Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings
by Jorge Luis Borges

Synopsis

This synopsis will contain spoilers!

This is a collection of short stories and essays, so I will summarize each separately.

"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" - The narrator relates how he discovered an encyclopedia that had an additional entry for the fictitious country Uqbar. He and his friends proceeded to search out more information on this book, they discover volume XI of the First Encyclopedia of Tlön. This volume gives insight into the philosophy, language, history, and metaphysics of Tlön. It is a very structured and organized world. The narrator proceeds to expound upon the various aspects of Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius. The story is followed up by a postscript in which the narrator reveals that the world at large has become aware of Tlön, and has become so enamored by its organized nature that the world has become to reshape and retell its own history to become that of Tlön.

"The Garden of Forking Paths" - A Chinese soldier during World War I relates the story of how his ancestor had attempted to write a book and build a labyrinth. The narrator goes to a house to meet a friend who tells how he has discovered the secret of this man's ancestor. The book, which seems undecipherable, is actually an attempt to tell all the stories and all the possible outcomes of the characters life. So in one chapter, the character will die, but the next chapter will tell the story as if he had survived the previous encounter, and so forth. The book is the labyrinth. The friend gives an example about how in one forking path, they are enemies. The narrator proceeds to kill him. He is arrested and sentenced to death."

"The Lottery in Babylon" - Babylon introduces a lottery that one must buy into with the chance to win prizes. To make it more interesting, it begins to introduce serious punishments as well as rewards, such as jail time or even death. The people that run the lottery are secret and unknown. Everyone must participate in the lottery, whether they choose to or not. Now, the lottery controls all of life in Babylon, from the smallest decisions, to matters of life and death. "Another, no less vile, reasons that it is indifferent to affirm or deny the reality of the shadowy corporation, because Babylon is nothing else than an infinite game of chance" (35).

"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" - Pierre Menard is a friend of (fictitious narrator) Borges who decided he wanted to write the novel Don Quixote without referring to the source material. Instead of taking the easy way out and living Cervantes' life he decides to try to write it as himself. In other words, he aims to become such a person as would write Don Quixote in the 20th Century as it was written in the 15th Century. He succeeds in writing a few chapters exactly as they appeared in the original. Borges proceeds to discuss why the parts written by Menard are so much better than the original. He does this by quoting from each (the quotes are the same) and showing why having written them in modern times makes them better. He then claims that Menard has introduced the idea of reading all books as though they were written by any author and at any time to understand them better.

"The Circular Ruins" - A man attempts to dream a man so completely perfectly that he becomes real. He eventually succeeds, by forming each part of the man slowly over one thousand and one nights. The only difference is that this dreamed man will not be affected by fire. The story ends when the dreamer discovers that he is not affected by fire, thus learning that he too is a dream.

"The Library of Babel" - The universe is an endless library, made up of books that are all the same number of pages. They, it appears, are all the possible books that can be created using the 25 orthographical characters (letters and punctuation). It relates how some people wander the shelves looking for a book that is a catalogue of all the other books, while at times others destroyed the books they believed to be false. The author eventually finds comfort in that, while the library seems infinite and disorderly, it must have an end because the orthographical characters are limited. Thus there must be some order in the library, though it is not visible to him.

"Funes the Memorius" - tells of a young man named Funes whose memory is completely perfect. It discusses the ramifications of such a perfect memory, concluding at one point that it must have rendered him incapable of thought because "To think is to forget difference, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence" (66).

"The Shape of the Sword" - a reclusive Englishman living in Argentina tells a story of how he was betrayed during the War by a man named Vincent Moon. In a twist at the end it is revealed that the man telling the story was the betrayer, Moon.

"Theme of the Traitor and the Hero" - Borges relates a story that he would like to someday tell. It involves a scholar researching a war hero named Nolan. Ryan, the scholar, discovers that Nolan's history was actually a living out of Shakespeare's plays for the purposes of inciting the Irish people to revolt. Upon making this discovery, Ryan decides to hide the truth and simply publish a work about Nolan's heroism. The story ends enigmatically as follows: "He publishes a book dedicated to the hero's glory; this too, perhaps, was foreseen" (75).

"Death and the Compass" - a detective investigates a mysterious murder in which the clue "The first letter of the Name has been uttered". Similar murders with the second and the last letters follow soon after. The detective, believing he has made a great insight, determines where a last murder will occur and when. When he arrives, he learns his great rival used the murders to lure the detective into this situation. The rival kills the detective.

"The Secret Miracle" - a man begins a work on a masterpiece of literature. Before he can finish he is sentenced to death. While sitting before the firing squad, he prays to God for a year to finish the work. At that moment, time freezes and he has a year, in his mind only, to finish his work. "He was not working for posterity or even for God, whose literary tastes were unknown to him" (94). When the year is up, time starts again and he his killed.

"Three Versions of Judas" - This relates a book that gives different theories of who Judas was. One theory is that he was the most evil of men, the second is that he actually did the terrible deed because he knew someone must do it in order for Jesus to die and be resurrected and so he took that burden upon himself. Finally, the last theory is that Jesus was actually Judas, and thus condemned to punishment for our sins as the ultimate sacrifice."

"The Sect of the Phoenix" - This is effectively a riddle in which Borges lays out the idea of a secret society that nearly all people are members of even if they don't admit it, but he never clearly sates what the secret is.

