed him, bathed him without heat and without combustion. With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he realized that he, too, was but appearance, that another man was dreaming him.
In my childhood I was a fervent worshiper of the tiger—not the jaguar, that spotted "tiger" that inhabits the floating islands of water hyacinths along the Paraná and the tangled wilderness of the Amazon, but the true tiger, the striped Asian breed that can be faced only by men of war, in a castle atop an elephant. I would stand for hours on end before one of the cages at the zoo; I would rank vast encyclopedias and natural history books by the splendor of their tigers. (I still remember those pictures, I who cannot recall without error a woman's brow or smile.) My childhood outgrown, the tigers and my passion for them faded, but they are still in my dreams. In that under-ground sea or chaos, they still endure. As I sleep I am drawn into some dream or other, and suddenly I realize that it's a dream. At those moments, I often think: This is a dream, a pure diversion of my will, and since I have unlimited power, I am going to bring forth a tiger.
Oh, incompetence! My dreams never seen to engender the creature I so hunger for. The tiger does appear, but it is all dried up, or it's flimsy- looking, or it has impure vagaries of shape or an unacceptable size, or it's al-together too ephemeral, or it looks more like a dog or bird than like a tiger.
In Buenos Aires the Zahir is a common twenty-centavo coin into which a razor or letter opener has scratched the letter N T and the number 2; the date stamped on the face is 1929. (In Gujarat, at the end of the eighteenth century, the Zahir was a tiger; in Java it was a blind man in the Surakarta mosque, stoned by the faithful; in Persia, an astrolabe that Nadir Shah ordered thrown into the sea; in the prisons of Mahdi, in 1892, a small sailor's compass, wrapped in a shred of cloth from a turban, that Rudolf Karl von Slatin touched; in the synagogue in Córdoba, according to Zotenberg, a vein in the marble of one of the twelve hundred pillars; in the ghetto in Tetuán, the bottom of a well.) Today is the thirteenth of November; last June 7, at dawn, the Zahir came into my hands; I am not the man I was then, but I am still able to recall, and perhaps recount, what happened. I am still, albeit only partially, Borges.
On June 6, Teodelina Villar died. Back in 1930, photographs of her had littered the pages of worldly magazines; that ubiquity may have had some-thing to do with the fact that she was thought to be a very pretty woman, al-though that supposition was not unconditionally supported by every image of her. But no matter—Teodelina Villar was less concerned with beauty than with perfection. The Jews and Chinese codified every human situation: the Mishnah tells us that beginning at sunset on the Sabbath, a tailor may not go into the street carrying a needle; the Book of Rites informs us that a guest receiving his first glass of wine must assume a grave demeanor; receiving the second, a respectful, happy air. The discipline that Teodelina Villar imposed upon herself was analogous, though even more painstaking and detailed. Like Talmudists and Confucians, she sought to make every action irreproachably correct, but her task was even more admirable and difficult than theirs, for the laws of her creed were not eternal, but sensitive to the whims of Paris and Hollywood. Teodelina Villar would make her entrances into orthodox places, at the orthodox hour, with orthodox adornments, and with orthodox world- weariness, but the world-weariness, the adornments, the hour, and the places would almost immediately pass out of fashion, and so come to serve (upon the lips of Teodelina Villar) for the very epitome of "tackiness." She sought the absolute, like Flaubert, but the absolute in the ephemeral. Her life was exemplary, and yet an inner desperation constantly gnawed at her. She passed through endless metamorphoses, as though fleeing from herself; her coiffure and the color of her hair were famously unstable, as were her smile, her skin, and the slant of her eyes. From 1932 on, she was studiedly thin.... The war gave her a great deal to think about. With Paris occupied by the Germans, how was one to follow fashion? A foreign man she had always had her doubts about was allowed to take advantage of her good will by selling her a number of stovepipe-shaped chapeaux. Within a year, it was revealed that those ridiculous shapes had never been worn in Paris, and therefore were not hats, but arbitrary and unauthorized caprices. And it never rains but it pours: Dr. Villar had to move to Calle Aráoz and his daughter's image began to grace advertisements for face creams and automobiles—face creams she never used and automobiles she could no longer afford! Teodelina knew that the proper exercise of her art required a great fortune; she opted to retreat rather than surrender. And besides—it pained her to compete with mere insubstantial girls. The sinister apartment on Aráoz, however, was too much to bear; on June 6, Teodelina Villar committed the breach of decorum of dying in the middle of Barrio Sur. Shall I confess that moved by the sincerest of Argentine passions— snobbery—I was in love with her, and that her death actually brought tears to my eyes? Perhaps the reader had already suspected that.
At wakes, the progress of corruption allows the dead person's body to recover its former faces. At some point on the confused night of June 6, Teodelina Villar magically became what she had been twenty years before; her features recovered the authority that arrogance, money, youth, the awareness of being the crème de la crème, restrictions, a lack of imagination, and stolidity can give. My thoughts were more or less these: No version of that face that had so disturbed me shall ever be as memorable as this one; really, since it could almost be the first, it ought to be the last. I left her lying stiff among the flowers, her contempt for the world growing every moment more perfect in death. It was about two o'clock, I would guess, when I stepped into the street. Outside, the predictable ranks of one- and two-story houses had taken on that abstract air they often have at night, when they are simplified by darkness and silence.
