Theme of the Traitor and the Hero

by Jorge Luis Borges

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Themes and Meanings

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“Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” narrates the deeds of Fergus Kilpatrick and the events surrounding his assassination, but it is about the nightmarish fatalism that is existence. The story takes the form of an investigation into a century-old unsolved crime, conducted by a biographer who deciphers the enigma through the interpretation of some historical documents. However, although this evidence furnishes the information that leads to the final solution of the riddle, in the process it has raised disturbing questions about such notions as a secret form of time and reality copying the imaginary.

Various passages contained in the documents remind the biographer of certain texts, authors, and protagonists (historical as well as literary), dating from classical and biblical times to the present. Patterns emerge that not only enable the reconstruction of an incident in the past but also partially reveal the essence of being. The explanation of what actually happened—that Kilpatrick was a traitor who agreed to act out a staged assassination in order to save the rebellion—may satisfy Ryan’s curiosity, but at the same time, it advances a malevolent hypothesis about how reality occurs. The solving of one mystery leads to another, greater and virtually unresolvable one.

In “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” there are three story lines: an assassination, an investigation, and an invention. The story is told by a first-person narrator who “perhaps” devises a plot about a contemporary narrator, the latter, in turn, a biographer of his great-grandfather’s life as set down by Nolan and others. These characters belong to three distinct time periods: 1944, the present of the anonymous writer; 1924, the year in which Ryan carries out his investigation (retold using the historical present tense); and the early 1800’s, the era of Fergus Kilpatrick. Certain texts correspond to the different narrative threads, each having a source in other writings.

All the texts are linked: the first-person narrator acknowledges the influence of Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the construction of his plot about Ryan’s biography, which is based on historical records, including Nolan’s drama, which derives from both the works of Shakespeare and the Swiss tradition of Festspiele. Furthermore, the three texts are products of discoveries: The first narrator has had certain partial revelations about history, Ryan figures out Nolan’s strange project, and Nolan discovers the identity of the traitor. Common to all three stories, then, is the author-discoverer who rewrites texts from the past that are to be rewritten in the future. The same pattern is repeated again and again, like infinite mirrors creating a labyrinth with no exit.

Such interminable reflections are evocative of the type of existence envisioned by Leibniz: the perceiving and being perceived among all elements in the universe. In “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” writing is the particular mode of perception: It confers existence on its subjects and its authors or creators by its practice (they are perceived through the text); conversely, it derives its being from (perceiving) what already is. Inasmuch as writing represents existence, it becomes an act of creation, literally as well as figuratively, demonstrated when, for example, history copies literature, written documents anticipate future readers, and plots justify their inventors.

From Kilpatrick’s double identity (not as traitor and hero but as patriot-hero and protagonist-hero), other heroes and traitors may be inferred. For example, Ryan is the protagonist-hero of the invented plot, and, at the same time, he is a traitor in that he sustains the myth of Kilpatrick, that is, through his role as author. Nolan also commits treason through literature in the form of an elaborate, deceptive drama. However, these specific acts only serve to point to the larger betrayal that is writing itself, the perpetuation of existence as it is known.

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