Etta Selim, Y13 pupil at Harris Westminster (London)
Teetering on the edge of reality
Anyone familiar with Borges’ writing will be aware of the prevalence of the uncanny in his work, the rather intangible experience of something familiar. It can be seen in Borges’ portrayal of the infinite and imprecise texture of time, his bizarre labyrinths, and the oneiric, nightmarish experience of individual moments of conflict. According to Freud, the uncanny arises ‘when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that until now we have considered imaginary’. Certainly, when I read my first Borges short story (‘El Encuentro’) a year ago, it was precisely this teetering on the edge of reality that captured my attention. As I was propelled through the story, gripped by the slowly retreating banality of the ‘asado’, I was quite unprepared for the story’s chilling conclusion; throughout the duel between the drunk Uriarte and Duncan, the daggers, not the men, had fought each other. I was captivated by this supernatural inversion of agent and instrument, the daggers using men as their weapons, but what most stood out to me was Borges’ style. More particularly, what captivated me was the curious veneer of uncertainty that lacquers his words. From his continuous qualification of ideas with adverbs such as ‘tal vez’, to narrators who – more often than not – are ignorant of the characters’ motives, this gap between reality and fantasy is made all the more ambiguous.
Borges and the uncanny
This pattern can be traced throughout many of Borges’ stories. For example, in ‘La muerte y la brújula’ the reader, just like Lönnrot, is tricked into believing that there must be a Borgesian twist to the narrative, an underlying layer of labyrinths, esoteric references, Jewish symbolism and geometrical patterns, yet the story ends up being one of revenge, an ironically common motif in detective stories. Similarly, in ‘El Sur’, the protagonist’s psychological trauma from his time in a sanatorium is eerily echoed as the narrative continues, supposedly away from the clinic. However, situating these instances of the uncanny in the so-called fantastic genre, defined by Chris Baldick as ‘a mode of fiction in which the possible and the impossible are confounded so as to leave the reader (and often the narrator and/or central character) with no consistent explanation for the story’s strange events’, is a lot more difficult. Sure, at first glance the typically Borgesian fluctuation between the physical and the metaphysical fits the description. However, Todorov, in his Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970), argues that fantastic narratives involve – crucially – an unresolved hesitation between the supernatural explanation available and the natural or psychological explanation offered. This more specific definition inevitably poses a series of questions about Borges’ literary corpus. Given Borges’ focus on the pitfalls of memory, can the supernatural reading of his stories be fully accepted? Furthermore, does the narrator – or the reader – definitively decide upon a material or a metaphysical explanation? Borges provides motives to believe either explanation throughout his stories, obfuscating any narrative certainty. Of course, a single article would not suffice to explore the complete resonance of these threads, but I hope that by tracing the uncanny in ‘El Encuentro’ and ‘El Sur’ it can at least outline the relevance and breadth of Borges’ relationship with the fantastic.
As we embark upon this task, it might be best to consider the idea of a dual narrative. In most of the Borges stories that I have encountered, he crafts a narrative in which the supernatural and the natural are woven together – our first hint of the fantastic. To start with ‘El Encuentro’, where the comradely ambience of an ‘asado’ is changed into a bitter duel between two men that ends in death, Borges provides rational motives for the duel between Uriarte and Duncan. The narrator initially assures us that their fight must be the result of an old rivalry, and that they have both drunk too much. Yet, despite the seemingly reasonable explanation, in various instances the narrator describes the uncanny feeling of powerlessness that overcomes him and everyone present. One of my favourite lines describes how ‘un remolino, que nadie era capaz de sujetar, nos arrastraba y nos perdía’ (a whirlwind, that no one was capable of holding down, was dragging us with it and causing us to be lost); at the end of the story, this foreign presence is reified, as the narrator decides that the daggers were the agents of the duel, not the men – ‘las armas, no las hombres, pelearon’.
