by Jorge Luis Borges
Essay by Ted Gioia

The figure of Jorge Luis Borges haunts so many
postmodern mysteries, the author himself taking
on symbolic resonance. Umberto Eco, in his
Name of the Rose, assigns a key role to a character
named Jorge of Burgos, and constructs his story
around a labyrinthine library that seems virtually
lifted straight out of
Ficciones.  In Jean-Luc Godard’s
noir detective film Alphaville, hero
Lemmy Caution outwits the evil computer Alpha
60 with poetry drawing on lines written by
Borges. Borges’ mythical book,
The Approach to
—one of many
peculiar volumes invented by
our author in the course of
Ficciones—even shows up as a
real (and symbolically-charged)
tome toward the conclusion of
Miguel Syjuco’s Borgesian

Yet Borges also had deep ties to
more conventional mysteries. Few
remember that his first story pub-
lished in English, “The Garden of
the Forking Paths,” made its debut
in the
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, a pulp fiction
periodical with few aspirations to highbrow literary
acclaim. This tale, included in
Ficciones, relates the
elaborate strategy employed by a Chinese scholar,
operating as a German spy in England during World
War I, for sending a message to his handler in the
Kaiserreich. The tale blends an intricately plotted
mystery into a typically playful Borgesian setting,
complete with his trademark labyrinth, riddling texts,
elaborate scholarly conceits, cross-cultural confusions,
a tinkering with notions of infinity, duplicitous role-
playing, and a paradoxical alternative reality angle. I'm
not sure what
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine readers
thought, encountering this tale alongside conventional
crime stories featuring hard-boiled detectives and
provocative dames, but I wouldn't be surprised if more
than a few canceled their subscriptions in the aftermath.  

In “Death and the Compass,” also found in
Borges appears to adopt a more conventional stance,
presenting a private investigator, Erik Lönnrot, very
much in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste
Dupin or Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. A
puzzling crime, perhaps even an unintentional one,
leaves a rabbi murdered.  In his typewriter, police find
a sheet of paper upon which is written—another
enigmatic text from Borges—
The first letter of the Name
has been spoken
.  While the authorities seek for clues
and suspects, Lönnrot focuses on textual interpretation,
perusing works such as
A Vindication of the Cabala, History
of the Sect of the Hasidim
, and the Philologus Hebraeo-
. I wish I could assure you that our detective is
rewarded for his scholarly efforts, but his case sadly
proves to be an instance when
explication de texte brings
with it neither academic tenure nor a conviction in
court. And, yes, a labyrinth also appears in this story.

In the closing pages of “Death and the Compass,”
Lönnrot comes upon a strange, apparently deserted
villa marked by "superfluous symmetries and maniacal
repetitions."  The same description might be applied to
many of author Borges's stories.  In "Pierre Menard,
Author of Don Quixote," a scholar devotes years to
writing a book that has already been written. In "The
Library of Babel," the universe is reduced to a
possibly infinite series of identical hexagonal
galleries, housing shelf after shelf, each holding
exactly 32 books of uniform external appearance. In
"Funes, the Memorious," an accident leaves a young
boy paralyzed, but with such a vivid memory, that
every incident in his life is preserved in his mind
with incredible richness and exactitude, the recollection
offering a perfect reflection of the lived reality.  

Only a few Borges stories involve an actual detective,
but many force the reader into a comparable
investigative role.   To read tales such as "The South"
or "The Secret of the Phoenix" is akin to attempting
the solution of an elaborate puzzle. Other stories,
such as "Theme of the Traitor and Hero" or "Three
Versions of Judas" invite the reader to accept a total
reversal of a given historical account, almost as if
actual events might be reinterpreted as easily as a poem
or play.  "The Form of the Sword" applies the same
approach to a personal anecdote, teasing the reader with
clues indicating a true story that is the mirror image of
the one recounted.

When Borges wrote these works, the concept of post-
modernism was unknown, not to mention undefined in
its particulars.  Yet so many of the key elements are
already laid out here with confidence and mastery. Here
we have the playful intertextual games, the elaborate
and mythical books within books, the recondite scholarly
grotesqueries, the unpeeling of a deceptive reality to
reveal a horrifying nothingness inside, the interpretation
of signs and symbols as necessary if maddening vocation,
the pervasive paranoid if not solipsistic tone, the story
that turns on itself and devours its own origins, etc. How
appropriate that our author himself has shown up himself
in more recent postmodern works, less a flesh-and-blood
historical figure and more a talisman and symbol himself.  
That itself could be a Borges story.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and pop culture.
His latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History,
published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011
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Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) tried to
destroy the clues hidden in his early work.  
His attempt to purchase every surviving
copy of the magazines that featured some
of these efforts, in order to eradicate all
evidence of their existence,

is just the kind of obsessive
pursuit he would celebrate
in his own elliptical
stories. At other times,
he would circulate de-
liberate forgeries, works
of his own in the style
of other authors, at-
tempting to pass them
off as translations. Then
again, he would review
non-existent books,

praising or disparaging these chimerical
volumes found in no library. When

Borges's later stories won him international
renown, these accounts of obsessed

narrators, Sisyphean vocations,
subtextual intrigues and self-negating
literary pursuits were, oddly enough,
direct extensions of his own equivocal
career to date.  But even odder: this author,
so iconoclastic and unbeholden to literary
fashions, set the tone for many later schools
of writing, from magical realism to post-
modern meta-narratives. For all the efforts
to eradicate clues and throw off those
following his wake, Borges lived up to his
own prediction:  "Every writer creates' his
own precursors," he asserted. “His work
modifies our conception of the past, as it
will modify the future.”
Further Clues:

Jorge Luis Borges:  The Mirror Man, a Documentary by
Philippe Molins

The Garden of Forking Paths

The Borges Center

"The Borges Behind the Stories"

Interview with Jorge Luis Borges by Ronald Christ from
The Paris Review

Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
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