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The Garden of Forking Paths

The Garden of Forking Paths


by Jorge Luis Borges

The Garden of Forking Paths The Story Summary

  • Wow. Borges really knows how to cram an opening paragraph with information. Let's unpack this intro:
  • Paragraph one sounds like an excerpt from a history book. Someone (we presume a historian) is telling us that another historian, Captain Liddell Hart, wrote that a particular British offensive against the Germans in 1916 had to be postponed due to rain. Our anonymous historian disagrees with Captain Hart's explanation. "Au contraire!" you can imagine him saying in his snootiest academic voice. "Captain Hart's understanding of the circumstances leading to the delay of the offensive is quite unilluminated. Allow me to tell you what really happened."
  • The snooty historian proceeds to unveil his trump card – a primary source! (Historians get really excited about primary sources.) It's a deposition, or a form of oral testimony given by a witness to be used in a trial. In this case the deposition is dictated by a man named Dr. Yu Tsun, and the first two pages are missing.
  • See that little row of stars? That's our signal that we're jumping from the history textbook to the deposition. The rest of the story is the deposition, told from the point of view of Dr. Yu Tsun. Since the first two pages are "missing," we start in mid-sentence.
  • Dr. Tsun has just hung up the phone with Captain Richard Madden. That's not who he expected to answer the phone when he called his colleague Viktor Runeberg in his office. Madden in Runeberg's office means, apparently, that Runeberg has been arrested or murdered, and that the work he and Tsun have been engaged in is over. It also means Dr. Tsun needs to run for his life.
  • Oops, before we go on, we have to take a look at the footnote. The "manuscript editor" takes issue with Dr. Tsun's claim about the "murder" of Runeberg (if that's even his real name). Runeberg (a.k.a. Hans Rabener) was, from the editor's perspective, a dirty Prussian (basically, German) spy who attacked the virtuous and heroic Captain Madden. Madden returned fire in self defense.
  • We presume that the "manuscript editor" is the person who recorded Dr. Tsun's deposition, and he just couldn't let Tsun get away with making slanderous statements about a British war hero.
  • (But who wrote the words "Note by the manuscript editor"? Our snooty anonymous historian, perhaps? The person who transcribed the deposition? Or maybe another reader entirely? See our discussion of narrators in the section "Narrator Point of View" for more on this.)
  • Back to the deposition. Madden is, according to Tsun, an Irishman working for England in the war. This is complicated when you consider the troubled relationship between England and Ireland at the time. It stands to reason that he'd be eager to prove his loyalty to the British by capturing a couple German spies – which is what Runeberg and Tsun are, it turns out. (Is the picture starting to come together for you yet?)
  • Tsun goes up to his bedroom, locks his door, and thinks about how it'll probably be his last day on earth.
  • Tsun begins to wax philosophical. He reflects that everything that happens happens in the present, and happens to oneself. In other words, we can't escape our own subjectivity. (For more on this, check out our discussion of "Themes: Philosophical Viewpoints" in the story.)
  • In an aside, we learn that Tsun is dictating this deposition after having successfully outwitted Madden and completed his mission. That means he's telling his story out loud while some other dude writes it all down. Yu Tsun is now in prison, waiting to be executed.
  • The mental image of Madden's ugly mug interrupts Tsun's reverie.
  • Even though he's terrified, Tsun reassures himself that Madden doesn't know one key fact – that Tsun has successfully acquired some top-secret information. "The Secret," now in Tsun's possession, is the name of a new British artillery park. But how can he pass this info along to his superiors in Germany before Madden catches up with him?
  • The man Tsun needs to communicate with is his boss, "The Chief," a man he doesn't know personally but who searches the newspapers in Berlin daily for news of the spies working for him.
  • Tsun empties his pockets of their contents, which consist of a pocket watch with chain and coin fob, the keys to Runeberg's office, a notebook, a letter that he intends to destroy (but never does), some change, a couple of colored pencils, a handkerchief, and a revolver with a single bullet in it. Like Jason Bourne, he will use these tools to complete his mission. But how?