Drunk with an almost impersonal pity, I wandered through the streets. On the corner of Chile and Tacuari I spotted an open bar-and- general-store. In that establishment, to my misfortune, three men were playing truco In the rhetorical figure known as oxymoron, the adjective applied to a noun seems to contradict that noun. Thus, gnostics spoke of a "dark light" and alchemists, of a "black sun." Departing from my last visit to Teodelina Villar and drinking a glass of harsh brandy in a corner bar-and-grocery-store was a kind of oxymoron: the very vulgarity and facileness of it were what tempted me. (The fact that men were playing cards in the place in-creased the contrast.) I asked the owner for a brandy and orange juice; among my change I was given the Zahir; I looked at it for an instant, then walked outside into the street, perhaps with the beginnings of a fever. The thought struck me that there is no coin that is not the symbol of all the coins that shine endlessly down throughout history and fable. I thought of Charon's obolus; the alms that Belisarius went about begging for; Judas' thirty pieces of silver; the drachmas of the courtesan La'is; the ancient coin proffered by one of the Ephesian sleepers; the bright coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, which turned into disks of paper; Isaac Laquedem's inexhaustible denarius; the sixty thousand coins, one for every line of an epic, which Firdusi returned to a king because they were silver and not gold; the gold doubloon nailed by Ahab to the mast; Leopold Bloom's unreturning florin; the gold louis that betrayed the fleeing Louis XVI near Varennes. As though in a dream, the thought that in any coin one may read those famous connotations seemed to me of vast, inexplicable importance. I wandered, with increasingly rapid steps, through the deserted streets and plazas. Weariness halted me at a corner. My eyes came to rest on a woe- begone wrought-iron fence; behind it, I saw the black-and-white tiles of the porch of La Concepción.I had wandered in a circle; I was just one block from the corner where I'd been given the Zahir.
I turned the corner; the chamfered curb in darkness at the far end of the street showed me that the establishment had closed. On Belgrano I took a cab. Possessed, without a trace of sleepiness, almost happy, I reflected that there is nothing less material than money, since any coin (a twenty-centavo piece, for instance) is, in all truth, a panoply of possible futures. Money is abstract, I said over and over, money is future time. It can be an evening just outside the city, or a Brahms melody, or maps, or chess, or coffee, or the words of Epictetus, which teach contempt of gold; it is a Proteus more changeable than the Proteus of the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the hard, solid time of Islam or the Porch. Adherents of determinism deny that there is any event in the world that is possible, i.e., that might occur; a coin symbolizes our free will. (I had no suspicion at the time that these "thoughts" were an artifice against the Zahir and a first manifestation of its demonic influence.) After long and pertinacious musings, I at last fell asleep, but I dreamed that I was a pile of coins guarded by a gryphon.
The next day I decided I'd been drunk. I also decided to free myself of the coin that was affecting me so distressingly. I looked at it— there was nothing particularly distinctive about it, except those scratches.
Burying it in the garden or hiding it in a
corner of the library would have been the best thing to do, but I wanted to escape its orbit altogether, and so preferred to "lose" it. I went neither to the Basilica del Pilar that morning nor to the cemetery; I took a subway to Constitución and from Constitución to San Juan and Boedo. On an impulse, I got off at Urquiza; I walked toward the west and south; I turned left and right, with studied randomness, at several corners, and on a street that looked to me like all the others I went into the first tavern I came to, ordered a brandy, and paid with the Zahir. I half closed my eyes, even behind the dark lenses of my spectacles, and managed not to see the numbers on the houses or the name of the street. That night, I took a sleeping draft and slept soundly.
Until the end of June I distracted myself by composing a tale of fantasy. The tale contains two or three enigmatic circumlocutions— sword-water instead of blood, for example, and dragon's-bed for gold —and is written in the first person. The narrator is an ascetic who has renounced all commerce with mankind and lives on a kind of moor. (The name of the place is Gnita-heidr.) Because of the simplicity and innocence of his life, he is judged by some to be an angel; that is a charitable sort of exaggeration, because no one is free of sin—he himself (to take the example nearest at hand) has cut his father's throat, though it is true that his father was a famous wizard who had used his magic to usurp an infinite treasure to himself. Protecting this treasure from cankerous human greed is the mission to which the narrator has devoted his life; day and night he stands guard over it. Soon, perhaps too soon, that watchfulness will come to an end: the stars have told him that the sword that will sever it forever has already been forged. (The name of the sword is Gram.) In an increasingly tortured style, the narrator praises the lustrousness and flexibility of his body; one paragraph offhandedly mentions "scales"; another says that the treasure he watches over is of red rings and gleaming gold. At the end, we realize that the ascetic is the serpent Fafnir and the treasure on which the creature lies coiled is the gold of the Nibelungen. The appearance of Sigurd abruptly ends the story.
I have said that composing that piece of trivial nonsense (in the course of which I interpolated, with pseudo-erudition, a line or two from the Fafnismal) enabled me to put the coin out of my mind. There were nights when I was so certain I'd be able to forget it that I would willfully remember it. The truth is, I abused those moments; starting to recall turned out to be much easier than stopping. It was futile to tell myself that that abominable nickel disk was no different from the infinite other identical, inoffensive disks that pass from hand to hand every day. Moved by that reflection, I attempted to think about another coin, but I couldn't. I also recall another (frustrated) experiment that I performed with Chilean five- and ten-centavo pieces and a Uruguayan two- centavo piece. On July 16, I acquired a pound sterling; I didn't look at it all that day, but that night (and others) I placed it under a magnifying glass and studied it in the light of a powerful electric lamp. Then I made a rubbing of it. The rays of light and the dragon and St. George availed me naught; I could not rid myself of my idée fixe.
In August, I decided to consult a psychiatrist. I did not confide the entire absurd story to him; I told him I was tormented by insomnia and that often I could not free my mind of the image of an object, any random object—a coin, say... A short time later, in a bookshop on Calle Sarmiento, I exhumed a copy of Julius Barlach's
Urkunden zur Zahirsage(Breslau,1899).