This duality is furthered by the uncertainty of the narrative voice. The intradiegetic narrator is, by this very definition, limited, unable to present an aloof or unbiased account of the story. Yet, as is Borges’ customary style, the story’s retelling is plagued by heightened destabilisation. In the very first paragraph, Borges writes that ‘no es raro que ya nadie recuerde, o recuerde como en un sueño’ (it is not odd that now no one remembers, or remembers as if in a dream), undermining the narrator’s subsequent recollection of the events and tainting it with unreliability. Even the setting of the knife fight is, to a certain extent, imagined. The narrator asks the we, as readers, ‘pensemos en uno de esos pueblos del Norte’ (let’s imagine one of those towns in the North), with the jussive command ‘pensemos’ creating doubt as to the topography, thus furthering the uncertainty. Throughout the duel itself, the narrator is surprised that ‘pude seguirla, o casi seguirla, como si fuera un ajedrez’ (I could follow it, or nearly follow it, as if it were a game of chess). However, the immediate qualification ‘casi seguirla’, undercuts the logical efficiency and clarity of the chess simile. In fact, immediately following this phrase, Borges writes that ‘los años […] no habrán dejado de exaltar o de oscurecer lo que vi’ (the years won’t have stopped exalting or dimming what I saw), furthering this lack of reliability with a conscious recognition of memory’s malleability. The narrator excuses any possible misremembrances as the products of ‘las inevitables varaciones que traen el tiempo y la buena o la mala literatura’ (the inevitable variations that time and good or bad literature bring), and he tentatively suggests that there were ‘dos o tres botellas tiradas’ (two or three bottles thrown) on the ground, before wondering if this is merely a false memory, intimated by ‘el abuso del cinematógrafo’ (the abuse of the cinema, i.e. having seen too many films). Finally, Duncan’s dying words are ‘todo esto es como un sueño’ (all this is like a dream), rather recalling one of the opening lines of the story (‘recuerde como en un sueño’) in an ironic subversion. This brilliant series of qualifications creates a more prominent ambiguity between the two narratives. Which one is authoritative? This is certainly a notable feature of the fantastic.
Vacillating between the supernatural and the natural
Ultimately, however, to ascertain the presence – or not – of the fantastic, we must consider whether any of the parties involved (including the reader him/herself) make a decision that overrides their vacillation between the supernatural and the natural. According to Todorov ‘the fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty’ – it is evanescent. The story will either give us a naturalistic explanation or a supernatural one, at which point the fantastic dissolves into the fantastic-uncanny or the fantastic-marvellous. In fact, he argues, ‘the fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event’. In ‘El Encuentro’, this specific definition is vital to understanding the story’s place within the fantastic, since the narrator appears to make this decision. The story ends with the assertion that ‘las armas, no los hombres, pelearon’ (the weapons, not the men, fought), thus enacting ‘el fin de otra historia más antigua’ (the end of another, more ancient, story). The certainty of this sentence, especially given the preterite, indicative verbs, compared to the hypothetical subjunctives that have dominated the narrative thus far, suggests that the narrator has definitively decided in favour of the supernatural. Of course, this is immediately followed by the idea that the weapons ‘acaso se agitaron al despertar’ (might have shaken when they woke up), where the tentative adverb ‘acaso’ appears to undermine this certainty. However, the narrator uses this hypothesis to justify his own, empirical knowledge of the events – ‘por eso tembló el puño de Uriarte’ (that is why Uriarte’s fist trembled) – providing his own reasoning about the events to arrive at this complete embrace of the supernatural. Most importantly, the narrative ends with the solemn ‘las cosas duran más que la gente’ (things last more than people), and the surmise that perhaps the daggers ‘volverán a encontrarse’ (will meet again), which doubly compounds this notion that the narrator no longer hesitates between the material and the metaphysical, thus placing the story the the realm of the fantastic-uncanny.
