Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One of the most striking aspects of “The Aleph” is the quantity of allusions made to the world outside the text, be they literary, historical, religious, philosophical, or geographic. Most are explicit, such as the epigraphs that preface the story or the numerous proper names mentioned, but implicit reference is also made, for example, to The Divine Comedy by the presence of certain structural and thematic elements (Beatriz, the sphere, the descent, and the name Daneri). Literary precedents are summoned by Carlos Argentino as well as by Borges, although their respective reasons for doing so differ substantially: ostentation versus the quest for answers. In addition to texts, place names appear with some regularity, contributing to the would-be veracity of Borges’s report (a veracity that is completely at odds with the report’s fantastic central episode).

The range and quantity of factual information are complementary to the story’s elaborate temporal framework, both being dimensions that would normally help to orient the reader with respect to the events recounted. Throughout, the narrator remains highly conscious of years, months, days, hours, minutes, times of day, and segments of time, thereby enhancing the illusion of accuracy. There is also a thematic function involved: The contrast between time and eternity, like that between geographic locations and infinity, manifests the arbitrariness and artificiality of those human inventions.

Carlos Argentino is the symbol of such absurd endeavors, the epitome of misguided activity, and through him the futility of humanity’s efforts becomes amusing. Meaninglessness, insignificance, affectation, obsession, mediocrity, and complacent stupidity are identified as humankind’s characteristic traits and as a way of coping with existence: Human beings focus on small, immediate concerns because the larger questions cannot be answered. The somber, melancholy tone set by the agony and death of Beatriz is pervasive and bespeaks other losses (of innocence and faith, for example). In juxtaposing two elements as incongruous as profound sadness and absurdity (a technique that recurs throughout the story), the author illuminates otherwise undiscernible qualities and relationships in an ironically humorous way.