Between the covers of that book was a description of my illness. The introduction said that the author proposed to "gather into a single manageable octavo volume every existing document that bears upon the superstition of the Zahir, including four articles held in the Habicht archives and the original manuscript of Philip Meadows Taylor's report on the subject." Belief in the Zahir is of Islamic ancestry, and dates, apparently, to sometime in the eighteenth century. (Barlach impugns the passages that Zotenberg attributes to Abul- Feddah.) In Arabic, "zahir" means visible, manifest, evident; in that sense, it is one of the ninety-nine names of God; in Muslim countries, the masses use the word for "beings or things which have the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad." Its first undisputed witness was the Persian polymath and dervish Lutf Ali Azur; in the corroborative pages of the biographical encyclopedia titled Temple of Fire, Ali Azur relates that in a certain school in Shiraz there was a copper astrolabe "constructed in such a way that any man that looked upon it but once could think of nothing else, so that the king commanded that it be thrown into the deepest depths of the sea, in order that men might not forget the universe." Meadows Taylor's account is somewhat more extensive; the author served the Nazim of Hyderabad and composed the famous novel Confessions of a Thug. In 1832, on the outskirts of Bhuj, Taylor heard the following uncommon expression used to signify madness or saintliness: "Verily he has looked upon the tiger." He was told that the reference was to a magic tiger that was the perdition of all who saw it, even from a great distance, for never afterward could a person stop thinking about it. Someone mentioned that one of those stricken people had fled to Mysore, where he had painted the image of the tiger in a palace. Years later, Taylor visited the prisons of that district; in the jail at Nighur, the governor showed him a cell whose floor, walls, and vaulted ceiling were covered by a drawing (in barbaric colors that time, before obliterating, had refined) of an infinite tiger. It was a tiger composed of many tigers, in the most dizzying of ways; it was crisscrossed with tigers, striped with tigers, and contained seas and Himalayas and armies that resembled other tigers.
The painter, a fakir, had died many years before, in that same cell; he had come from Sind or perhaps Gujarat and his initial purpose had been to draw a map of the world. Of that first purpose there remained some vestiges within the monstrous image. Taylor told this story to Muhammad al-Yemeni, of Fort William; al-Yemeni said that there was no creature in the world that did not tend toward becoming a Zaheer,1 [lThis is Taylor's spelling of the word.] but that the All-Merciful does not allow two things to be a Zaheer at the same time, since a single one is capable of entrancing multitudes. He said that there is always a Zahir—in the Age of Ignorance it was the idol called Yahuk, and then a prophet from Khorasan who wore a veil spangled with precious stones or a mask of gold.2 [2 Barlach observes that Yahuk figures in the Qur'an (71:23) and that the prophet is al-Moqanna (the Veiled Prophet) and that no one, with the exception of the surprising correspondent Philip Meadows Taylor, has ever linked those two figures to the Zahir.] He also noted that Allah was inscrutable.
Over and over I read Barlach's monograph. I cannot sort out my emotions; I recall my desperation when I realized that nothing could any longer save me; the inward relief of knowing that I was not to blame for my misfortune; the envy I felt for those whose Zahir was not a coin but a slab of marble or a tiger. How easy it is not to think of a tiger!, I recall thinking. I also recall the remarkable uneasiness I felt when I read this paragraph: "One commentator of the Guishan i Raz states that 'he who has seen the Zahir soon shall see the Rose' and quotes a line of poetry interpolated into Attar's Asrar Ñama('The Book of Things Unknown'): 'the Zahir is the shadow of the Rose and the rending of the Veil.' "
On the night of Teodelina's wake, I had been surprised not to see among those present Sra. Abascal, her younger sister. In October, I ran into a friend of hers.
"Poor Julita," the woman said to me, "she's become so odd. She's been put into Bosch. How she must be crushed by those nurses' spoon-feeding her! She's still going on and on about that coin, just like Morena Sackmann's chauffeur."
Time, which softens recollections, only makes the memory of the Zahir all the sharper. First I could see the face of it, then the reverse; now I can see both sides at once. It is not as though the Zahir were made of glass, since one side is not superimposed upon the other— rather, it is as though the vision were itself spherical, with the Zahir rampant in the center. Anything that is not the Zahir comes to me as though through a filter, and from a distance— Teodelina's disdainful image, physical pain. Tennyson said that if we could but understand a single flower we might know who we are and what the world is. Perhaps he was trying to say that there is nothing, however humble, that does not imply the history of the world and its infinite con catenation of causes and effects. Perhaps he was trying to say that the visible world can be seen entire in every image, just as Schopenhauer tells us that the Will expresses itself entire in every man and woman. The Kabbalists believed that man is a microcosm, a symbolic mirror of the universe; if one were to believe Tennyson, everything would be— everything, even the unbearable Zahir.
Before the year 1948, Julia's fate will have overtaken me. I will have to be fed and dressed, I will not know whether it's morning or night, I will not know who the man Borges was. Calling that future terrible is a fallacy, since none of the future's circumstances will in any way affect me. One might as well call "terrible" the pain of an anesthetized patient whose skull is being trepanned. I will no longer perceive the universe, I will perceive the Zahir. Idealist doctrine has it that the verbs "to live" and "to dream" are at every point synonymous; for me, thousands upon thousands of appearances will pass into one; a complex dream will pass into a simple one. Others will dream that I am mad, while I dream of the Zahir.
When every man on earth thinks, day and night, of the Zahir, which will be dream and which reality, the earth or the Zahir?
In the waste and empty hours of the night I am still able to walk through the streets. Dawn often surprises me upon a bench in the Plaza Garay, thinking (or trying to think) about that passage in the Asrar Nama where it is said that the Zahir is the shadow of the Rose and the rending of the Veil. I link that pronouncement to this fact: In order to lose themselves in God, the Sufis repeat their own name or the ninety- nine names of God until the names mean nothing anymore. I long to travel that path. Perhaps by thinking about the Zahir unceasingly, I can manage to wear it away; perhaps behind the coin is God.
But they will teach us that Eternity is the Standing still of the Present Time, a Nunc-stans (as the schools call it); which neither they, nor any else understand, no more than they would a Hic-stans for an Infinite greatness of Place.