A fitful cloud of ambiguity
Nonetheless, even if the story’s protagonist has surpassed the fantastic by Todorov’s standards, is it true that everyone involved in the story has made a decision? It is here that the reader’s own autonomy provides a significant challenge to the fantastic; yes, the narrator might have decided to accept a supernatural explanation of the events, but the reader is still left with a constant uncertainty and ambiguity that throws their personal choice into doubt, even as the narrator reaches his own realisation. The sheer weight of qualification and the continuous hints at faded memory, propagated by Borges’ consciously playful style, render the reader’s own emergence from this fitful cloud of ambiguity almost impossible. Given the narrator’s limited cognisance, as well as his own uncertainty about the events, how can the reader distinguish between the real and the fabricated, let alone the veracity of this supernatural conclusion? It would appear, then, that while the protagonist’s own conclusion diverges from a typical construal of the fantastic, the reader cannot escape the uncertainty of the narrative. Perhaps ‘El Encuentro’ is fantastic in nature, after all.
Borgesian alarm bells
This binary split between ‘real’ and ‘fantasy’ can also be seen in ‘El Sur’, where the story is – I would argue – more clearly fantastic in genre. To follow the ‘natural’ reading of this cuento, Juan Dahlmann is released from a protracted and excruciating treatment for septicaemia in hospital and resolves to visit his estancia in the South. Along the way, a bunch of farm hands decide to taunt him and he eventually becomes so riled at this behaviour that he decides to confront them. A mysterious ‘ecstatic’ gaucho in the corner of the almacén del campo throws him a knife, and he exits to the ‘llanura’ thinking: if he could have chosen or dreamed up his death, dying whilst defending his honour in a duel is the death he would have chosen. Borgesian alarm bells should start ringing at this pointed qualification, and this is not the only instance in which subtle inconsistencies distort the narrative, roughly from the point at which Dahlmann leaves the hospital. To mention a few: Dahlmann describes the sensation that he is travelling not just to the South but to the past and that he is entering a world of conjecture, as if he were two men at the same time. A conversation with the ticket inspector, which Dahlmann doesn’t understand or even try to hear, is utterly omitted, apparently because ‘el mecanismo de los hechos no le importaba’ (he didn’t care about the mechanism of events). Dahlmann appears to recognise the owner of the almacén, but confusedly realises that he must have mistaken him for an employee of the sanatorium. This unknown patrón then addresses Dahlmann by his name, beseeching him to ignore the muchachones and their insults. But how does he know his name if Dahlmann has never set foot in his almacén? It is an odd inconsistency that Dahlmann doesn’t even question. As the gaucho throws him a knife, Dahlmann laments the situation – they would never have allowed this to happen in the sanatorium, he thinks. All of these events allow Borges to hint at another ending, another explanation: perhaps Dahlmann never left the hospital and dreaming his own death is his only way to escape from the torment of the sanatorium. The fantastic once again makes its mark.
The apparent genius of Borges
It is here that the genius of Borges is apparent. As we can see in both stories, the initially natural mode of the story descends into an ambiguity characteristic of the fantastic: the introduction of the supernatural into the story is never strong enough to override the events of the story completely, but it still poses a strong current of discord in the narrative. Yet, where the narrator in ‘El Encuentro’ continuously struggles with this binary split between the natural and the supernatural, in ‘El Sur’ even an awareness of this split, or a possible conflict between truth and dream, is at first glance utterly removed. One of my favourite symbols throughout this story is the ‘enorme gato que se dejaba acariciar por la gente, como una divinidad desdeñosa’ (huge cat that let itself be stroked by people, like a disdainful deity). Dahlmann encounters this cat while in a café near the train station as he waits for his train to arrive and it prompts him to start thinking: ‘pensó, mientras alisaba el negro pelaje, que aquel contacto era ilusorio y que estaban como separados por un cristal, porque el hombre vive en el tiempo, en la sucesión, y el mágico animal, en la actualidad, en la eternidad del instante’ (he thought, while he was stroking the black fur, that that contact was illusory and that they were as if separated by a window pane, since man lives in time, in the succession of events, and the magical animal, in the moment, in the eternity of the instant). Every time I read this, I start thinking about Schrödinger’s cat, a connection that, whether Borges was aware of this resonance or not, exemplifies this story’s ambiguity between states. While Schrödinger’s cat is in the box with the radioactive substance that might kill it, it hovers between life and death and is, in a sense, both alive and dead. It is only when one opens the box that it assumes either form. In ‘El Sur’, it is Dahlmann who is shut into a similar box: the closed system of Borges’ literary world. He does not seem to be aware that there is an underlying choice between the supernatural and the natural, but enacts events with continuous qualification that inevitably continues the binary thread of these two different plots. This would appear to situate the story more firmly within the realm of the fantastic.
