Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Borges was a great admirer of the detective genre and of its leading writers, from Edgar Allan Poe to Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton to Graham Greene. For him, a detective story required certain characteristics: a complex plot, a small number of characters, a satisfying solution that proceeds from clues the reader has seen all along. For all these characteristics, a labyrinth is a satisfying metaphor; it is no coincidence that Yu Tsun reflects on a labyrinth, or that the idea of a maze appears in so many of Borges’s works. In few of them, however, does the labyrinth figure so prominently as in “The Garden of Forking Paths.”

The labyrinth—a maze of hedges, for example, in a formal garden—is a physical puzzle. Although it appears to contain many pathways, there is only one right solution. In the same way, the detective story is the literary counterpart of the labyrinth.

There are many mazes in the story, yet the conclusion provides a path through all of them: Yu Tsun’s great-grandfather was killed by an unknown assassin; to many people who read about the murder of Albert, Yu Tsun is a virtually unknown assassin. Only those with the key to the mystery—the German espionage service in Berlin, waiting for a message—know why Albert has been killed. Captain Madden is tracking Yu Tsun through the labyrinth of England; Yu Tsun is entangling the unsuspecting Albert in the labyrinth of espionage; Borges is leading the reader through the labyrinth of the story. Not until the very end do readers realize why Yu Tsun, fleeing just minutes ahead of Captain Madden, should go to Albert’s house and spend an hour discussing Chinese culture with him. Not until the very end do readers find their own way through the labyrinth.