"The Immortal" - a Greek man finds another man at his doorstep who is on the verge of death. The dying man claims he is in search of a fountain that makes men immortal. The Greek takes up the search and after a long time, finds his way to a pool of water surrounded by troglodytes. He drinks from the pool and then heads to a nearby city. One of the destitute men follows him. The city is a labyrinth of madness. On his way out it rains and the man who had followed him comes awake - it is Homer and he tells him how this was the city built by the Immortals. It goes on to discuss how when a man becomes immortal, he will rely only on his thought, and will do nothing. Also, it becomes difficult to know your own past from that of another because when you are immortal you eventually think all thoughts.

"The Theologians" - Relates the story of two theologians that were always arguing with each other. One, in order to make a point, makes a claim in a book about the other. This claim is later used as evidence for the others heresy and he is killed. The first theologian justifies his actions throughout his life until he dies. In Paradise, Aurelian, the first theologian, realizes he and the second are one single person under the Divinity.

"Story of the Warrior and the Captive" - builds off a line in a poem about a captive warrior fighting against his own people. It paints these events in the light that the captive does not betray his own people, but becomes one with the group that captured them and so chooses to fight on their side. He compares this to a European woman who ended up in South America and "became" a native.

"Emma Zunz" - a young girl obtains revenge for her father's death by prostituting herself (too make it look like she was sexually assaulted) and then going to the man who was responsible for her father's death. She shoots him with his own gun, and then claims assault when the police investigate. She is not arrested. "Actually the story was incredible, but it impressed everyone because substantially it was true. True was Emma Zunz' tone, true was her shame, true was her hate. True also was the outrage she had suffered: only the circumstances were false, the time, and one or two proper names" (137).

"The House of Asterion" - told from the perspective of a character who never leaves his home for its doors are infinite. He relates how he keeps busy, including conversing with another self. He awaits his savior who will release him. The twist is he is the minotaur and his release is being killed by Theseus.

"Deutsches Requiem" - told from the perspective of a member of the Third Reich who is sentenced to death. He muses about how he does not mind his own defeat as long as war continues to rage. He does not mind that Germany will be destroyed for the New Order to reign - it was simply one more step along the path.

"Averroes' Search" - a muslim man goes in search of an the idea of tragedy and comedy as he found them in Aristotle. No one in his world is familiar with these ideas having never seen a play acted out. Even when a story is told by a traveler who went to a foreign land the connection is not made. Finally he begins to understand. Borges then discusses what the tale was about (defeat).

"The Zahir" - a man obtains a coin (a Zahir) that he begins to obsess over, so he gets rid of it. He cannot stop thinking about it even then. He does research, to discover that periodically such coins come into existence, and they begin to consume the mind of anyone who finds them. The narrator relates how soon he will be able to think of nothing else, and his life will thus be destroyed by the Zahir.

"The Waiting" - a man awaits his death at those seeking to kill him. When they eventually find him, he hardly believes they are real because he has lived so long with the fear of them finding him. He is killed

"The God's Script" - a man is captured and thrown into a prison. Next to his prison is a panther. In a moment of revelation he discovers fourteen words that when spoken will give him the power to leave his cell. He chooses not to speak them because, by understanding them, he also realizes his own freedom from the prison is inconsequential on the universal scale.

The remaining items in the book are nonfiction essays and parables.

"The Argentine Writer and Tradition" - Borges argues that the Argentine tradition in literature does not come from writers adding nature imagery in the gauchesque style. This is simply a mimicry of a style and ultimately results in limiting Argentine literature. He also argues that authors should not limit themselves to Argentine subjects. "I believe that if we surrender ourselves to that voluntary dream which is artistic creation, we shall be Argentine and we shall also be good or tolerable writers" (185).

"The Wall and the Books" - discusses and analyses the fact that the Chinese Emperor that ordered the Great Wall be built also ordered that the history of time before him be destroyed.

"The Fearful Sphere of Pascal" - considers the idea "that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors" (189) by following a few metaphors through history (such as a perfect sphere) and discussing how they relate to this idea.

"Partial Magic in the Quixote" - discusses the meta-narrative aspects of Don Quixote and how they relate to other works, both ancient and modern.

"Valery as Symbol" - a comparison of Paul Valery and Walt Whitman.

"Kafka and His Precursors" - an analysis of writers that Borges sees as potentially being precursors to Kafka. Also a brief discussion of how these precursors would not have been considered together until after reading their works in light of Kafka's works that came later.

"Avatars of the Tortoise" - a discussion of the concept of infinity which, Borges claims, "corrupts and upsets all others" (202).

"The Mirror of Enigmas" - looks at the mystery around the "seeing in a mirror" quote from one of Paul's letters.

"A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw" - a brief analysis of certain aspects of Shaw's works.

"A New Refutation of Time" - two essays that more or less argue a single point. The idea that, if we take seriously the idealist philosophers argument about the world being our perception of it rather than a physical thing that exist, then the same should apply to time. Time is merely our perception of events (other perceptions) happening in a certain order, and there's no way to say that a certain time was the same as another person's perceptions.

Next follows a few parables that are so short to not be worth summarizing (each only a page long) and simply worth reading again.

Reviews

Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings - Paperback

There is so much to talk about with Labyrinths that I don't even know where to start. First of all, after reading this collection, I think Borges is phenomenal ...

- Oct. 5, 2011

Quotes

"I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia."

Jorge Luis Borges the First Line of Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

"Oh destiny of Borges, perhaps no stranger than your own."

Jorge Luis Borges the Last Line of in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

"Death (or its allusion) makes men precious and pathetic."

Jorge Luis Borges in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

Originally Published Jan. 1, 1962

Paperback edition:

256 pages - Sept. 21, 2011

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