Leviathan, IV, 46
On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me, for I realised that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series. The universe may change but not me, I thought with a certain sad vanity. I knew that at times my fruitless devotion had annoyed her; now that she was dead, I could devote myself to her memory, without hope but also without humiliation. I recalled that the thirtieth of April was her birthday; on that day to visit her house on Garay Street and pay my respects to her father and to Carlos Argentino Daneri, her first cousin, would be an irreproachable and perhaps unavoidable act of politeness. Once again I would wait in the twilight of the small, cluttered drawing room, once again I would study the details of her many photographs: Beatriz Viterbo in profile and in full colour; Beatriz wearing a mask, during the Carnival of 1921; Beatriz at her First Communion; Beatriz on the day of her wedding to Roberto Alessandri; Beatriz soon after her divorce, at a luncheon at the Turf Club; Beatriz at a seaside resort in Quilmes with Delia San Marco Porcel and Carlos Argentino; Beatriz with the Pekingese lapdog given her by Villegas Haedo; Beatriz, front and three-quarter views, smiling, hand on her chin... I would not be forced, as in the past, to justify my presence with modest offerings of books -- books whose pages I finally learned to cut beforehand, so as not to find out, months later, that they lay around unopened.
Beatriz Viterbo died in 1929. From that time on, I never let a thirtieth of April go by without a visit to her house. I used to make my appearance at seven-fifteen sharp and stay on for some twenty-five minutes. Each year, I arrived a little later and stay a little longer. In 1933, a torrential downpour coming to my aid, they were obliged to ask me for dinner. Naturally, I took advantage of that lucky precedent. In 1934, I arrived, just after eight, with one of those large Santa Fe sugared cakes, and quite matter-of-factly I stayed to dinner. It was in this way, on these melancholy and vainly erotic anniversaries, that I came into the gradual confidences of Carlos Argentino Daneri.
Beatriz had been tall, frail, slightly stooped; in her walk there was (if the oxymoron may be allowed) a kind of uncertain grace, a hint of expectancy. Carlos Argentino was pink-faced, overweight, gray-haired, fine-featured. He held a minor position in an unreadable library out on the edge of the Southside of Buenos Aires. He was authoritarian but also unimpressive. Until only recently, he took advantage of his nights and holidays to stay at home. At a remove of two generations, the Italian "S" and demonstrative Italian gestures still survived in him. His mental activity was continuous, deeply felt, far-ranging, and -- all in all -- meaningless. He dealt in pointless analogies and in trivial scruples. He had (as did Beatriz) large, beautiful, finely shaped hands. For several months he seemed to be obsessed with Paul Fort -- less with his ballads than with the idea of a towering reputation. "He is the Prince of poets," Daneri would repeat fatuously. "You will belittle him in vain -- but no, not even the most venomous of your shafts will graze him."
On the thirtieth of April, 1941, along with the sugared cake I allowed myself to add a bottle of Argentine cognac. Carlos Argentino tasted it, pronounced it "interesting," and, after a few drinks, launched into a glorification of modern man.
"I view him," he said with a certain unaccountable excitement, "in his inner sanctum, as though in his castle tower, supplied with telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, wireless sets, motion-picture screens, slide projectors, glossaries, timetables, handbooks, bulletins..."
He remarked that for a man so equipped, actual travel was superfluous. Our twentieth century had inverted the story of Mohammed and the mountain; nowadays, the mountain came to the modern Mohammed.
So foolish did his ideas seem to me, so pompous and so drawn out his exposition, that I linked them at once to literature and asked him why he didn't write them down. As might be foreseen, he answered that he had already done so -- that these ideas, and others no less striking, had found their place in the Proem, or Augural Canto, or, more simply, the Prologue Canto of the poem on which he hd been working for many years now, alone, without publicity, with fanfare, supported only by those twin staffs universally known as work and solitude. First, he said, he opened the floodgates of his fancy; then, taking up hand tools, he resorted to the file. The poem was entitled The Earth; it consisted of a description of the planet, and, of course, lacked no amount of picturesque digressions and bold apostrophes.
I asked him to read me a passage, if only a short one. He opened a drawer of his writing table, drew out a thick stack of papers -- sheets of a large pad imprinted with the letterhead of the Juan Crisóstomo Lafinur Library -- and, with ringing satisfaction, declaimed:
Mine eyes, as did the Greek's, have known men's
towns and fame,
The works, the days in light that fades to amber;
I do not change a fact or falsify a name --
The voyage I set down is... autour de ma chambre.
"From any angle, a greatly interesting stanza," he said, giving his verdict. "The opening line wins the applause of the professor, the academician, and the Hellenist -- to say nothing of the would-be scholar, a considerable sector of the public. The second flows from Homer to Hesiod (generous homage, at the very outset, to the father of didactic poetry), not without rejuvenating a process whose roots go back to Scripture -- enumeration, congeries, conglomeration. The third -- baroque? decadent? example of the cult of pure form? -- consists of two equal hemistichs. The fourth, frankly bilingual, assures me the unstinted backing of all minds sensitive to the pleasures of sheer fun. I should, in all fairness, speak of the novel rhyme in lines two and four, and of the erudition that allows me -- without a hint of pedantry! -- to cram into four lines three learned allusions covering thirty centuries packed with literature -- first to the Odyssey, second to Works and Days, and third to the immortal bagatelle bequathed us by the frolicking pen of the Savoyard, Xavier de Maistre. Once more I've come to realise that modern art demands the balm of laughter, the scherzo. Decidedly, Goldoni holds the stage!"
He read me many other stanzas, each of which also won his own approval and elicited his lengthy explications. There was nothing remarkable about them. I did not even find them any worse than the first one. Application, resignation, and chance had gone into the writing; I saw, however, that Daneri's real work lay not in the poetry but in his invention of reasons why the poetry should be admired. Of course, this second phase of his effort modified the writing in his eyes, though not in the eyes of others. Daneri's style of delivery was extravagant, but the deadly drone of his metric regularity tended to tone down and to dull that extravagance.
[Among my memories are also some lines of a satire in which he lashed out unsparingly at bad poets. After accusing them of dressing their poems in the warlike armour of erudition, and of flapping in vain their unavailing wings, he concluded with this verse:
But they forget, alas, one foremost fact -- BEAUTY!
