Posted by: gdevi | April 21, 2011

The Garden of Forking Paths Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is perhaps the only non-novelist that has influenced a generation of novelists in any language. Borges never wrote a novel and worked primarily in a genre that he called “ficciones” (fiction — literally what is fabricated or made or imagined or constructed or molded–it has no obligation to represent “reality”), an erudite and elegant genre fit for a polymath of encyclopedic knowledge about textuality and textual history.  Borges was  born in Argentina to a wealthy and distinguished family, and the family lived in a large house whose sprawling gardens and grounds and enormous library were to leave a lasting influence on the young Borges’s intellectual interests. Borges was an original bibliophile and in some ways all his stories are really about books, linguistic inventions and intricacies, and writing. Fittingly enough, Borges became a librarian at the Argentine National library upon his return from Europe, a post from which he was fired by the dictator Juan Peron due to Borges’s outspoken political dismissal of Peron and his regime; Peron demoted him to the job of a chicken inspector. (Borges was later reinstated as the Director of the Argentine National Library in 1955 upon Peron’s overthrow.)

Borges’s first collection was a slim volume of short narrative pieces entitled Universal History of Infamy (1935),  a fictionalized account of the lives of real criminals. Without any particular reason or rhyme, Borges alters the entire histories of these criminals with exquisite textual complications that makes these stories unusual and something for which we would not even think of asking for historical veracity, even though we are told these are all based on real people. The term “magical realism,” which is now almost cliched in its application to South American fiction was first used to describe Borges’s strange collection of stories, or were they not stories? No one could decide. It was clearly something new, something that straddled the world of narrative textuality, history, and the textuality of history. These stories prefigure Borges’s mature metaphysical fiction, dense and elegant textual experiments with almost a corporeal textual alternative suggested to our automatic search for “reality,” which is what most of us who read fiction are accustomed to do.  Borges has no special use for “reality” as we commonly understand the term, and so his “fictions” are devoid of plot, character, conflict etc as we conventionally understand these narrative elements; instead his fictions are elaborate inter-textual explorations, often circling around a central philosophical/ intellectual/ conceptual idea. But the point of the philosophical idea is not to sell it either; Borges is only interested in its linguistic invention and construction. Real fiction is really fictitious.  As with other writers and thinkers who have grappled with the nature of language and linguistic systems, we find in Borges certain fantastical formulations regarding the nature of “reality” and its relation to representation. Here is an old Chinese puzzle that will shed light on Borges, for instance:

“I dreamed I was a butterfly.

I woke. Or is it simply that

weary of the sky some butterfly

is sleeping and dreams that it is I?”

The upshot? That approaching Borges to find plot, character, themes, meaning, confirmation of your beliefs etc would only end in difficulty and disappointment.

The Garden of Forking Paths (El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan, 1941, 1948-English translation) is both the name of a collection of stories, as well as the title of one of the stories. What follows is an annotation of each paragraph of the narrative; keep these questions and points in mind as you work with the narrative:

¶.1- Liddell Hart’s History of World War I is a real history book. Why open the story with allusions to this book? What does the foiling of the Allied attack on Germany have to do with the rest of the story? If it is “insignificant” as the narrator says, why bring it up? Who is the narrator here?

¶. 2 – Who is Dr. Yu Tsun? What is his nationality? Job? Where is he now? What is he doing in this story?

¶.3 – Who is the narrator in this paragraph? Why does it begin with the ellipsis? How are Yu Tsun, Richard Madden, and Viktor Runeberg connected to each other? You will see that Tsun is a Chinese man working for Germany. Richard Madden is an Irish man working for England. What do these two men have in common? Why does Madden want to kill Tsun? What is the “Secret” that Tsun has that Madden wants? What does the Telephone book give Tsun? Why is that the solution to his problem? What is his immediate problem as far as Madden is concerned?

¶. 4 – How do you understand Tsun’s comments here: “I didn’t do it for Germany . . . . I sensed that the Chief somehow feared people of my race–for the innumerable ancestors who merge within me. I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies” (p. 1020)

Who does Tsun see at the station?  Where is he going?  How does Borges advance the “plot”?

¶.5. “I foresee that man will resign himself each day to more atrocious undertakings; soon there will be no one but warriors and brigands; I give them this counsel: The author of an atrocious undertaking ought to imagine that he has already accomplished it, ought to impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.” How do you understand Tsun’s statement? What ideas about Time do you find in the conversation between Albert and Tsun?  How does their discussion about Time affect our ideas about narratives and literary treatment of Time?

¶. 6 – Why the crossroads? Why take left and take left?

¶.7 – Tsun informs us that he is the grandson of Tsui Pen who wanted to write the biggest novel as well as design and build the most complex labyrinth.  What is a labyrinth? What is the significance of this information for Tsun’s narrative? What is its significance for Borges’s story?

In this paragraph, how does Borges suggest the state change in the narrator from one mode of being into another?

Where does the narrator find himself at the end of these perambulations in thought and body?

¶. 8 onwards – (pp. 1022-1023) – Who is Stephen Albert? Who is a Sinologist? Albert invites Tsun inside to see “the garden of forking paths.” Does Tsun see the garden? If not, what does he see in its place?  How does Albert explain the “contradictory chapters of Tsui Pen”?

p. 1024 – What does Albert tell Tsun about his ancestor’s novel and the labyrinth?

p. 1025 – How dis Tsui Pen conceptualize Time in his novel? What is the connection between the novel and the labyrinth?

p. 1025 – Why does Tsun kill Albert?  What is the connection between Albert’s death and Tsui Pen’s novel and the labyrinth?

What is “the garden of forking paths”?


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