Borges: “The Garden of Forking Paths”

A story is a place where we once expected to slip into the intimate, to be drawn swiftly but safely through troubled truths, to be tumbled about, roughed up a little, and returned in one piece to the rejuvenated quotidian. Of course we do not expect stories to be that sort of place now. We know that surfaces will repel approach, that we will have to circle again and again, plot an entry, hack our way through with our own equipment, haul ourselves out when and where we choose, and claim gains and losses for ourselves without acknowledgement from the story that we have arrived at a conclusion, the “end.”

Thus Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” sets up a literary labyrinth, each path of which forks into another labyrinth until we are lost in a labyrinth of labyrinths, at the center of which lies perhaps an ultimate, all-but-accessible truth: Yu Tsun’s ancestor’s novel’s depiction of the labyrinth of time–or, call it, the universe. “. . . The Garden of Forking Paths [the novel] is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pen conceived it” (28). I quibble, “all but accessible,” because the revelation is chopped or snatched away before it can be totally disclosed or grasped–snatched or chopped off, not by jealous fate or fickle fortune, but by a narrative trick of amazing triviality: the revelation hinges on the coincidence of two names (Albert, a name listed in the telephone book, and Albert, the name of a city in England), a turn of plot apparently unrelated to the mysteries of the universe. But we have fallen too abruptly into the pit of the story where the secret of time lies buried, hidden, and we must return to the beginning to attempt a more legitimate, more leisurely, entry.

“The Garden of Forking Paths” presents itself in brazen masquerade: as a spy story. German Reich agent Dr. Yu Tsun is in flight from the British spycatcher* Captain Richard Madden, who trails him by seconds, by forty minutes, an hour. Yu Tsun has a job to do before–indeed, by way of–his surrender to the inevitable. He must communicate to his Chief in Berlin the fact of the precise location of the British artillery park just constructed on the River Ancre. How can he send word in wartime, outside “regular” channels of communication, to the “sick and hateful” old man poring over newspapers all day, when he is out of resources and all but out of time? The answer flares up among his wandering (or forking) reflections, and in ten minutes he has perfected a plan. He consults a telephone directory and makes his way to a certain address; “his way” just happens to lead to the residence of Stephen Albert, a Sinologist who has studied, translated, and interpreted a labyrinthine novel called The Garden of Forking Paths, written and abandoned–by whom but a famous ancestor of Yu Tsun himself. (Note: The secret of time and the universe lies buried in our protagonist’s own hidden ancestry.)

The abstruse discussion that ensues on the subject of the novel–the “forking paths” of time–is interrupted by sounds of the approaching Madden. At the last possible moment before Madden breaks in, Yu Tsun takes out his revolver and fires. Albert falls dead–and the newspapers do the rest. Yu Tsun’s mission is accomplished:

. . . I have communicated to Berlin the secret name of the city they must attack. They bombed it yesterday; I read it in the same papers that offered to England the mystery of the learned Sinologist Stephen Albert who was murdered by a stranger, one Yu Tsun. The Chief had deciphered this mystery. He knew my problem was to indicate (through the uproar of the war) the city called Albert, and that I had found no other means to do so than to kill a man of that name (29).

But the spy story that proceeds according to the predictable timing/pacing of the chase, the competition of protagonist and antagonist playing out against the inviolable purity of the clock, is a cloud of dust thrust into the eyes of the reader that temporarily obscures the maze of forking paths the story is inscribing.

We have sensed diversion in the very pacing itself: Yu Tsun’s exaggeratedly-laggardly lingering over minutiae versus the running clock and the flying-approaching Madden. Suspicious, we reread the story now, resisting the suspense of the surface plot to submerge in the “swarming” world beneath.

Our problem, and perhaps the solution to it, is figured in the story when Yu Tsun, approaching the strange/familiar environs of Ashgrove (note the comprehensive-contradictory name figuring an end and a beginning), is instructed by the strange/familiar “lads”: “‘The house is a long way from here, but you won’t get lost if you take this road to the left and at every crossroads turn again to your left’” (22)–“the common procedure,” as Yu Tsun recalls, “for discovering the central point of certain labyrinths.”