Arguably, however, Dahlmann does make a decision – he decides to completely embrace the natural explanation. Similarly to ‘El Encuentro’, the final sentence culminates with an acceptance of this chosen narrative: ‘empuña con firmeza el cuchillo, que acaso no sabrá manejar, y sale a la llanura’ (he firmly grips the knife, that perhaps he will not know how to handle and walks out into the pampas). Although Dahlmann is limited to the bounds of his narrative, and does not – as in ‘El Encuentro’ – question the significance of the events that he experiences, the sudden, vivid present tense of this phrase, in contrast to the determined past tense of the entire story, appears to enact an acceptance of the natural account, as Dahlmann wholly absorbs his fate and squares up to his possible (likely) death. Yet once again, the reader will become aware of these adjacent paths, these parallel narratives, if they read the story again, which seasoned readers of Borges’ stories know always pays off. The destabilising narrative of an imagined death, an imagined liberty, become all the more intoxicating and all the more ambiguous by virtue of the series of hints and teasers that Borges leaves. As in ‘El Encuentro’, then, the reader is left with the full weight of the fantastic – a fresh ambiguity, that leaves them teetering on the edge of the supernatural.
Crucial ambiguity and narrative ingenuity
As we have seen, Borges’ conscious moulding of memory and truth, as well as the story’s intradiegetic limits, situate both ‘El Encuentro’ and ‘El Sur’ firmly within the realm of the fantastic, as the supernatural and natural blend almost indistinguishably. At first glance, in both cases, the protagonists appear to accept one of the forking paths of the narrative (the supernatural and the natural, respectively), leaving the story within the realm of the uncanny. Yet the reader’s own entrapment in the story’s ambiguity poses a challenge to such a decision. It would be perfectly possible for them to make a decision either way, to accept wholeheartedly that the duel in ‘El Encuentro’ was the product of a supernatural dagger rivalry, or that Dahlmann never really left the sanatorium. However, to refer to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’ to describe a reader’s ‘voluntary withholding of scepticism […] with regard to incredible characters and events’, the reader can still accept this story’s basis in uncertainty without having to decide either way – they can enjoy the narrative on its own terms. Perhaps, then, the fantastic is what has made Borges’ stories such paragons of narrative ingenuity. As tempting as it might be to assume one plot arc, the fantastic in Borges allows us to grapple with our own subjectivity as humans, to sway dizzyingly on the edge of reality; if we can understand that this ambiguity should be left precisely as such, then we can engage in a more fruitful experience of Borges’ stories and the world that surrounds us.
- Freud, Sigmund, The Uncanny, trans. by David McLintock (London: Penguin Classics, 2003)
- Todorov, Tzvetan, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, by Richard Howard(New York: Cornell UP, 1975)
- Baldick, Chris, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (Oxford University Press, 2008) <https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199208272.001.0001/acref-9780199208272-e-448> [Accessed 3/11/2019]
- OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019 <com/view/Entry/195164> [Accessed: 3/11/2019]