Only the fear of creating an army of implacable and powerful enemies dissuaded him (he told me) from fearlessly publishing this poem.]
Only once in my life have I had occasion to look into the fifteen thousand alexandrines of the Polyolbion, that topographical epic in which Michael Drayton recorded the flora, fauna, hydrography, orography, military and monastic history of England. I am sure, however, that this limited but bulky production is less boring than Carlos Argentino's similar vast undertaking. Daneri had in mind to set to verse the entire face of the planet, and, by 1941, had already dispatched a number of acres of the State of Queensland, nearly a mile of the course run by the River Ob, a gasworks to the north of Veracruz, the leading shops in the Buenos Aires parish of Concepción, the villa of Mariana Cambaceres de Alvear in the Belgrano section of the Argentine capital, and a Turkish baths establishment not far from the well-known Brighton Aquarium. He read me certain long-winded passages from his Australian section, and at one point praised a word of his own coining, the colour "celestewhite," which he felt "actually suggests the sky, an element of utmost importance in the landscape of the Down Under." But these sprawling, lifeless hexameters lacked even the relative excitement of the so-called Augural Canto. Along about midnight, I left.
Two Sundays later, Daneri rang me up -- perhaps for the first time in his life. He suggested we get together at four o'clock "for cocktails in the salon-bar next door, which the forward-looking Zunino and Zungri -- my landlords, as you doubtless recall -- are throwing open to the public. It's a place you'll really want to get to know."
More in resignation than in pleasure, I accepted. Once there, it was hard to find a table. The "salon-bar," ruthlessly modern, was only barely less ugly than what I had excepted; at the nearby tables, the excited customers spoke breathlessly of the sums Zunino and Zungri had invested in furnishings without a second thought to cost. Carlos Argentino pretended to be astonished by some feature or other of the lighting arrangement (with which, I felt, he was already familiar), and he said to me with a certain severity, "Grudgingly, you'll have to admit to the fact that these premises hold their own with many others far more in the public eye."
He then reread me four or five different fragments of the poem. He had revised them following his pet principle of verbal ostentation: where at first "blue" had been good enough, he now wallowed in "azures," "ceruleans," and "ultramarines." The word "milky" was too easy for him; in the course of an impassioned description of a shed where wool was washed, he chose such words as "lacteal," "lactescent," and even made one up -- "lactinacious." After that, straight out, he condemned our modern mania for having books prefaced, "a practice already held up to scorn by the Prince of Wits in his own grafeful preface to the Quixote." He admitted, however, that for the opening of his new work an attention-getting foreword might prove valuable -- "an accolade signed by a literary hand of renown." He next went on to say that he considered publishing the initial cantos of his poem. I then began to understand the unexpected telephone call; Daneri was going to ask me to contribute a foreword to his pedantic hodgepodge. My fear turned out unfounded; Carlos Argentino remarked, with admiration and envy, that surely he could not be far wrong in qualifying with the ephitet "solid" the prestige enjoyed in every circle by Álvaro Melián Lafinur, a man of letters, who would, if I insisted on it, be only too glad to dash off some charming opening words to the poem. In order to avoid ignominy and failure, he suggested I make myself spokesman for two of the book's undeniable virtues -- formal perfection and scientific rigour -- "inasmuch as this wide garden of metaphors, of figures of speech, of elegances, is inhospitable to the least detail not strictly upholding of truth." He added that Beatriz had always been taken with Álvaro.
I agreed -- agreed profusely -- and explained for the sake of credibility that I would not speak to Álvaro the next day, Monday, but would wait until Thursday, when we got together for the informal dinner that follows every meeting of the Writers' Club. (No such dinners are ever held, but it is an established fact that the meetings do take place on Thursdays, a point which Carlos Argentino Daneri could verify in the daily papers, and which lent a certain reality to my promise.) Half in prophecy, half in cunning, I said that before taking up the question of a preface I would outline the unusual plan of the work. We then said goodbye.
Turning the corner of Bernardo de Irigoyen, I reviewed as impartially as possible the alternatives before me. They were: a) to speak to Álvaro, telling him the first cousin of Beatriz' (the explanatory euphemism would allow me to mention her name) had concocted a poem that seemed to draw out into infinity the possibilities of cacophony and chaos: b) not to say a word to Álvaro. I clearly foresaw that my indolence would opt for b.
But first thing Friday morning, I began worrying about the telephone. It offended me that that device, which had once produced the irrecoverable voice of Beatriz, could now sink so low as to become a mere receptacle for the futile and perhaps angry remonstrances of that deluded Carlos Argentino Daneri. Luckily, nothing happened -- except the inevitable spite touched off in me by this man, who had asked me to fulfill a delicate mission for him and then had let me drop.
Gradually, the phone came to lose its terrors, but one day toward the end of October it rang, and Carlos Argentino was on the line. He was deeply disturbed, so much so that at the outset I did not recognise his voice. Sadly but angrily he stammered that the now unrestrainable Zunino and Zungri, under the pretext of enlarging their already outsized "salon-bar," were about to take over and tear down this house.
"My home, my ancestral home, my old and inveterate Garay Street home!" he kept repeating, seeming to forget his woe in the music of his words.
It was not hard for me to share his distress. After the age of fifty, all change becomes a hateful symbol of the passing of time. Besides, the scheme concerned a house that for me would always stand for Beatriz. I tried explaining this delicate scruple of regret, but Daneri seemed not to hear me. He said that if Zunino and Zungri persisted in this outrage, Doctor Zunni, his lawyer, would sue ipso facto and make them pay some fifty thousand dollars in damages.
Zunni's name impressed me; his firm, although at the unlikely address of Caseros and Tacuarí, was nonetheless known as an old and reliable one. I asked him whether Zunni had already been hired for the case. Daneri said he would phone him that very afternoon. He hesitated, then with that level, impersonal voice we reserve for confiding something intimate, he said that to finish the poem he could not get along without the house because down in the cellar there was an Aleph. He explained that an Aleph is one of the points in space that contains all other points.