  • Tsun reflects that a gunshot can be heard for a great distance. We remain skeptical – can someone in Germany really hear a gunshot in London? Is this a clue or a red herring?
  • Ten minutes later, Tsun has a plan. He has found in the phone book the one person capable of passing on the information. This man lives half an hour away by train.
  • Tsun briefly jumps us forward to the present again (remember, he's dictating this deposition from death row) and lets us know that his risky plan has succeeded, even though its execution was terrible.
  • Before we learn what it is that Tsun did, he tells us why he did it. Or rather, why he didn't do it. He specifically says that he didn't do it for Germany – in his opinion a "barbarous" nation. He resents the Germans because they have "degraded" him by making him a spy. His job makes him feel kind of icky and ashamed – it's not the kind of career he can brag about to his friends back home.
  • Furthermore, he has nothing in particular against England. In fact, he knew an Englishman who, for him, was as great as the German writer and philosopher Goethe. (Pretty high praise, considering Goethe wrote Faust, one of greatest works of modern German literature.)
  • No, Tsun committed his grievous act (and whatever it was, it had to be bad enough to get him put on death row) in order to prove something to his boss, a man we know as "The Chief." Tsun wanted to show this guy that a man of "his race" (that is, Chinese) could be a hero.
  • Oh, and also, Tsun is motivated by his desire to run for his life. That Captain Madden is a scary dude.
  • But we digress. (Again. It's sort of Borges' "thing.") Where were we? Oh yes...
  • Tsun gets dressed and takes a cab to the train station. He catches the 8:50 train to Ashgrove, sneakily buying a ticket for a station further on in an attempt to throw Captain Madden off his trail.
  • As the train pulls out of the station, Tsun sees Captain Madden running down the platform. Whew – close call!
  • Tsun is relieved and starts to feel more optimistic – there's no stopping him now.
  • Tsun takes a moment to offer some comradely advice to any fellow "soldiers" or "bandits" out there: act as though you've already been successful in your "atrocious" deeds. Pretend as though the future were "as irrevocable as the past" (14).
  • The train stops. Tsun asks some children on the platform if this is Ashgrove. They say it is, and he gets off the train.
  • The children ask if Tsun is going to the home of Dr. Stephen Albert, and they tell him how to get there. How did they know where he was going? And why can't he see their faces? A little eerie, if you ask us.
  • The children say to take the road to the left, and to turn left at every crossroad – advice that reminds Tsun of the way to find the center of a labyrinth. (A labyrinth is a maze, or a complex structure of branching paths in which a person can easily get lost. Get out your highlighter because this idea is very important to the story.)
  • Tsun knows a thing or two about labyrinths because his great-grandfather was Ts'ui Pen, a governor in China who gave up his job to write a novel and construct a labyrinth. He worked on these two projects for thirteen years before he was assassinated. The product of his life's work? A novel that made no sense and a labyrinth that was never found.
  • As Tsun walks, he imagines the lost labyrinth of his ancestor taking different forms. In his mind it is infinite, extending across both space and time, into the past and the future.
  • Meditating, Tsun wanders down the forking paths, feeling cut off from the world. He forgets that he's being chased and feels no fatigue.
  • Tsun arrives at a high gate, behind which he can see a wide avenue and a summer house. He recognizes Chinese music coming from the building.
  • A man carrying a paper lantern comes to the gate and asks Tsun in Chinese if he'd like to see the garden of forking paths. The man assumes that Tsun is an envoy of one of the Chinese consuls.
  • Tsun responds that it's the garden of his ancestor, Ts'ui Pen.
  • The man leads Tsun down a zigzagging path like those of Tsun's childhood. They enter the house and go into a library filled with both Eastern and Western books.
  • Stephen Albert (the guy who opened the gate) watches Tsun as he takes in his surroundings. We learn that Albert used to be a missionary in China and later studied to be a Sinologist. (Sinology is the study of Chinese culture.)
  • Albert sits with his back to a clock. Tsun figures he has at least an hour before Richard Madden will arrive, and tells himself his "irrevocable decision" can wait (35).
