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First things first: let's set the stage. It's March 14, 1939. We're in an apartment on the Zeltnergasse, one of the main streets in Prague. Our protagonist, a Jewish author named Jaromir Hladik, is asleep and dreaming.
In his dream, Jaromir participates in an epic game of chess being played by two families. This game has been going on for centuries, and no one can remember what the prize is, but it's supposedly really huge – maybe even infinite.
Do you ever have one of those super stressful dreams where there's something you're supposed to be doing, but you keep running into obstacles? Well, that's the kind of dream Jaromir is having.
He has an important part to play in this chess game, but the chess board is in a secret tower somewhere; it's already time for the game to start, and he's running across a desert in the rain while trying to remember the rules. We're getting anxious just thinking about it.
That's when Jaromir wakes up, and the noise of the rain and the clocks from his dream goes away.
Unfortunately, that noise is replaced by the sound of something much, much worse: a "rhythmic and unanimous sound, punctuated by the barking of orders" (1). We have a really bad feeling about this...
Remember, it's 1939. And we're in Czechoslovakia. What could that noise be?
That's right. The "vanguard of the Third Reich" (a.k.a. the Nazi army) is marching into town. Quick history break: Borges is referring here to the Nazi invasion of Prague. We're right at the outbreak of World War II, and things aren't looking good for then-Czechoslovakia (bonus points if you know what Czechoslovakia is now!).
Five days later, Jaromir Hladik is arrested and taken to jail. The Gestapo charges him with being Jewish and writing about Jewish subjects. Back in the day, that was considered a crime.
Oh, and they also book him for supporting a protest against the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria that happened the year before, in 1938.
Jaromir can't deny any of these charges – they're all true.
To make matters worse for our guy, in 1928 he had translated a piece for a publishing house, and he got a lot of hype for it. In 1928 that might have been kind of flattering, but under Nazi rule this awesome reputation is not good for Jaromir's health.
The guy in charge of Jaromir's fate, Captain Julius Rothe, has read the catalog. And he's decided to make an example of Jaromir by putting him to death.
Jaromir's execution is set for 9 am on March 29. Why the delay? The narrator chalks it up to the Nazi administration's desire to work deliberately (like vegetables, or planets, the narrator tells us). It's like they're saying, "Hey, Mr. Hladik, don't take it personally that we want you dead. It's just part of the process."
Death is scary, but more than anything, Jaromir is scared of the way he's going to die – by firing squad. He imagines the event over and over and over again, so that, "Long before the day that Julius Rothe had set, Hladik died hundreds of deaths" (3). The anticipation is torture for him. And for us.
Suddenly, Jaromir has a twisted idea. He thinks that, because events in real life rarely seem to go the way we imagined they would, he could prevent something from happening by imagining a particular detail about it. See his logic? It's kind of fuzzy, but we'll go with it.
And so he starts making his imaginary executions intentionally horrific, in order to prevent them from happening.
This technique doesn't really help him very much. Instead he starts to fear that his horrible fantasies might be prophetic, that he might just be predicting the future.
Next up, Jaromir plays other psychic games to help calm his anxiety (he's only increasing ours, by the way).
One strategy: he tries to stop time from rushing forward by telling himself that, as long as his execution date is in the future, he's "invulnerable, immortal" (3). Hmm.
At the same time, he yearns for the shots that will put an end to his torturous thoughts. He just wants it over with already, basically.
On the 28th, the night before his execution is to take place, he finally thinks about something else: his unfinished play, The Enemies.
Jaromir is over 40, and most of his life at this point has been devoted to the pursuit of literature. He would have been a big fan of Shmoop, we're pretty sure.
"Like every writer," the narrator tells us, Jaromir judges other people by what they've already written, but expects others to judge him by what he plans someday to do (4). Touché.
Jaromir is pretty critical of everything he's published up to this point. He's not exactly proud of it, but he considers A Vindication of Eternity to be his "least unsatisfactory" work (4). Ah, the best of the worst.