“The central point,” the point to or from which “certain labyrinths” lead, is just the “point” we readers are drawn toward in the story as we read, just what eludes us. But what would “turning left” mean? And what if this one is not after all a “certain” labyrinth?

The title of the story has already predicted the Borgesian motif. “The Garden” suggests the domesticated or the organic, while “Forking Paths” suggests a duplicitous or even a monstrous maze whose paths describe a growing, living snake-like forking (now we recognize “The Garden” indeed). Furthermore, the voice that narrates the story has illustrated the principle from the beginning where it split or splintered, as we shall detail below.

Yu Tsun is no stranger to labyrinths. His great grandfather Ts’ui Pen, governor of Yunnan, surrendered his “worldly power” and retired to write a novel that he expected to be perhaps “even more populous than the *Hung Lu Meng“*and to build a labyrinth “in which all men would become lost” (22). He labored at “these heterogeneous tasks” for thirteen years but was murdered (by a stranger), his work lost. Yu Tsun imagines his project now, “inviolate and perfect . . . erased [by natural or social forces]. . . infinite . . . a labyrinth of labyrinths . . . one sinuous spreading labyrinth” (23).

We note in passing that these labyrinths of Yu Tsun’s musings and his ancestor’s prodigious work “are” in the imagination–i.e., are, as he puts it, “illusory images” (23)–as is, of course, the labyrinthine fiction into which we have wandered.


If the advice of the auspicious “lads” is good, then it should carry us to the central point of the story. We turn to the point where the story leads and leaves us, the last paragraph. The story has climaxed in the preceding paragraph with the “lightning stroke” murder of Albert. The last paragraph, which follows the murder and to which the story has led us, does indeed synopsize the plot of the story: that is, Yu Tsun’s success in communicating to the Chief via an oblique, encrypted medium the name of the city where the new British artillery park is located, (projected newspaper accounts of his murder of a man with the same name). But the point here in the ultimate paragraph is not that the act of murder was the consummation of communication, a success; for the paragraph begins with the summarily dismissive judgment, “The rest is unreal, insignificant,” and ends with Yu Tsun’s plaintive “innumerable contrition and weariness.” If the central point of the story-labyrinth is here, where the story has led us, then it is (shall we say, emphasize) obliquely encrypted here, and we cannot yet identify it.

If the first lead has led us astray let us assay another. If the story is a riddle we’re to unriddle, let us take note of an illustrative case in the story itself. The Sinologist Stephen Albert addresses the riddle of the ancient Ts’ui Pen’s novel-labyrinth (27):

“‘. . . . The testimony of his contemporaries proclaims–and his life fully confirms–his metaphysical and mystical interests. Philosophic controversy usurps a good part of the novel. I know that of all problems, none disturbed him so greatly nor worked upon him so much as the abysmal problem of time. Now then, the latter is the only problem that does not figure in the pages of the Garden. He does not even use the word that signifies time. How do you explain this voluntary omission?’” (27)

Yu Tsun can not explain it satisfactorily. Albert can:

[*Indent following quotation]

“‘In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only prohibited word?’

I thought a moment and replied, ‘The word chess.’

‘Precisely,’ said Albert. ‘The Garden of Forking Paths is an enormous riddle, or parable, whose theme is time; this recondite cause prohibits its mention. To omit a word always, to resort to inept metaphors and obvious periphrases [emphasis mine], is perhaps the most emphatic way of stressing it. That is the tortuous method preferred, in each of the meanderings of the indefatigable novel, by the oblique Ts’ui Pen. . . .’“(27).

Using these clues to peruse the last paragraph of the story, we do find many words and phrases that “say” the same “thing” without naming it: “communicated,” “offered,” “indicate,” “through the uproar of the war,” “called,” “means to do so”; all these words and phrases are “saying” something like . . . saying. There are a couple of non-names for what is said: “secret name,” “mystery”; and a couple of non-names forhow saying is consummated: “read,” “deciphered.” And perhaps the strange “innumerable” in the last line is a non-name for “unsayable.” Later, when we have counted the ways “saying” has not been “said” in the story, the numeric word appears less strange.