  • Albert tells Tsun the story of how Ts'ui Pen gave up everything – his governorship, his pastimes, women, fame – and shut himself up in a pavilion to work on his book and labyrinth. When he died, all he had to show for his life was a "mess of manuscripts." "A strange destiny," Albert calls it (36).
  • Albert mentions that Ts'ui Pen's relatives wanted to burn the manuscripts, but that a Taoist monk insisted upon publishing them.
  • Here Tsun mentions that Ts'ui Pen's descendents still curse the memory of this monk, because the manuscripts make no sense. The hero dies in chapter three, and is alive again in chapter four. Tsun starts to talk smack about the labyrinth when Albert interrupts him.
  • Stephen Albert claims to have the labyrinth in his possession.
  • Tsun is incredulous. How can that be possible? Allow us to explain...
  • Albert explains that the labyrinth is symbolic. In actuality, the book and the labyrinth are the same thing.
  • Albert was able to solve this riddle upon finding a fragment of a letter written by Ts'ui Pen, which he turns to retrieve from his writing cabinet. The paper reads: "I leave to various future times, but not to all, my garden of forking paths" (42).
  • At first, Dr. Albert explains, he had thought about Ts'ui Pen's novel in the wrong way entirely. Trying to imagining an infinite book, he had pictured one that was circular, where the last page would be the same as the first. Then he thought it might be a hereditary work, in which succeeding generations would add their stories to the works of their ancestors.
  • These conjectures, Dr. Stephen Albert says, did not provide the correct interpretation of Ts'ui Pen's work. (Oh. So we guess that was another digression.)
  • Albert explains that the phrase "to various future times, but not to all," suggested to him the idea of bifurcating (branching) time instead of space. This, he says, proved to be the key to understanding Ts'ui Pen's novel.
  • It's like this: in all fiction, whenever a character has to make a decision, he chooses one alternative at the expense of all the others. Only one thing can happen.
  • Well, in Ts'ui Pen's novel, ALL of the possible alternatives happen. Which explains why the book seems so contradictory.
  • We interrupt Dr. Albert's lecture to bring you THE MOST PERFECT ANALOGY OF ALL TIME! Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure novels from the 1980s and 90s? (No? Great, now we feel old. Thanks a lot.) Well, take it from us geezers, they were AWESOME. You'd read a couple of pages, then you'd have to decide what the main character would do next. You'd be given a few options and had to choose one of them. Should he do X? Turn to page 63. Or maybe he should try Y? Turn to page 27. You get the idea. Needless to say, reading every page of the book from cover to cover would result in a narrative that didn't make a lot of sense. This, we imagine, is a lot like Ts'ui Pen's book. In fact, we wonder if the creators of Choose Your Own Adventure got their idea from this story. Hmm... makes you wonder what other brilliant inventions might come out of literature.
  • Dr. Albert offers us an example of how Ts'ui Pen's novel works. A man – let's call him "Fang" – has a secret. A stranger knocks at his door. Fang decides to kill him. A number of things can happen: Fang can kill the stranger; the stranger can kill Fang; both can die; both can survive. Ts'ui Pen takes each possible outcome as the point of departure for a new narrative. (See how closely this resembles a Choose Your Own Adventure novel? Maybe you could write your own… We'd be grateful to you for bringing the 90s back.)
  • Strange how Dr. Albert's example resembles his and Tsun's current situation, don't you think?
  • Okay, we think we've got a handle on how this thing works, so let's follow along as Albert reads a few pages of Ts'ui Pen's work aloud.
  • He reads two versions of the same chapter. In the first, an army marches into battle through a bleak landscape. They become so depressed that they hold their lives of little value, and so act riskily and win the battle easily. In the second version, the same army passes through a palace and witnesses a splendid feast on the way to battle. The magnificence of the feast inspires them to win.
  • Both versions end with the same line. Wait, wait, wait... hold up a minute. Didn't Albert just explain that the outcome of one event would lead to bifurcations in time – that is, different outcomes? But here we have different events leading to the same outcome. Time isn't bifurcating, it's converging! It's as though no matter what the characters do, their destiny is already laid out for them. To use Tsun's phrase from earlier, the future is as irrevocable as the past.