A Vindication of Eternity is a book (in two volumes) that deals with the nature of time. The first volume tells the history of different ideas about eternity: what does "forever" really mean? The second volume makes the argument that human experience repeats itself, and that "time is a fallacy" (4): everything is circular. This is all pretty deep stuff, right?
Unfortunately, Jaromir is not convinced by this thesis: he continually debates himself and pokes holes in his own argument.
He's also written a series of expressionist poems, which have been far more successful than he expected them to be. Again with the self-deprecation: Jaromir is really hard on himself.
The one thing that Jaromir has some hope for is that play he's working on: The Enemies. It's written in verse (i.e. poetry), which, by the way, Jaromir thinks is an awesome format because it "does not allow the spectators to forget unreality" (4). In other words, when you're watching a play in verse, you always remember you're watching a play. After all, nobody really talks in iambic pentameter all the time.
The next line is pretty intellectual: "This play observed the unities of time, place, and action," the narrator tells us (5). He's probably referring to the rules set out by Aristotle in his Poetics, which said that books shouldn't be so all-over-the-place that they're not unified in their plot. But don't get us wrong, Borges was a big fan of Ludovico Ariosto, whose most famous work was one of these anti-Aristotle all-over-the-place kinds.
Okay, so here's what happens in the play:
The setting is Hradcany (a part of Prague known as the Castle District), in the library of Baron Römerstadt on one of the last evenings of 1899.
Act I, Scene I: a stranger visits Römerstadt. (In the background, a clock strikes seven, and a familiar Hungarian melody plays.)
Römerstadt receives visits from lots of other strangers, who look oddly familiar to him. Even though they all suck up to him, it eventually becomes clear that they're his "secret enemies," and that they're trying to destroy him (5). Gulp.
We learn that Römerstadt is engaged to a woman named Julia de Weidenau, who used to go out with a guy named Jaroslav Kubin. Kubin has since gone off the deep end, and he now believes himself to be Römerstadt. Yep, he thinks he's the Baron.
By the end of Act II, Römerstadt is forced to kill one of his "secret enemies."
In Act III (the final act), the plot starts to get confusing. Characters we thought were gone start to reappear. Even the guy that Römerstadt killed shows up on stage. Huh?
One character points out that no time has passed: it's still seven o'clock. The clock strikes, and the Hungarian melody starts to play again. Hmm.
Then the play's first actor appears on stage again and repeats the same line he spoke in Act I, Scene I. Römerstadt doesn't act the least bit surprised – though we sure are – and he starts to talk with him.
This is when the audience realizes that Römerstadt isn't Römerstadt. Nope, he's actually (drumroll please)… Jaroslav Kubin!
Turns out the action of the play has never taken place: it's just a circular delusion that Kubin experiences over and over again.
And curtain. That's the play, folks.
Okay, back to Jaromir Hladik.
Here's where the narration gets interesting. The narrator says: "In the design I have outlined here..." Up to this point, our narrator has been completely objective in telling this story. This is the first time he's used the word "I," and placed himself into the narrative. That probably means we should pay attention.
Anyway, the narrator tells us that, with this play, Jaromir has totally hit upon a design and structure that would cover up his shortcomings and play up his strengths as a writer. In other words, this might be the play that redeems Jaromir's entire literary career. It could be huge.
But how much of the play has he written? Turns out he's only finished the first act and a couple of scenes from the third.
Because it's written in verse, Jaromir can continually go over the play in his head (it's easier to remember things that rhyme, right?), making corrections without a manuscript.
But Jaromir still has two acts to write, and, well, he's scheduled to die tomorrow morning.
Jaromir prays in the darkness for God to grant him one more year in order to finish the play. Good luck, J-Man.
Ten minutes later, Jaromir falls asleep, and later that night, he has a dream. (If we know anything about Jaromir's dreams, this one will be weird.)
He's hiding in the Clementine Library, a collection named after Pope Clement XI. A librarian with dark glasses asks Jaromir what he's looking for, and he responds that he's looking for God. Um?
The librarian isn't fazed: he tells Jaromir that God is somewhere in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand books in the Clementine Library. Apparently, he and his ancestors have been searching for the divine letter for generations. (Things are not looking good for Jaromir, then.)
