Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Reading “The Secret Miracle” can be compared to looking at an M. C. Escher drawing. Perception is not fixed, but in flux. Within the same frame, some figures walk upstairs, while others make their way downstairs. Even as one shifts focus to experience the work in one way, the mind is teased to view its opposite.

Similarly, Borges puzzles his reader with paradox. The story’s context is historical: the Nazi occupation of Prague on March 15, 1939. However, dreams and daydreams predominate. A dream begins the story, and the plot turns on a dream. Precision of detail lends a sense of accuracy to the reporting of the story: The prisoner arrives at 8:44 in the morning at the courtyard where he will be executed; he is said to die at 9:02 a.m. Nevertheless, as the details accumulate, they begin to seem hyperreal, creating a sense of unreality. The perspective remains ever shifting.

As a master of irony, Borges relentlessly reverses expectations. Hladik hopes that his anticipation of the details of his execution will somehow prevent them from happening; instead, he is left fearing that they will prove prophetic. Envisioning a labyrinth of passageways, stairs, and connecting blocks on his way from his prison cell to the courtyard, Hladik instead is led down a single stairway. The dark humor that saturates the narrative intensifies the irony of Hladik’s life and death. His sentencing itself is a joke, based on a misunderstanding of a falsification. Clearly, the narrator’s characterization of Hladik’s play as a tragicomedy of errors refers to his own story, as well.

In Hladik’s play, the protagonist is revealed as someone else; the drama has never taken place. The play, indeed the story itself, is a circular delirium the protagonist lives and relives. The device of a story within a story adds another dimension of circularity, of wheels within wheels. The reader is left feeling dizzy, disoriented, and a bit thrilled, the mental equivalent of braving an amusement park ride.