George Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths
The Garden of Forking Paths by the postmodern Spanish novelist George Luis Borges is a short story originally published in 1941 as part of a collection of short stories with the same title. Originally published in Spanish, its first translation came out in 1951 in French and it was this first translation that paved the way for George Luis Borges to be recognized as a reputable writer in Europe.
The Garden of Forking Paths is a detective/mystery short story set in Staffordshire during wartime with Germany. The main protagonist of the story, Dr. Yu Tsun is a spy for Germany on a mission to relay information about a British artillery’s location in the city of Albert. However complications arise when the mission is compromised, his partner Runeberg killed, and an Irish officer named Richard Madden is sent upon his trail to arrest him. This leads Yu Tsun into devising a desperate plan that eventually leads to a fateful encounter with Dr. Stephen Albert, a scholar in Chinese culture coincidentally working on a text written by Yu Tsun’s direct ancestor Tsui Pen’s “The Garden of ForkingPaths”. This encounter eventually leads to an understanding of the ancestor’s cryptic texts about a never-ending labyrinth, Dr. Albert’s untimely demise and Yu Tsun’s arrest.
Partly fiction and partly an essay on the concept of time as a series of infinite forks (thus creating a labyrinth), The Garden of Forking Paths as a story is a labyrinth in itself. This mimicry is evident in the manner in which the story unfolds. From the shifting point of views (the story starts in third-person then shifts to first-person) to the way Yu Tsun details his actions and thoughts. The story, like Tsui Pen’s theory that time exists as a number of infinite forks, details through Yu Tsun’s thoughts the infinite forks of Yu Tsun’s personality. The text introduces the reader into the labyrinth that is Yu Tsun: one path as English professor, one path as Assassin, another path “abstract perceiver of the world,” another as German spy, another as hero, and in another as villain.
Yu Tsun narrates the execution of his plan in such a way that it leaves the reader to guess his real motives. Is he escaping? Is he meeting up with a person capable of directly contacting the chief? Is he challenging Madden? Did he know from the start that Dr. Albert was a Sinologist? Can he successfully execute his plan? Has Richard Madden figured out his plan? The answers to these questions when they are revealed can be surprising. What first seems to be a plan to avoid arrest turns out to be a plan to complete his mission. The “planned” rendezvous with Dr. Albert is actually random and that Albert is a Sinologist a mere cosmic coincidence. Yu Tsun wasn’t challenging Madden but was in fact challenging the Chief by proving that the Chief underestimated “yellow men.” And lastly, his arrest was part of his victory in completing the mission and Madden hadn’t really read through his plans.
In the end, was Yu Tsun’s final act cruel? In Yu Tsun’s forking perspective, both yes and no. “No” since at the conception of his plan, the means of his message was someone picked at random. A complete stranger. Given the circumstances of the time, getting into the news was his best “voice” at getting his information heard having that he has no other means of contacting the Chief. A mission is a mission and casualties cannot be avoided in a time of war. However, later on in the story, the answer becomes “yes” since he was fated to meet a brilliantly learned man that would provide answers to the mysteries left by his ancestor Tsui Pen. The act becomes subjectively cruel since it involves burying the brilliance of Tsui Pen’s work and the glory of Yu Tsun’s ancestry together with the death of Dr. Albert, the only person to navigate through and solve the mysteries of The Garden of Forking Paths.
Borges, G.L. (1963). The garden of forking paths. Ficciones. Grove Press.