Book: Ficciones, “The Garden of Forking Paths”
Author: Jorge Luis Borges
Translators: Helen Temple and Ruthven Todd
Summary: Yu Tsun is being hunted down by Captain Richard Madden. He knows the name of a city that is to be bombed and must communicate this to the Chief, without getting caught. This leads him to visit Dr. Stephen Albert, who gives him information on a book by his ancestor, Ts’ui Pên, which (*dramatic music*) changes everything!
“‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ is a detective story; it’s readers will assist at the execution, and all the preliminaries, of a crime, a crime whose purpose will not be unknown to them, but which they will not understand-it seems to me-until the last paragraph.”
-Jorge Luis Borges
The way I read it, “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a story about the nature of time, sneakily told through the story of a man on the run. Our narrator’s name, Yu Tsun, is only mentioned twice, and the first time I read the story I didn’t even realize it was him they were talking about. Some may argue this is clumsy writing but I see a very conscious decision. The lack of obvious name combined with first-person narration, allows the reader to very easily slip into the role of narrator. We are active participants in the story, and we may shock ourselves by the end of it.
Do you spend much time thinking about time? I know I do. I have long had a passionate love affair with the concept of time, and this story is absolutely saturated in it. I will not write much about Ts’ui Pên’s book. It is at the heart of the story and really Borges tells it much better than I do. The one thing I will say is that this book within a book is more than it seems, it is a reflection of the story itself, and a beautiful examination of the idea of infinite, non-linear, time. Like the idea of a multiverse, the story poses the idea of endless parallel dimensions of time overlapping, each where we are different, making different choices, lives forking off in different directions.
The first time I read this story I was a bit confused, to be honest. After another read I found myself falling in love with it, and it seems that with each reread I find something new. I tend to go for things that are character driven. I love a good detailed character background. “The Garden of Forking Paths” is really nothing like that. Sure, we learn a little bit about our characters, well, only about Yu Tsun and Dr. Albert to be honest, but for the most part it’s just a name here and there. If this were a novel, that would bother me. It’s not. It’s a delicious, 13 page, slice of mysterious magical realism. I would say that it is mystery driven. You keep reading because you, like Yu Tsun, are desperate to understand the garden of forking paths, and until you do you, can not truly understand the story’s end.
It is a entrancing piece, the visual nature of the writing really sweeps you away, and I encourage you to read it. If you do, perhaps ask yourself these questions:
Is the beginning really the beginning? How does time truly flow in the garden of forking paths?