"It's in the cellar under the dining room," he went on, so overcome by his worries now that he forgot to be pompous. "It's mine -- mine. I discovered it when I was a child, all by myself. The cellar stairway is so steep that my aunt and uncle forbade my using it, but I'd heard someone say there was a world down there. I found out later they meant an old-fashioned globe of the world, but at the time I thought they were referring to the world itself. One day when no one was home I started down in secret, but I stumbled and fell. When I opened my eyes, I saw the Aleph."
"The Aleph?" I repeated.
"Yes, the only place on earth where all places are -- seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending. I kept the discovery to myself and went back every chance I got. As a child, I did not foresee that this privilege was granted me so that later I could write the poem. Zunino and Zungri will not strip me of what's mine -- no, and a thousand times no! Legal code in hand, Doctor Zunni will prove that my Aleph is inalienable."
I tried to reason with him. "But isn't the cellar very dark?" I said.
"Truth cannot penetrate a closed mind. If all places in the universe are in the Aleph, then all stars, all lamps, all sources of light are in it, too."
"You wait there. I'll be right over to see it."
I hung before he could say no. The full knowledge of a fact sometimes enables you to see all at once many supporting but previously unsuspected things. It amazed me not to have suspected until that moment that Carlos Argentino was a madman. As were all the Viterbos, when you came down to it. Beatriz (I myself often say it) was a woman, a child, with almost uncanny powers of clairvoyance, but forgetfulness, distractions, contempt, and a streak of cruelty were also in her, and perhaps these called for a pathological explanation. Carlos Argentino's madness filled me with spiteful elation. Deep down, we had always detested each other.
On Garay Street, the maid asked me kindly to wait. The master was, as usual, in the cellar developing pictures. On the unplayed piano, beside a large vase that held no flowers, smiled (more timeless than belonging to the past) the large photograph of Beatriz, in gaudy colours. Nobody could see us; in a seizure of tenderness, I drew close to the portrait and said to it, "Beatriz, Beatriz Elena, Beatriz Elena Viterbo, darling Beatriz, Beatriz now gone forever, it's me, it's Borges."
Moments later, Carlos came in. He spoke dryly. I could see he was thinking of nothing else but the loss of the Aleph.
"First a glass of pseudo-cognac," he ordered, "and then down you dive into the cellar. Let me warn you, you'll have to lie flat on your back. Total darkness, total immobility, and a certain ocular adjustment will also be necessary. From the floor, you must focus your eyes on the nineteenth step. Once I leave you, I'll lower the trapdoor and you'll be quite alone. You needn't fear the rodents very much -- though I know you will. In a minute or two, you'll see the Aleph -- the microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists, our true proverbial friend, the multum in parvo!"
Once we were in the dining room, he added, "Of course, if you don't see it, your incapacity will not invalidate what I have experienced. Now, down you go. In a short while you can babble with all of Beatriz' images."
Tired of his inane words, I quickly made my way. The cellar, barely wider than the stairway itself, was something of a pit. My eyes searched the dark, looking in vain for the globe Carlos Argentino had spoken of. Some cases of empty bottles and some canvas sacks cluttered one corner. Carlos picked up a sack, folded it in two, and at a fixed spot spread it out.
"As a pillow," he said, "this is quite threadbare, but if it's padded even a half-inch higher, you won't see a thing, and there you'll lie, feeling ashamed and ridiculous. All right now, sprawl that hulk of yours there on the floor and count off nineteen steps."
I went through with his absurd requirements, and at last he went away. The trapdoor was carefully shut. The blackness, in spite of a chink that I later made out, seemed to me absolute. For the first time, I realised the danger I was in: I'd let myself be locked in a cellar by a lunatic, after gulping down a glassful of poison! I knew that back of Carlos' transparent boasting lay a deep fear that I might not see the promised wonder. To keep his madness undetected, to keep from admitting he was mad, Carlos had to kill me. I felt a shock of panic, which I tried to pin to my uncomfortable position and not to the effect of a drug. I shut my eyes -- I opened them. Then I saw the Aleph.
I arrive now at the ineffable core of my story. And here begins my despair as a writer. All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass? Mystics, faced with the same problem, fall back on symbols: to signify the godhead, one Persian speaks of a bird that somehow is all birds; Alanus de Insulis, of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere; Ezekiel, of a four-faced angel who at one and the same time moves east and west, north and south. (Not in vain do I recall these inconceivable analogies; they bear some relation to the Aleph.) Perhaps the gods might grant me a similar metaphor, but then this account would become contaminated by literature, by fiction. Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal. In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive. Nonetheless, I'll try to recollect what I can.
On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realised that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph's diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror's face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I'd seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; I saw a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree; I saw a summer house in Adrogué and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny -- Philemon Holland's -- and all at the same time saw each letter on each page (as a boy, I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight); I saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal; I saw my empty bedroom; I saw in a closet in Alkmaar a terrestrial globe between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly; I saw horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea at dawn; I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon -- the unimaginable universe.
I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity.
"Feeling pretty cockeyed, are you, after so much spying into places where you have no business?" said a hated and jovial voice. "Even if you were to rack your brains, you couldn't pay me back in a hundred years for this revelation. One hell of an observatory, eh, Borges?"
Carlos Argentino's feet were planted on the topmost step. In the sudden dim light, I managed to pick myself up and utter, "One hell of a -- yes, one hell of a."
The matter-of-factness of my voice surprised me. Anxiously, Carlos Argentino went on.
"Did you see everything -- really clear, in colours?"
At that moment I found my revenge. Kindly, openly pitying him, distraught, evasive, I thanked Carlos Argentino Daneri for the hospitality of his cellar and urged him to make the most of the demolition to get away from the pernicious metropolis, which spares no one -- believe me, I told him, no one! Quietly and forcefully, I refused to discuss the Aleph. On saying goodbye, I embraced him and repeated that the country, that fresh air and quiet were the great physicians.
