Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In the prologue to the original edition of El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941), the work in which the short story of the same title was published, Jorge Luis Borges classifies the tale as “a detective story” and says that “its readers will assist at the execution, and all the preliminaries, of a crime, a crime whose purpose will not be unknown to them but which they will not understand—it seems to me—until the last paragraph.” The other pieces, he says, are all fantasies. Whether “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a detective story, a fantasy, or a combination of the two is a question that, ultimately, each reader must decide for him or herself.
The story begins with a reference to a history of World War I, in which it is stated that an Allied offensive planned for July 24, 1916, was postponed until July 29 because of “torrential rains.” Calling the story that follows a deposition, the narrator says that it was dictated by Dr. Yu Tsun, a teacher of English, and the deposition casts light on the postponing of that attack.
The deposition begins in mid-sentence (readers are told that the first two pages are missing), with Dr. Yu Tsun, a spy for Imperial Germany although Chinese by nationality, just learning that he has been discovered. A telephone call to his confederate has been answered by a voice he recognizes, the voice of Richard Madden, a captain in the British counterintelligence service. Yu Tsun immediately concludes that his comrade is now dead and that Captain Madden knows of Yu Tsun’s activity. To be discovered at this moment is especially alarming to the spy, because he has just found out the exact site in Belgium of a new concentration of British artillery. Although he knows this vital name, he has no way of getting the information to his superiors in Berlin. After some indecision, Yu Tsun acts to save himself from Captain Madden’s pursuit. He takes a train to a nearby village, just ahead of the English officer.
At the village of Ashgrove, he heads for the house of Dr. Stephen Albert, an authority on Chinese culture. As he walks, Yu Tsun thinks of his great-grandfather, Ts’ui Pen, who was governor of Yunnan province. That powerful man resigned his political office to write a novel and to make a maze “in which all...
(The entire section is 942 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In “The Garden of Forking Paths,” Borges indulges in one of his common literary pastimes, the writing of spoof detective fiction. The story has all the necessary elements of a spy story: secret agents, guns, murder, mystery, drama, and an intricate plot that rushes the reader toward the resolution of the puzzle. Borges, however, is not as concerned with writing good spy fiction as he is with showing how an imitation of a spy story can be used for purposes other than the final demystification of the plot.
The plot concerns the escapades of its Chinese protagonist, Yu Tsun, a German spy. His task, while on a secret mission in England in the middle of World War I, is somehow to communicate to his German chief the name of a British town that is to be targeted by the Germans. Yu Tsun devises a clever plan that leads him to murder a man by the name of Stephen Albert, the last name of the murdered man being the name of the British town to be bombed. Pursuing Yu Tsun is a British agent, Richard Madden, who arrests him immediately after the murder but is unable to prevent the information from reaching Berlin.
Most of the story is told in the first person by the narrator, Yu Tsun, who is awaiting his execution at the end of the story. What adds to the intrigue of this interesting scheme of events are a series of coincidences and a labyrinth to be found at the heart of the story. Albert, the victim of the plot, happens to be a sinologist who lives in...
(The entire section is 596 words.)