The Secret Miracle
by Jorge Luis Borges
The Kafka in Him
Jaromir is a Jewish writer living in Prague. Hmm...who does that remind us of? We're glad we asked. Jaromir bears a striking resemblance to another Jewish Czech intellectual, Franz Kafka. Since Borges really admired Kafka, we're pretty sure this is intentional. In fact, we're certain.
Like Borges' protagonist, Kafka used to live on the famous street in Prague known as the Zeltnergasse. The thing is, by the 1930s, when Jaromir Hladik is living there, it's not called the "Zeltnergasse" anymore: that was just its German name back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which lasted until 1918). We promise we have a point! Because Borges uses this anachronism – that is, calling the street Zeltnergasse long after it no longer actually goes by that name – he pretty much hits us over the head with it: Jaromir is supposed to remind us of Kafka.
Okay, have we convinced you yet? Good. Now, why would Borges want to compare his protagonist to Kafka? Well, we think it might have something to do with the political events of our author's day. Allow us to explain: in Argentina in 1943, there was a lot of sympathy for Germany and its allies. In fact, a lot of Nazis sought refuge in Argentina after Germany lost the war.
But Mr. Borges did not share the sympathy of his countrymen. And in fact, this story can be seen as a protest against German anti-Semitism. Comparing his protagonist to Kafka – a writer generally regarded as a genius – lets the reader know that Jaromir is smart, cultured, and (like Kafka) the victim of an unfortunately short life. He is basically saying, "Hey, anti-Semitic Argentines: if you can hold Kafka in high regard even though he's Jewish, you should be able to have some respect for this guy Jaromir Hladik, too. Oh, and for that matter, you should have respect for people regardless of their religion or culture." Take that, readers.
Gotta Love Him
Even aside from this comparison to Kafka, Jaromir Hladik is a pretty sympathetic character. He's smart, charmingly self-deprecating, and a little bit insecure about his writing.
All the books he had sent to the press left him with complex regret. (4)
Poor Jaromir. We've all been there. (He actually reminds us a lot of Owen Wilson's character in Midnight in Paris.)
Sure, he has his faults: for example, he likes to judge other people by what they've accomplished, while he expects to be judged on what he plans on doing. Oh, and he's also a little obsessive. But hey, who's perfect? When Borges tells us about Jaromir's little neuroses, we completely understand: we've all either felt the same thing before, or met someone who has.
Emotions on High
Did you find it a little strange that Jaromir is totally able to empathize with his Nazi captors? Well, we did. Jaromir notices little things about them, like the way they avoid his eyes and speak in low voices on the morning of his execution. When time is frozen, he imagines they must be as confused as he is, and wishes he could speak to them. He even uses one of them as a model for his main character:
He came to love the courtyard, the prison; one of the faces that stood before him altered his conception of Römerstadt's character. (12)
Came to love it? Yikes. Any thoughts of anger or hatred towards his oppressors are completely absent from Jaromir's mind. His real enemies, like Römerstadt's, are not external but internal. In other words, they're the products of his own imagination. (For more on this, check out our section on "Character Role Identification.")
Is this just an attempt by Borges to make Jaromir more agreeable to Argentine Nazi-sympathizers? Or is it an indication that the internal, abstract world of the mind is more important than the external world of politics and petty prejudices?
Writing His Own Life
And last but definitely not least, we can't forget that our buddy Jaromir is a writer. This makes the whole thing pretty meta (story-within-a-story-within-a-story), and make us wonder: does Borges identify with his protagonist? What other effects do Jaromir's career as a writer have on "The Secret Miracle"? Why does the design and structure of The Enemies suit him so well? Oh, and why will it redeem his entire career? These aren't easy questions, but they're definitely something to think about.Timeline