Now all the labyrinth of genres opens up before us as a labyrinth of ways of saying. The (“fictional”)* history cited at the beginning of the story (19) is one way to “say” what happened. The account sounds factual, authoritative, but we note that it also sounds second-hand. That is, we get a report of an historical account. The “history” (what actually happened in the past) has passed through translation, shall we say–passing from “life” through “history” and commentary, etc., continuing through the complex of genres the story will assume (note as well the literary formalities of the footnote, the dedication, and even the translator’s signature)–through, in fine, an exquisitely complex business of getting something “real” or “actual”: said.

To summarize, then, one aspect of saying (which we our tentative attempt to locate the center of our labyrinth/novel/riddle) that we note from the first lines of the story is that saying is not a pure delivering of “life” over from a “happening” into language. “Saying” is not effective or adequate language, or “language” is not a system of utterances that correspond with and represent “life” or that carry a “meaning” that transcends and connects the two.

Let us review Borges’ narrator’s forking tongue more closely. First it is a scholarly voice. “On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s history of World War I you will read that . . . ,” the story begins, and paraphrases a passage from the history, already having bypassed pages 1-21, disregarding as well the how-many pages that follow, dipping into the work to fish out a little capsule of fact and commentary from which to launch the “story” (nomination mine; this “story” purports to be nonfiction). The story never again refers to the incident reported in the history (an attack planned for one day was postponed to another) or to the historian’s “comment” about the cause of the delay of the attack and its lack of significance (“The torrential rains . . . caused this delay, an insignificant one, to be sure”) or even to the promise in the second paragraph that the “statement” that follows “throws an unsuspected light over the whole affair.” Like the history, this document that shall elucidate “the whole affair” is submitted only partially; the first two pages are missing and, as Inoted above, the quotation marks that open the account are never closed.

If the “fact” that the two documents are offered without beginnings and endings does not unsettle the presumption that they are authentic and complete (reliable), the “whole affair” becomes even more doubtful when we consider that the history and the historian’s comment are reported indirectly and are critiqued or corrected by our own narrator and by the “Editor” (who interjects an emotional objection and a correction to the “statement,” 19), whose comments on these histories and the characters in them are gratuitous and anonymous, and that the quoted document itself describes a traceable forking, as we have suggested: i.e., the “statement” in this document was “dictated,” our narrator claims (then transcribed, we assume), then “reread and signed” by its author Dr. Yu Tsun–a sort of acknowledgement or adoption, to be sure, but no guarantee of “original” “authorship” (these terms have no referents in the story). The legitimate attribution at the end of the story to D.A.Y. (Donald A. Yates), translator, as it situates the story in “life” illustrates the continuous forkings of paths of genres we are used to traverse without concern until we stumble upon the irregular, missing or added steps such as those Borges constructs in this story.

“Saying” has become a garden of forking paths. If our first reading of the story finds a facile familiar plot, and if the second falls into a bewildering linguistic snare, there is still another system of paths snaking through the story that tempts us to consider the possibility that the plot of the story is not altogether capricious or vagarious, but may be developing according to an unidentified, unarticulated motivation (or network of motivations) drawing tantalizingly and fatally toward the “center” of the labyrinth–scattering its “law” or “nature” or at least, like a star, its light, locatability, about it a it moves.

[**read as alternatives in time: separate or interacting/changing each other, cause-effect and vice-versa?, parallel? Dimensions?]

For example, consider a key turning point in the story:

. . . it occurred to me that [Richard Madden] did not suspect that I possessed the Secret. The name of the exact location of the new British artillery park on the River Ancre. A bird streaked across the gray sky and blindly I translated it into an airplane and that airplane into many (against the French sky) annihilating the artillery station with vertical bombs. If only my mouth, before a bullet shattered it, could cry out that secret name so it could be heard in Germany . . . My human voice was very weak. How might I make it carry to the ear of the Chief? To the ear of that sick and hateful man who knew nothing of Runeberg and me save that we were in Staffordshire and who was waiting in vain for our report in his arid ovvice in Berlin, endlessly examining newspapers . . . “I said out loud: I must flee.**I sat up noiselessly, in a useless perfection of silence, as if Madden were alreadylying in wait forme. Something–perhaps the mere vain ostentation of proving my resources were nil–made me look through my pockets. I found what I knew I would find.