Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” belongs to the genre of mystery stories, Jorge Luis Borges adapting its conventions in order to express his message. The writer after whom he models his story is Chesterton, whose detective fiction is characterized by reasonable explanations of the apparently inexplicable. This is clearly the case in “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” as Kilpatrick’s culpability (leading to Nolan’s plan) accounts for various incongruencies and gaps in the original testimony. This, however, is only one aspect of the interest Chesterton holds for Borges.

In an essay in the collection, Otras inquisiciones (1952; Other Inquisitions: 1937-1952, 1964), the Argentine author concludes that Chesterton’s work consistently has traces of the demoniac, the nightmarish, with such images as jails of mirrors or labyrinths with no center. It is this dimension of the mystery writer that seems to lend meaning and impact to the other borrowing, the structural device, in “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero.” Evidence in the story itself may be found, for example, in Ryan’s noteworthy absence of reaction to the discovery of Kilpatrick’s guilt, in contrast to his utter astonishment before the possibility of a secret form of time. Although the former is at the literal center of the text, it is a much less significant moment within the narrative. Furthermore, mention of Leibniz’s preestablished harmony introduces a metaphysical concept more akin to an atrocious observation than a reasonable explanation.

Besides supplying background information about the inception of the story, the first-person narrator in the initial paragraph creates an immediate subjectivity, shrouding the remainder of the story with a veil of uncertainty. His use of the Spanish future of probability, “escribiré tal vez” (“perhaps I am writing”), coupled with an obscure view of history, places the subsequent fabrication within the realm of the conjectural, precise dates notwithstanding. The epigraph taken from William Butler Yeats’s The Tower (1928) suggests that what he will be guessing about is that which makes men move.