Jorge Luis Borges' Ficciones as the Detective Fiction Genre

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Jorge Luis Borges published Ficciones in 1944. This collection of short stories, which primarily belong to the detective fiction genre, cemented Borges as one of the ‘ greatest writers to have emerged from Latin America’. Each story in this collection greatly reflects on ellipsis, absence and the unsaid , terms which are synonymous with the short story genre. This essay will examine these characteristics with reference to ‘La forma de la espada’ and ‘La muerte y la brújula’. It will outline the presence of clues in these short stories, the existence of a second story and the inevitable effect of surprise that is produced. This will be in reference to Ricardo Piglias, ‘ Thesis on the short story’. The role of the narrator and therefore the narrative structure will also be discussed as well as the detective fiction genre. All of these aspects have an impact on the responsibility of the reader to fill in narrative gaps in Borges’ short stories and to act as a detective themselves.

The unsaid is a key aspect of ‘La forma de la espada’, which Borges refers to as a ‘trick story’. ‘Borges’, acting as the framing fictional narrator, leaves an abundance of clues for the reader throughout the story. For example, the first clue, and perhaps the most obvious, is that ‘el Inglés’ has ‘una cicatriz rencorosa’ (p.73.) resembling a half moon, which he suffered in The Irish War of Independence. This immediately establishes a connection between ‘el Inglés’ and John Vincent Moon due to the symbolism of the moon. This leads onto the second clue: ‘el Inglés’ is actually Irish. It can be said that this already casts the true identity of ‘el Inglés’ into doubt as he has hidden behind this alias for many years. The more attentive reader may also notice that Moon is from the same part of Ireland as ‘el Inglés’. ‘Borges’ hints at the significance of this clue by saying: ‘como si hubiera revelado un secreto’ (p.74.) However, to a reader who is unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Borgesian short story, this clue may be overlooked. Furthermore, in ‘La muerte y la brújula’, apart from the clues left for the detective, Erik Lönnrot, there are also a number of clues that are aimed at the reader. A key clue is in the nomenclature of the protagonists, Red Scharlach and Lönnrot. ‘Scharlach’ translates as ‘red’ in German, meaning that the character’s name is ‘Red Red’. Furthermore, the last part of the detective’s name, ‘rot’ also translates to ‘red’. The reader may see the symbolism of the colour red as foreshadowing the violence that will ensue. In addition, whilst Lönnrot chooses to investigate the significance of the number three, the repeated symbolism of the number four is left for the reader to explore. For example, the first three murders take place on 3rd of December, 3rd of January and the 3rd of February. In addition, we are told that the first victim, Doctor Marcelo Yarmolinsky, was planning to attend ‘al Tercer Congreso Talmúdico’ (p.82.) The first mention of the number four is in the second paragraph, where the reader is told that Yarmolinsky’s room is opposite that of ‘el Tetrarca de Galilea’ (p.83). This is significant as ‘tetrarca’ means ‘ruler of one of four divisions’. In addition, Lönnrot finds ‘una monografía (en alemán) sobre el Tetragrámaton’ (p.83.) among Yarmolinsky’s possessions. Whilst Lönnrot investigates the crimes with the number three in mind , the reader is able to use their knowledge of the number four to predict that there will in fact be a fourth murder , although it may be a stretch to say that this allows the reader to foresee that Lönnrot is the fourth victim.