The librarian tells Jaromir that he has gone blind searching for the letter. He removes his dark glasses, and Jaromir can see his dead eyes.
At that moment, a reader comes into the library to return an atlas. "This atlas is worthless," he says, and hands it to Jaromir (7).
But one man's trash is another man's treasure, right?
Jaromir opens the atlas at random, and sees a map of India. He touches a tiny letter on the map, and hears a voice say: "The time for your labor has been granted" (7). Whoa.
Then, Jaromir wakes up.
Jaromir remembers that the Jewish scholar Maimonides had written that the words of a dream, when they are clearly spoken and you can't see who's saying them, are holy. So he's just had a holy dream, it seems.
Just then, two soldiers enter Hladik's cell and order him to follow them out.
When he was inside the cell, Jaromir had imagined the prison would be a maze of hallways and staircases. In reality, he and the soldiers make their way down a single staircase into a backyard. Well, that was easy. Some soldiers are in the yard, scoping out a motorcycle.
The sergeant looks at his watch and sees that it's only 8:44 am. The execution can't take place until 9 am. Sixteen minutes left of life – yikes.
Jaromir sits on a pile of firewood while he waits. The soldiers avoid his eyes.
The sergeant offers Jaromir a cigarette. Jaromir doesn't smoke, but he accepts the cigarette out of courtesy, and when he lights it, he notices his hands are shaking. We don't blame him.
The day is cloudy, and the soldiers are speaking in low voices as though he's already dead.
As he's waiting, Jaromir tries to remember the woman on which he had based the character Julia de Weidenau... but he can't.
Okay, now the firing squad gets lined up, and Jaromir waits for them to fire.
But before they begin, someone worries that Jaromir will get blood all over the wall (how rude!), so they have him step forward a bit. The whole process makes Jaromir think of a photographer trying to set up a photo. We're not sure if that makes it more glamorous or just plain strange.
In any case, a drop of rain hits Jaromir's face and slowly starts to roll down his cheek.
The sergeant calls out the order to fire.
And now, get ready for the shortest sentence in the whole story. "The physical universe stopped" (11).
Um…what's going on here? The soldiers and sergeant are completely immobile. A bumble bee is frozen in mid-flight. Even the wind has stopped blowing.
Jaromir tries to move or scream, but he, too, is completely paralyzed. (Gah, talk about a nightmare.)
He tries to come up with a possible explanation. He's not dead. He's not crazy. Hmm, has time stopped? No, because he can still think.
Jaromir imagines that the soldiers must be as confused as he is (now that's empathy) and wishes he could communicate with them.
What next? Well, being frozen isn't uncomfortable in any way, so Jaromir takes a nap. Okay, then. But when he wakes up, everything looks exactly the same.
After another "day" passes (is it still a day if the world has stopped turning?) Jaromir understands what's going on. God has performed a "secret miracle" (13).
The German executioners would still kill him at the scheduled time, but Jaromir would have a year to spend inside his head, working on his play. How cool is that?
At first Jaromir is stupefied. Then resigned. And finally, grateful.
Jaromir gets to work. Hey, when life gives you lemons, you know?
Since he doesn't have a way to write anything down and has to work by memory, he keeps it simple.
He doesn't write for posterity, since no one else will ever see his work. He doesn't write for God, either, since, um, he doesn't know what God likes to read.
But Jaromir works really hard on what the narrator calls his "grand invisible labyrinth" (12). He's continually editing and rewriting, all in his head.
In the meantime, Jaromir comes to love his prison, and even alters Römerstadt's character a little based on the face of one of the soldiers. (He is staring at these guys for an entire year, after all.)
Working by memory gives him insights into how the spoken word differs from the written word.
Jaromir is almost finished. He just has one little decision to make...
As soon as he makes it, the drop of water rolls down his cheek. Jaromir cries out and shakes his head. The bullets hit him, and he falls to the ground.
The last sentence is brief and to-the-point: "Jaromir Hladik died on the twenty-ninth of March, at 9:02 A.M." (13).
Borges' story signs off with the year in which he completed it: 1943.