Out on the street, going down the stairways inside Constitution Station, riding the subway, every one of the faces seemed familiar to me. I was afraid that not a single thing on earth would ever again surprise me; I was afraid I would never again be free of all I had seen. Happily, after a few sleepless nights, I was visited once more by oblivion.
Postscript of March first, 1943 -- Some six months after the pulling down of a certain building on Garay Street, Procrustes & Co., the publishers, not put off by the considerable length of Daneri's poem, brought out a selection of its "Argentine sections". It is redundant now to repeat what happened. Carlos Argentino Daneri won the Second National Prize for Literature. ["I received your pained congratulations," he wrote me. "You rage, my poor friend, with envy, but you must confess -- even if it chokes you! -- that this time I have crowned my cap with the reddest of feathers; my turban with the most caliph of rubies."] First Prize went to Dr. Aita; Third Prize, to Dr. Mario Bonfanti. Unbelievably, my own book The Sharper's Cards did not get a single vote. Once again dullness and envy had their triumph! It's been some time now that I've been trying to see Daneri; the gossip is that a second selection of the poem is about to be published. His felicitous pen (no longer cluttered by the Aleph) has now set itself the task of writing an epic on our national hero, General San Martín.
I want to add two final observations: one, on the nature of the Aleph; the other, on its name. As is well known, the Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Its use for the strange sphere in my story may not be accidental. For the Kabbala, the letter stands for the En Soph, the pure and boundless godhead; it is also said that it takes the shape of a man pointing to both heaven and earth, in order to show that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher; for Cantor's Mengenlehre, it is the symbol of transfinite numbers, of which any part is as great as the whole. I would like to know whether Carlos Argentino chose that name or whether he read it -- applied to another point where all points converge - - in one of the numberless texts that the Aleph in his cellar revealed to him. Incredible as it may seem, I believe that the Aleph of Garay Street was a false Aleph.
Here are my reasons. Around 1867, Captain Burton held the post of British Consul in Brazil. In July, 1942, Pedro Henríquez Ureña came across a manuscript of Burton's, in a library at Santos, dealing with the mirror which the Oriental world attributes to Iskander Zu al-Karnayn, or Alexander Bicornis of Macedonia. In its crystal the whole world was reflected. Burton mentions other similar devices -- the sevenfold cup of Kai Kosru; the mirror that Tariq ibn-Ziyad found in a tower (Thousand and One Nights, 272); the mirror that Lucian of Samosata examined on the moon (True History, I, 26); the mirrorlike spear that the first book of Capella's Satyricon attributes; Merlin's universal mirror, which was "round and hollow... and seem'd a world of glas" (The Faerie Queene, III, 2, 19) -- and adds this curious statement: "But the aforesaid objects (besides the disadvantage of not existing) are mere optical instruments. The Faithful who gather at the mosque of Amr, in Cairo, are acquainted with the fact that the entire universe lies inside one of the stone pillars that ring its central court... No one, of course, can actually see it, but those who lay an ear against the surface tell that after some short while they perceive its busy hum... The mosque dates from the seventh century; the pillars come from other temples of pre-Islamic religions, since, as ibn-Khaldun has written: 'In nations founded by nomads, the aid of foreigners is essential in all concerning masonry.'"
Does this Aleph exist in the heart of a stone? Did I see it there in the cellar when I saw all things, and have I now forgotten it? Our minds are porous and forgetfulness seeps in; I myself am distorting and losing, under the wearing away of the years, the face of Beatriz.
I saw by the clock at the little station that it was past eleven. I began walking through the night toward the hotel. I experienced, as I had at other times in the past, the resignation and relief we are made to feel by those places most familiar to us. The wide gate was open; the large country house itself, in darkness.
I went into the vestibule, whose pale mirrors echoed back the plants of the salon. Strangely, the owner did not recognize me; he turned the guest register around for me to sign. I picked up the pen chained to the register stand, dipped it in the brass inkwell, and then, as I leaned over the open book, there occurred the first of the many surprises the night would have in store for me—my name, Jorge Luis Borges, had already been written there, and the ink was not yet dry.
"I thought you'd already gone upstairs," the owner said to me. Then he looked at me more closely and corrected himself: "Oh, I beg your pardon, sir. You look so much like the other gentleman, but you are younger."
"What room is he in?" I asked.
"He asked for Room 19," came the reply.
It was as I had feared.
I dropped the pen and hurried up the stairs.
Room 19 was on the third floor; it opened onto a sad, run-down sort of terrace with a park bench and, as I recall, a railing running around it. It was the hotel's most secluded room. I tried the door; it opened at my touch. The overhead light still burned. In the pitiless light, I came face to face with myself. There, in the narrow iron bed—older, withered, and very pale—lay I, on my back, my eyes turned up vacantly toward the high plaster moldings of the ceiling. Then I heard the voice. It was not exactly my own; it was the one I often hear in my recordings, unpleasant and without modulation.
"How odd," it was saying, "we are two yet we are one. But then nothing is odd in dreams."
"Then ..." I asked fearfully, "all this is a dream?"
"It is, I am sure, my last dream." He gestured toward the empty bottle on the marble nightstand. "You, however, shall have much to dream, before you come to this night. What date is it for you?"
"I'm not sure," I said, rattled. "But yesterday was my sixty-first birthday."
"When in your waking state you reach this night again, yesterday will have been your eighty-fourth.
Today is August 25, 1983."
"So long to wait," I murmured.
"Not for me," he said shortly. "For me,
there's almost no time left. At any moment I may die, at any moment I may fade into that which is un-known to me, and still I dream these dreams of my double... that tiresome subject I got from Stevenson and mirrors."
I sensed that the evocation of Stevenson's name was a farewell, not some empty stroke of pedantry. I was he, and I understood. It takes more than life's most dramatic moments to make a Shakespeare, hitting upon memorable phrases. To distract him, I said:
"I knew this was going to happen to you. Right here in this hotel, years ago, in one of the rooms below, we began the draft of the story of this suicide."