The Borgesian short story greatly reflects the thesis put forward by Ricardo Piglia, on the key aspects of this genre. In Piglia’s first thesis, he notes that, ‘a short story always tells two stories’. This is particularly true of ‘La forma de la espada’ as the clues that are left for the reader are thoughtfully concealed in the superfluous story. For example, the reader is told ‘os llegó un afiliado de Munster: un tal John Vincent Moon.’(p.74.) The fact that Moon is from Munster may be seen as irrelevant and simply a way of adding context, however Borges has mentioned this on purpose. This is evidence of the presence of a first and second story as this piece of information seems unimportant in the surface story, however, it is key to the second story which unfolds simultaneously. It is the readers responsibility to recognise it and even to go so far as to research this ‘context’ to discover its greater meaning. Similarly, in ‘La muerte y la brújula’ the shopkeepers’ book seems to only be of significance with regards to the murder of Yarmolinsky. However, as Piglia highlights ‘what is superfluous in one story is fundamental in the other’. It later becomes clear to the reader that the book is crucial to the entire investigation, and ultimately the murder of Lönnrot. Borges cleverly embeds the book into the surface story ‘in order to dissimulate that function’. Due to this, it is the reader’s responsibility to be vigilant and fill in the narrative gaps based on the carefully selected and placed information.

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Even if the reader has managed to untangle story one from story two, it is still a great shock when ‘the secret story appears on the surface’. The final discovery, whatever it lends itself to be, usually occurs right at the end of the short story when the complexity and intensity of the plot reaches a climax. Borges himself notes that ‘the final Discovery that two characters in the same plot are the same person may be appealing’. ‘La forma de la espada’ is a key example of this as the clues build up to the revelation of the truth that ‘el Inglés’ is actually the cowardly soldier, Moon. The last line in the short story reads ‘ yo soy Vincent Moon. Ahora desprécieme’ (p.77.). This short, compact statement is impactful for the reader and causes them to call into question everything they have just read. The reader is left wanting further explanation for this revelation. However, Borges, in typical short story fashion, denies them of this luxury. Borges’ use of ellipsis as a principal narrative technique in his work encourages a re-reading of his short stories, as the reader is desperate to find an explanation for the dramatic discovery. Similarly , the last line in ‘La muerte y La brújula’ is ‘Después, muy cuidadosamente, hizo fuego.’(p.93.) Once again, Borges’ short story ends abruptly with a few words changing the readers perception of the whole story. Although it is not said explicitly, the reader can infer that Lönnrot has been killed by Scharlach. As in ‘La forma de la espada’, the reader is left anticipating more, however they are now forced to re-examine the story to find the clues that they may have neglected to detect during the first sitting. Furthermore, Donald McGrady notes that the reader ‘is condemned to being surprised by the author’ unless they are familiar with the characteristics of the short story. However, with regards to these short stories, even the most diligent reader is a victim of the element of surprise due to Borges’ ability to ‘encode story two in the interstices of story one’.

Another crucial characteristic of the short story genre is that the role of the reader is determined by the role of the narrator. In both of these stories, the reader’s ‘mind creates, or finds created, clues, patterns, maps, labyrinths, and schemes which entrap while pretending to explain’ due to the style of narration employed by Borges. In ‘La forma de la espada’ the narrator changes a number of times. Firstly, ‘Borges’ acts as the narrative persona, who meets the protagonist , ‘el Inglés’. However, the reader does not discover this until towards the end of the story when ‘ el Inglés’ addresses him directly ‘ Borges: a usted que es un desconocido, le he hecho esta confesión’(P.77). The narrator switches to ‘el Inglés’ as he recounts the tale of how he got the crescent shaped scar on his face. Lastly, when the true identity of ‘el Inglés’ is revealed as John Vincent Moon the reader realises that the narrator has been Moon all along, telling his own story in the third person under a pseudonym. Donald McGrady cites the work of Gerard Genette in which he discusses the presence of ‘narrative transgressions’. Genette warns that a shift in the narrator severs the presumed contract between the reader and the author and refers to ‘La forma de la espada’ as a ‘spectacular example’ of this. The absence of a reliable narrator means that the reader is forced to fill in the gaps left by the narrator. This is also true of ‘La muerte y la brújula’, where the narrator goes a step further and leaves deceitful clues that are intended to mislead the reader. For example, at the beginning of the story, the reader is told that ‘Lönnrot no logró impedir el último crimen’(p.82.). This statement is a key example of information left by the narrator which ‘pretends to explain’ as it implies that the crime that Lönnrot was not able to prevent is the murder of another unknown person, not Lönnrot himself. The way in which Borges misleads the reader is a good example of how the ‘authors primary purposes is to assert their superiority over the reader’. This can also be likened to the misleading clues that are present in the surface story. For example, when Scharlach lures Lönnrot to his fate by giving him a map and playing on Lönnrot’s tendencies to look at the non-logical clues.

