Monday, May 18, 2009

Reader's Diary #491- Jorge Luis Borges: The Garden of Forking Paths

Last year I read W.P. Kinsella's short story "Waiting on Lombard Street" which dealt with parallel universes. I complained that the idea was overdone and the story too pointless. But if Kinsella undersold the idea, certainly Borges oversold it.

"The Garden of Forking Paths" is the story of a spy named Dr. Yu Tsun who is on the run from a British officer, Captain Richard Madden. Before being caught, Tsun manages to get one more message to the Germans (for whom he spies) by tracking down a man named Dr. Stephen Albert and killing him. The British were to attack a town called Albert, and when Tsun's murder trial hit the newspapers, the Germans would make the connection between the victim's name and the targeted town.

But, there's a bit more. Before being murdered, Dr. Albert is able to unravel a mystery that has plagued Dr. Tsun: the mystery of his ancestor Ts'ui Pen. Ts'ui Pen gave up a promising career to create a labyrinth and to write a great novel. However, upon his death no labyrinth was ever found and the book was too confusing and contradictory to be published (Tsun complains, "in the third chapter the hero dies, in the fourth he is alive"). However, Albert explains that the labyrinth and the book were the same. He goes on with a needlessly complicated point about "time" being the answer to a riddle, but essentially Ts'ui Pen wrote a book where different paths are spliced together. The hero that died in chapter three was led to his fate due to some decision he had made earlier. In chapter four, the hero is still alive because he hadn't made the fatal decision earlier. Sounds impressive, especially since the parallel universe interpretation of quantum mechanics was in its infancy back in 1941 when this story was published.

Unfortunately, a childhood of "Choose Your Own Adventure Books" has made Ts'ui Pen's idea a bit of a bore. In fact, the CYOA Books seem to have been executed better. At least in those I was able to see which decision led to which fate. What did Pen get out of turning the book into a labyrinth?

And why didn't Borges simply write Ts'ui Pen's story? I can't see how the story of Tsun's ancestor and the story of spying for the Germans really connected. At one point Albert remarks, "In the present [time], which a favorable fate has granted me, you have arrived at my house; in another, while crossing the garden, you found me dead; in still another, I utter these same words, but I am a mistake, a ghost." That's as close as Borges gets to joining the two pieces together.

But in another universe, and in another time, I enjoyed it.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave your link below.)


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Sounds confusing and a trifle pointless. I may bow out of reading this one.

Stacy said...

My mind flatlines when I see terms like parellel universe and quantum mechanics because I can't get my mind around the concepts. My sister used to love those choose your own adventure books. There was always one laying around somewhere.

Carrie K said...

I love parallel universes and quantum mechanics so I'll have to read this just for that. Too bad it sounds a bit flat. Ah, progress.

JoAnn said...

This sounds a little too convoluted for my tastes! Like BookPsmith, my mind shuts down when I read 'parallel universe' or'quantum mechanics'.

gautami tripathy said...

This is something I better check out. Seems like my kind of story!

Teddy Rose said...

I think I'll skip this one. Thanks for the review John!