  • If you're a little confused, don't worry – you're not the only one. This story is full of ambiguity and apparent contradictions, giving us plenty of food for thought.
  • As Albert finishes reading, Tsun feels a little funny. He can't really explain it, but something "invisible and intangible" is "pullulating." It's hard to picture such an abstract concept – an invisible, intangible force that seems to be breeding, sprouting, or spreading? We're pretty confused, which is how Tsun must be feeling right about now.
  • Meanwhile, Albert is explaining that he doesn't think Ts'ui Pen's novel was a mere exercise in rhetoric. After all, novels were a despised genre in Ts'ui Pen's time, and the former governor had some self respect. He wouldn't throw everything away for the sake of mere literature! (Notice how we sound a little sarcastic right now? Yeah, that's because we think literature is awesome, and really important, and we have a feeling Borges felt the same way.)
  • Albert points out that Ts'ui Pen was a mystic as well as a philosopher. In other words, he probably regarded the work he was producing as containing some spiritual and philosophical truth.
  • Of all philosophical questions, none concerned Ts'ui Pen more than the matter of time, according to Albert. Yet oddly enough, the author never uses the word "time" in his novel. Why not?
  • Albert explains that this is because The Garden of Forking Paths (aha! the name of Ts'ui Pen's novel) is an enormous guessing game or riddle, to which the answer is "time." To eliminate the word completely from the work, Albert asserts, is the best way of drawing attention to it.
  • So The Garden of the Forking Paths is an illustration of time. Dr. Stephen Albert explains that Ts'ui Pen's image of time differs from that of Newton and Schopenhauer (two philosophers you should check out under "Allusions"), who saw time as absolute and uniform. For Ts'ui Pen, time is an infinite series of multiple times that both diverge AND converge. In other words, they both split away from each other and come together. Sometimes they also run parallel to one another. It's like a web, he explains.
  • It seems like not only has Stephen Albert accepted Ts'ui Pen's understanding of time, but so has Tsun. This isn't just some abstract philosophical treatise for them – it's the way things are.
  • Tsun thanks Dr. Albert, saying that in all possible times he is grateful to him for explaining the mystery of his ancestor's work.
  • Dr. Albert corrects Tsun, reminding him that it's not possible for Tsun to be grateful in all possible times. In some "futures," he says, he and Tsun are enemies.
  • Tsun experiences the weird pullulating sensation again. He feels as though the garden is full of invisible people, all of whom are himself and Dr. Albert in other dimensions of time. So now the story itself is reflecting Ts'ui Pen's philosophy. Whoa... this is crazy.
  • Tsun lifts his eyes and the weird feeling goes away. There's only one other figure in the garden now, and it's Captain Madden.
  • Tsun says to Dr. Albert, "The future exists now, but I am your friend." Hmm... it's like he's trying to tell him something...
  • Tsun asks Dr. Albert to see the letter again. When Albert turns away to get the letter out of the writing cabinet, Tsun shoots him.
  • Whaaaa?! Didn't he just say he was Dr. Albert's friend? He only had one bullet, so now he can't even shoot the uber-scary Captain Madden. What the heck is going on here?
  • (Okay, we know we sound a little upset, but actually we love it when Borges messes with the reader like this. It's so much fun!)
  • Borges only has one paragraph left to explain himself. Can he do it? Watch the work of a master.
  • "What remains is unreal and unimportant," Tsun begins as if to torture us (63). UNIMPORTANT? Please – his next words hold the key to making sense of the entire story.
  • Madden captures Tsun and Tsun is condemned to hang.
  • And yet... Tsun triumphs. The secret location of the enemy arsenal gets through to Berlin, and the city is bombed. But how?
  • Tsun reads the news of the bombing in the English newspapers, which are also trying to make sense of the murder of Sinologist Stephen Albert by one Yu Tsun.
  • The Chief, on the other hand, knows exactly why Yu Tsun killed Dr. Albert. He knows that Tsun's job was to somehow relay to Germany the name of the city of Albert, the location of the British arsenal, and that killing a man with that name would be the only way to do so.
  • No one can know, however, of Tsun's infinite "sickness of heart" at having done what he has done (63).

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