The Garden of Forking Paths

by Jorge Luis Borges
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942

In the prologue to the original edition of El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941), the work in which the short story of the same title was published, Jorge Luis Borges classifies the tale as “a detective story” and says that “its readers will assist at the execution, and all the preliminaries, of a crime, a crime whose purpose will not be unknown to them but which they will not understand—it seems to me—until the last paragraph.” The other pieces, he says, are all fantasies. Whether “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a detective story, a fantasy, or a combination of the two is a question that, ultimately, each reader must decide for him or herself.

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The story begins with a reference to a history of World War I, in which it is stated that an Allied offensive planned for July 24, 1916, was postponed until July 29 because of “torrential rains.” Calling the story that follows a deposition, the narrator says that it was dictated by Dr. Yu Tsun, a teacher of English, and the deposition casts light on the postponing of that attack.

The deposition begins in mid-sentence (readers are told that the first two pages are missing), with Dr. Yu Tsun, a spy for Imperial Germany although Chinese by nationality, just learning that he has been discovered. A telephone call to his confederate has been answered by a voice he recognizes, the voice of Richard Madden, a captain in the British counterintelligence service. Yu Tsun immediately concludes that his comrade is now dead and that Captain Madden knows of Yu Tsun’s activity. To be discovered at this moment is especially alarming to the spy, because he has just found out the exact site in Belgium of a new concentration of British artillery. Although he knows this vital name, he has no way of getting the information to his superiors in Berlin. After some indecision, Yu Tsun acts to save himself from Captain Madden’s pursuit. He takes a train to a nearby village, just ahead of the English officer.

At the village of Ashgrove, he heads for the house of Dr. Stephen Albert, an authority on Chinese culture. As he walks, Yu Tsun thinks of his great-grandfather, Ts’ui Pen, who was governor of Yunnan province. That powerful man resigned his political office to write a novel and to make a maze “in which all men would lose themselves.” As he approaches the door of Albert’s house, Yu Tsun reflects that the novel made no sense and the labyrinth was never found.

At the house, Yu Tsun is mistaken for a Chinese consul, and is asked by Albert if he has come to see the garden of forking paths. When Yu Tsun enters the house, their talk turns to the novel of Ts’ui Pen. Yu Tsun states that his family wishes it had never been published, calling it “a shapeless mass of contradictory rough drafts.” As an example of the nonsensical nature of the work, he points out that the hero dies in chapter 3 but in chapter 4 is alive. However, when Yu Tsun remarks on the labyrinth of Ts’ui Pen, Albert tells him that he has found it and presents a small lacquered box. To a puzzled Yu Tsun, Albert explains that the labyrinth was not a physical maze but was, in fact, the novel itself; those who looked for the maze on Ts’ui Pen’s extensive estates were bound to fail. As proof, Albert produces the original manuscript of the book, where Ts’ui Pen wrote: “I leave to various future times, but not to all, my garden of forking paths.”

Albert explains that he wondered for a long time how a book could be an infinite maze until he saw the manuscript. He explains that in all fiction, a character facing a decision chooses one alternative to the exclusion of all others. In Ts’ui Pen’s work, however, all choices are made. In one part, an army comes to feel that life is cheap, and they therefore win a subsequent battle. In the next part, the army sees a rich banquet in progress; with the possible splendors of life in their minds, they fight hard and win the battle. Then, though, Albert’s argument becomes more subtle.

Albert points out that the word “time” never occurs in the novel. Ts’ui Pen apparently believed that time was not absolute and uniform but was rather a series of times that forked apart at some places and converged at others. That great structure includes every possible event: In most of them, Albert notes, he and Yu Tsun do not exist; in other times, one of them but not the other exists. Yu Tsun remarks that in all those possible universes, he is grateful to Albert for “the restoration of Ts’ui Pen’s garden.” No, Albert corrects him, not in all those many futures: In one of them, he is Yu Tsun’s enemy. At that instant, Yu Tsun sees Captain Madden coming toward the house. Yu Tsun rises, fires his revolver, and kills Albert.

The final paragraph is written from Yu Tsun’s prison cell. Captain Madden arrested him, and the courts tried him for Albert’s murder, found him guilty, and sentenced him to hang. However, he says, he has triumphed: The news of the murder is in all the newspapers, newspapers that will be read in Berlin, where the name of their agent will be connected with the name of Albert—and Albert will be correctly identified as the name of the Belgian town where the English artillery is massed.

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