The Garden of Forking Paths

by Jorge Luis Borges

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How is “The Garden of Forking Paths” like a three-dimensional chess game?

“The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges may be likened to a three-dimensional chess game in that the narrator and Captain Richard Madden are involved in a series of moves and counter moves in which they attempt to outwit and check each other. The narrator believes that he has won the game in the end, even at the cost of his life.

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Jorge Luis Borges writes a complex, intricate little story in “The Garden of Forking Paths.” It purports to be a translation of a manuscript written by a spy during World War I. The spy works for Germany but is actually Chinese, and he is trapped in Britain. His adversary is Captain Richard Madden, against whom he has entered into a series of moves and counter moves that are very much like a game of chess. Each is attempting to outwit and eventually check the other. This game of chess is in three dimensions, for it does not take place on a flat board but in real life across the English countryside.

Madden seems to be in the lead as the story opens, for the Captain has killed the narrator’s fellow spy, Runeberg. The narrator remains in his room for a while, contemplating his next move. He seems to examine the situation, the “board,” in front of him, noting all the possible moves (including suicide). Yet he has a name that must get back to Berlin somehow: the name of a place where the British have developed an artillery park. He finally decides on his next move, turns to a telephone book, and finds one name, the name of the person who can pass on the message.

The narrator makes it to the train station and boards the train, but Madden has seen his move and has made a move of his own. He is, however, just a little too late, and the narrator hides in his train compartment, staying out of sight, as Madden runs along the platform unable to catch the train (or another for quite some time).

This gives the narrator a chance to make another move, his final move. He goes to the home of a man named Dr. Stephen Albert, and when he does, he is in for a surprise and a fascinating conversation about the work of one of his mysterious ancestors. The narrator listens for a while, interested. But soon the time has come to make his final move. He looks out the window and sees Madden walking up the path, ready to make a move of his own. The narrator pulls out his revolver and shoots Albert, who falls, instantly dead.

The narrator might as well have yelled “checkmate” at that moment, for he has won the game. It may not seem that way to Madden (who captures him) or to those who will watch him hang as a spy. But the critical name has made it back to Berlin, and the Germans destroy the artillery park, for that name was Albert.

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