The fact that these stories don’t have a reliable narrator, means that it is the readers themselves that are cast into the role of the detective. ‘La forma de la espada’, which Yates refers to as ‘an anecdote with a completely unexpected twist’ follows the conventions of a detective story as it builds in suspense and ends with a big reveal. However, it is in ‘La muerte y la brújula’ where the characteristics of the detective genre truly come to life, whilst being adapted by Borges. For example, the plot of a typical detective tale follows the detective investigating clues and eventually solving the crime with the capture of the criminal. However, in this short story, the reader also has clues to follow and it is Lönnrot, the detective, that ends up being caught by the criminal, Scharlach. The elliptical ending to the story greatly contrasts that of a conventional detective story as the crime is not solved. This transformation of the detective genre means that the role of the reader is also transformed and in recognising the quirks of a Borgesian detective story, ‘ the attentive reader will derive his satisfaction as amateur detective’.

The structure of Borges’ labyrinthine short stories also contributes to the enhanced role of the reader. As noted by H.E. Lewald ‘The symbolism inherent in the labyrinth …exemplifies a lack of order or apparent purpose.’ It is, therefore, the reader's duty to find the purpose within the short story. Piglia also comments on how the short story is ‘narrated in an elliptical and fragmentary manner’. In ‘La forma de la espada’, the surface story is primarily narrated by ‘el Inglés’ chronologically and in a linear fashion. This can be misleading to the reader as it persuades them of the authenticity of the story and their belief in its credibility makes the effect of surprise even greater. In contrast, the second story is composed of fragmented clues which are introduced at intermittent points within the short story. This contrast in linearity emphasises the necessity of the reader to carefully select information from both stories to form their own narrative. ‘La muerte y la brújula’ is also narrated chronologically, however it becomes fragmented due to one phrase , which only differs by one word each time: ‘la primera letra del nombre ha sido articulada’(p.84.), ‘la segunda letra del nombre ha sido articulada’(p.85.), ‘la última letra del nombre ha sido articulada’(p.86.). This phrase, left by the murderer for Lönnrot, causes a break in the linearity of the plot and fragments the plot into sections. Aside from the meaning of the phrase, the placement of it causes a physical separation in the text. The phrase is introduced by a colon and acts as an almost subheading to the next paragraph. The first break in the narrative introduces a period of intense study for Lönnrot, as he endeavours to discover the significance of Judaism in relation to the motive for the murder of Yarmolinsky. Immediately after the second use of the phrase, the reader is transported a month later along the timeline of the murders to the 3rd of February and is informed of the details of the third murder. Lastly, the third use of the phrase leads the reader into a false sense of security as it implies that there are to be no more murders. This sends Lönnrot back into a stage of in-depth inquiry, one which is not thorough enough to reveal to him that the fourth murder victim will in fact, be him.

In conclusion, ellipsis, absence and the unsaid are fundamental aspects of the Borgesian short story. In both ‘La forma de la espada’ and ‘La muerte y la brújula’ ‘A visible story hides a secret tale’ and
Borges presents the reader with clues that allow them to fill in the narrative gaps and to therefore construct the ‘secret tale’. Narrative gaps in the ‘visible story’ are caused by the absence of a reliable narrator, who ‘the reader trusts…at his or her peril’. The way in which Borges remodels the characteristics of the detective genre puts further onus onto the reader to play an active role in the reading of these stories as they also become a detective. Furthermore, the disjointed way in which the stories are told and the use of ellipsis, build up to the final discovery which intends to shock the reader. The final consequence of this is that the reader is obliged to read the story for a second time, with the hope that the hidden clues will come to light in order to bring a degree of closure.

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