"Yes," he replied slowly, as though piecing together the memories, "but I don't see the connection. In that draft I bought a one-way ticket for Adrogué, and when I got to the Hotel Las Delicias I went up to Room 19, the room farthest from all the rest. It was there that I committed suicide."
"That's why I'm here," I said.
"Here? We've always been here. It's here in this house on Calle Maipú that I am dreaming you. It is here, in this room that belonged to Mother, that I am taking my departure."
"...that belonged to Mother," I repeated, not wanting to understand. "I am dreaming you in Room 19, on the top floor, next to the rooftop terrace."
"Who is dreaming whom? I know I am dreaming you—I do not know whether you are dreaming me.
That hotel in Adrogué was torn down years and years ago—twenty, maybe thirty. Who knows?"
"I am the dreamer," I replied, with a touch of defiance.
"Don't you realize that the first thing to find out is whether there is only one man dreaming, or two men dreaming each other?"
"I am Borges. I saw your name in the register and I came upstairs."
"But I am Borges, and I am dying in a house on Calle Maipú."
There was a silence, and then he said to me:
"Let's try a test. What was the most terrible moment of our life?"
I leaned over him and the two of us spoke at once. I know that neither of us spoke the truth. A faint smile lit up the aged face. I felt that that smile somehow reflected my own.
"We've lied to each other," he said, "because we feel that we are two, not one. The truth is that we are two yet we are one."
I was beginning to be irritated by this conversation, and I told him so. Then I added: "And you, there in 1983—are you not going to tell me anything about the years I have left?"
"What can I tell you, poor Borges? The misfortunes you are already accustomed to will repeat themselves. You will be left alone in this house. You will touch the books that have no letters and the Swedenborg medallion and the wooden tray with the Federal Cross. Blindness is not darkness; it is a form of solitude. You will return to Iceland."
"Iceland! Sea-girt Iceland!"
"In Rome, you will once more recite the poetry of Keats, whose name, like all men's names, was writ in water."
"I've never been in Rome."
"There are other things. You will write our best poem—an elegy."
"On the death of..." I began. I could not bring myself to say the name.
"No. She will outlive you."
We grew silent. Then he went on:
"You will write the book we've dreamed of for
so long. In 1979 you will see that your supposed career has been nothing but a series of drafts, miscellaneous drafts, and you will give in to the vain and superstitious temptation to write your great book—the superstition that inflicted upon us Goethe's Faust, and Salammbô, and Ulysses. I filled, incredible to tell, many, many pages."
"And in the end you realized that you had failed."
"Worse. I realized that it was a masterpiece in the most overwhelming sense of the word. My good intentions hadn't lasted beyond the first pages; those that followed held the labyrinths, the knives, the man who thinks he's an image, the reflection that thinks it's real, the tiger that stalks in the night, the battles that are in one's blood, the blind and fatal Juan Murana, the voice of Macedonio Fernández, the ship made with the fingernails of the dead, Old English repeated in the evening."
"That museum rings a bell," I remarked sarcastically.
"Not to mention false recollections, the doubleness of symbols, the long catalogs, the skilled handling of prosaic reality, the imperfect symmetries that critics so jubilantly discover, the not always apocryphal quotations."
"Did you publish it?"
"I toyed, without conviction, with the melodramatic possibility of destroying the book, perhaps by fire.
But I wound up publishing it in Madrid, under a pseudonym. I was taken for a clumsy imitator of Borges—a person who had the defect of not actually being Borges yet of mirroring all the outward appearances of the original."
"I'm not surprised," I said. "Every writer sooner or later becomes his own least intelligent disciple."
"That book was one of the roads that led me to this night. The others... The humiliation of old age, the conviction of having already lived each day..."
"I will not write that book," I said.
"You will, though. My words, which are now
your present, will one day be but the vaguest memory of a dream."
I found myself annoyed by his dogmatic tone, the tone that I myself no doubt use in my classes. I was annoyed by the fact that we resembled each other so much and that he was taking advantage of the impunity lent him by the nearness of death.
"Are you so sure," I said, to get back at him a bit, "that you're going to die?"
"Yes," he replied. "I feel a sort of sweetness and relief I’ve never felt before. I can't describe it; all words require a shared experience. Why do you seem so annoyed at what I'm saying?"
"Because we're too much like each other. I loathe your face, which is a caricature of mine, I loathe your voice, which is a mockery of mine, I loathe your pathetic syntax, which is my own."
"So do I," he smiled. "Which is why I decided to kill myself."
A bird sang from the garden. "It's the last one," the other man said.
He motioned me toward him. His hand sought mine. I stepped back; I was afraid the two hands would merge.
"The Stoics teach," he said to me, "that we should not complain of life—the door of the prison is open. I have always understood that; I myself saw life that way, but laziness and cowardice held me back. About twelve days ago, I was giving a lecture in La Plata on Book VI of the Aeneid. Suddenly, as I was scanning a hexameter, I discovered what my path was to be. I made this decision—and since that moment, I have felt myself invulnerable. You shall one day meet that fate—you shall receive that sudden revelation, in the midst of Latin and Virgil, yet you will have utterly forgotten this curious prophetic dialogue that is taking place in two times and two places. When you next dream it, you shall be who I am, and you shall be my dream."
"I won't forget it—I'm going to write it down tomorrow." "It will lie in the depths of your memory, beneath the tides of your dreams. When you write it, you will think that you're weaving a tale of fantasy. And it won't be tomorrow, either—it will be many years from now."
He stopped talking; I realized that he had died. In a way, I died with him—in grief I leaned over his pillow, but there was no one there anymore.
I fled the room. Outside, there was no patio, no marble staircase, no great silent house, no eucalyptus trees, no statues, no gazebo in a garden, no fountains, no gate in the fence surrounding the hotel in the town of Adrogué.
Outside awaited other dreams.