The Stories in My Life: Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden Of Forking Paths pushes against conventional thought-dimensions
To call Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden Of Forking Paths a ‘story’ seems a travesty. For it is a tour de force of creative cerebration, a quantum leap of the imagination.
There are stories, read long ago, which live on in the backrooms of the mind, becoming perennial furnishings of our mental lives, refusing to fade even after the passage of decades. In this column, every month, I shall share one such story with you, a story which has nourished my inner life and which deserves to be unpacked and aired in the hope that it will bring you the same pleasure and insight that it brought me.
If I have to choose the most exciting story in my life it would have to be Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden Of Forking Paths. To call it a ‘story’ seems a travesty. For it is a tour de force of creative cerebration, a quantum leap of the imagination. Not just a singular narrative but a narrative of all the possible narratives that may exist. The ‘story’ moves both in real time and also in an abstract, idealised time. Commencing from the epicenter of a narrative complication it rises into a rarefied stratosphere of powerful intellection, circling lofty issues of time, fate and the constitution of consciousness in a soaring spiral of metaphysical ascent. The plot is a major feat of indirection, with a quantum randomness that is uncannily credible, where causality is as curved as space-time and as convoluted as a dreamscape that is suspiciously like some more authentic version of our own reality. Even when much seems improbable, chancy and contingent.
The narrator is a Chinese spy, Yu Tsun, working for the Germans against the Allies during World War I and operating in England. Yu Tsun has no real allegiance to Germany but he serves as a spy because he wishes to demonstrate that a Chinese man served Germany in its war effort. However he knows he is being tracked by a British officer, Captain Richard Madden, who is hot on his trail, who several times in the story misses him by a whisker. Either instant death at Madden’s hands or arrest and execution as a spy is Yu Tsun’s certain fate. But Yu Tsun desires to complete his mission. He has unearthed the military secret he had come in search of, the secret location of ‘the new British artillery park on the river Ancre ’ which the Germans want to bomb. He needs to convey this coded information to Germany as early as possible and his time is short. Any moment Madden might appear.
The telephone directory holds the solution. In it he finds a way. This involves a quick train journey to a neighbouring hamlet. Alighting at the tiny village station of Ashgrove, he is guided towards the house of the man he is seeking. There is both chance and inevitability in this visit. Stephen Albert, the learned Sinologist, whose villa he is visiting, is a man he comes to respect, in his brief encounter with him but a man he must kill. Because of the name he bears – Albert. That is the name of the town with the arsenal which the Germans need to bomb. Only by killing the famous Sinologist, with the resultant prominent announcement of the murder of the Sinologist beside his own name, Yu Tsun, in all leading British newspapers, can the name ‘Albert’ be communicated to his bosses in Germany.
This he achieves brilliantly. But in the meeting with the scholar he also learns about the famous labyrinth built by one of his own ancestors, Ts’ui Pên, who had withdrawn from public life for thirteen years to do two things – to build a famous labyrinth and to write a strange novel. The novel was found to be so nonsensical – ‘-in the third chapter the hero is dead, in the fourth he is alive’- that his embarrassed descendents wish to destroy it. But it was allowed to survive on the insistence of the monk who translated it. The labyrinth was never found. It is Stephen Albert, the British Sinologist, who reveals to Yu Tsun that there was indeed no physical labyrinth, that the novel itself was the labyrinth and that it explored the central cognitive mystery of time. Borges, that imagineer-metaphysician par excellence, presents the reader with this fascinating discourse through the utterance of his character Stephen Albert, decoding Ts’ui Pên’s insight: ‘In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pên, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork…. The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete but not false, image of the universe…In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of time which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others both of us. In the present one… you have arrived at my house; in another, while crossing the garden, you found me dead; in still another, I utter these words, but I am a mistake, a ghost…..Time forks perpetually towards innumerable futures. In one of them I am your enemy…..’
Our linearly programmed mind happens to be travelling down this particular track of time. But all our other tracks, our other lives, are simultaneously present, if apparently de-activated for the moment and disconnected from our present consciousness.
Revering Stephen Albert as he does, Yu Tsun knows that in the present time-track he must kill him – and he does. The logic to it is a curved one with no commonsensical cause-effect linearity – that of conveying the name of a man named ‘Albert’ to Headquarters in Germany as part of a war operation, even if that man is a sage and the bringer of insight.
Yu Tsun achieves his purpose and, in a matter of minutes after shooting Stephen Albert dead, is caught and arrested by Madden, the British officer on his trail. He is sentenced to death and he faces his fate with equanimity, content in the knowledge that the present is just one out of his countless fates, that there are many variations of it in alternate cognitive universes, and that the many futures are always here.
It is a story that serves as a portal to a terrific conception, makes the mind push against conventional thought-dimensions and break into a sunburst of intuition. I can read it endlessly. And I do, every once in a while.
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