(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” depicts a fantastic world, which gradually, during the course of the story, acquires a tenacious and undermining hold on reality. The story is told in the form of a memoir that mixes the narrator’s personal reminiscences with essayistic account, plausible events in Buenos Aires with the fantastic inventions of an imaginary land (Tlön), and fictional characters (Herbert Ashe, Ezra Buckley) with the names of Borges’s real friends (Adolfo Bioy Casares, Carlos Mastronardi, Nestor Ibarra, Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, Drieu La Rochelle, Alfonso Reyes, Princess Faucigny Lucinge, Enrique Amorim). Reality and imagination are constantly intermingled: Real books such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica are mirrored by invented ones such as The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia and A First Encyclopedia of Tlön; nonexistent books are ascribed to real authors; and preposterous theories share paragraphs with Benedict de Spinoza, Arthur Schopenhauer, and David Hume. Assumptions about how to separate what is true from what is untrue are challenged, parodied, and subverted. Amid the chaos of the world, a human desire for order and organization at any cost is seen as understandable but very dangerous.

The story is divided into three parts. In the first section, the narrator and his friend and collaborator, Adolfo Bioy Casares, discuss a hypothetical “novel in the first person, whose narrator would omit or disfigure the facts and indulge in various contradictions that would permit a few readers—very few readers—to perceive an atrocious or banal reality,” a novel that is this very story. The mirror in the hallway, which reflects and monstrously distorts reality, reminds Bioy of an article in The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (which mirrors the 1902 Encyclopaedia Britannica) about a country named Uqbar. An extensive search reveals that it is only Bioy’s copy of the encyclopedia that contains the extra pages about Uqbar and its imaginary regions of Mlejnas and Tlön. The apparent hoax article is disquieting but more puzzling than ominous.

The second section describes the narrator’s discovery and perusal two years later (in 1937) of the eleventh volume of A First Encyclopedia of Tlön, left behind in a bar by a shadowy Englishman, Herbert Ashe. The encyclopedia has on its first page a stamped blue oval inscribed “Orbis Tertius,” and it describes a “vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet’s entire history,” its languages, philosophy, science, mathematics, and literature. Because, says the narrator, “the popular magazines, with pardonable excess, have spread news of the zoology and topography of Tlön,” he will attempt to expound its concept of the universe.

The people of this imaginary planet are “congenitally idealist” and do not believe in the material, objective existence of their surroundings. They believe only what they themselves perceive, and hence the “world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts. It is successive and temporal, not spatial.” In language, this means that there are no nouns for concrete objects, only aggregates of adjectives that describe the immediate moment. Cause and effect are not thought to be related. Objects are held to disappear physically when no one is...

(The entire section is 1377 words.)

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which first appeared in the literary magazine Sur in 1940, is one of Borges’s best-known stories. Because of its documentary style, which provides detailed “facts” about an imaginary universe, the text defies the term “short story” and, like many of Borges’s other texts, verges on essayistic fiction. The story begins with the first-person narrator describing a conversation that he has had with his friend, Bioy Casares, during which his friend mentions a place called Uqbar, presumably discussed in the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, a reprint of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. After some futile searching, the unusual article is found in a deviant and pirated copy of the same encyclopedia. The description of Uqbar, a mysterious city supposedly located in Asia Minor, seems deliberately vague. The narrator and his friend fail to establish whether such a place really exists, and the problem remains unresolved for two years. After this period, the narrator comes across another, equally mystifying encyclopedia that tells of a planet called Tlön, describing in some detail its culture, philosophy, language, and literature.

In the description of the planet and its idealistic philosophy, the reader can find some typically Borgesian ideas. The language spoken on Tlön includes verbs and adjectives but no nouns, because the existence of nouns would point to a materialistic and empirical conception of the universe, something that is anathema to the inhabitants of Tlön. Because the inhabitants also deny the possibility of reduction or classification, the only science that flourishes on the planet is psychology. Similarly,...

(The entire section is 690 words.)