Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1377
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” depicts a fantastic world, which gradually, during the course of the story, acquires a tenacious and undermining hold on reality. The story is told in the form of a memoir that mixes the narrator’s personal reminiscences with essayistic account, plausible events in Buenos Aires with the fantastic inventions of an imaginary land (Tlön), and fictional characters (Herbert Ashe, Ezra Buckley) with the names of Borges’s real friends (Adolfo Bioy Casares, Carlos Mastronardi, Nestor Ibarra, Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, Drieu La Rochelle, Alfonso Reyes, Princess Faucigny Lucinge, Enrique Amorim). Reality and imagination are constantly intermingled: Real books such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica are mirrored by invented ones such as The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia and A First Encyclopedia of Tlön; nonexistent books are ascribed to real authors; and preposterous theories share paragraphs with Benedict de Spinoza, Arthur Schopenhauer, and David Hume. Assumptions about how to separate what is true from what is untrue are challenged, parodied, and subverted. Amid the chaos of the world, a human desire for order and organization at any cost is seen as understandable but very dangerous.
The story is divided into three parts. In the first section, the narrator and his friend and collaborator, Adolfo Bioy Casares, discuss a hypothetical “novel in the first person, whose narrator would omit or disfigure the facts and indulge in various contradictions that would permit a few readers—very few readers—to perceive an atrocious or banal reality,” a novel that is this very story. The mirror in the hallway, which reflects and monstrously distorts reality, reminds Bioy of an article in The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (which mirrors the 1902 Encyclopaedia Britannica) about a country named Uqbar. An extensive search reveals that it is only Bioy’s copy of the encyclopedia that contains the extra pages about Uqbar and its imaginary regions of Mlejnas and Tlön. The apparent hoax article is disquieting but more puzzling than ominous.
The second section describes the narrator’s discovery and perusal two years later (in 1937) of the eleventh volume of A First Encyclopedia of Tlön, left behind in a bar by a shadowy Englishman, Herbert Ashe. The encyclopedia has on its first page a stamped blue oval inscribed “Orbis Tertius,” and it describes a “vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet’s entire history,” its languages, philosophy, science, mathematics, and literature. Because, says the narrator, “the popular magazines, with pardonable excess, have spread news of the zoology and topography of Tlön,” he will attempt to expound its concept of the universe.
The people of this imaginary planet are “congenitally idealist” and do not believe in the material, objective existence of their surroundings. They believe only what they themselves perceive, and hence the “world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts. It is successive and temporal, not spatial.” In language, this means that there are no nouns for concrete objects, only aggregates of adjectives that describe the immediate moment. Cause and effect are not thought to be related. Objects are held to disappear physically when no one is thinking about them. Innumerable sciences and philosophies abound on Tlön, as many as one can imagine. Materialism is merely the most unacceptable one of a vast number of possible ways of considering reality. The happiest hypothesis is that everything in the universe exists within one supreme mind. Thus, plagiarism in literature cannot exist if all works are the creation of one supreme author, who is timeless and anonymous and whose stories are all variations on a single plot.
The narrator describes how many centuries of idealism have changed reality. Lost objects can be duplicated through memory; anyone who remembers an object can find it. These duplications are called hrönir, and their quality varies as they are reproduced again and again through successive memories. Objects may also be produced through hope; anything people wish to find and can imagine appears as an ur. Thus archaeologists reshape and document the past according to their own imaginations.
The third section of the story, the postscript, supposedly appended to the text several years later and thus confirming the historical nature of the account, appeared (labeled 1947) in 1940, as an original part of the story. It creates at once a sense of future time having passed already and a somewhat bewildered uneasiness. When the narrator makes the observation that “ten years ago any symmetry with a semblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men,” he is describing the world of the immediate moment, not the world of ten years before. He is describing that ominous time just before World War I, when anti-Semitism and Nazism had invaded the reality of Germany (and Argentina) just as the reality of Earth is invaded in this story by the ideology of Tlön.
The postscript purports to clear up the mystery of Tlön. It tells how a secret society of the seventeenth century set about to invent a country and describe it. In 1824, the project was financed by Ezra Buckley, an eccentric millionaire from Tennessee. It was Buckley who suggested that a Britannica-like encyclopedia of the invented planet be written and in 1914 (just at the onset of World War I), the last volume of the secret A First Encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed. By 1942, strange objects from Tlön have begun to appear on Earth: a compass inscribed in one of the alphabets of Tlön, and a mysteriously heavy cone, identified as an image of the divinity in certain regions of Tlön.
In 1944, a complete set of the forty volumes of A First Encyclopedia of Tlön are found in a Memphis library, and the importance of this event is (according to the narrator) recognized by everyone. The encyclopedia is phenomenally popular; a mad proliferation of summaries, editions, commentaries, and pirate editions of this “Greatest Work of Man” flood the earth. The order, symmetries, and rigor of Tlön seem infinitely superior to the confusion and doubts of ordinary human existence. Tlön appeals irresistibly to those who yearn to live in an ordered and comprehensible universe, a labyrinth of complexities perhaps, but a labyrinth that has been designed to be deciphered by men. The inventors of Tlön have triumphed; they have “changed the face of the world” and will continue, unimpeded, to change it until the human world becomes Tlön.
In the meantime, the narrator disassociates himself from this eagerly changing world around him. In its enthusiasm for an orderly universe, humanity forgets that the tidy logic of Tlön is “a rigor of chess masters, not of angels.” The narrator is acutely aware of the attraction of idealism, but his nostalgia is more important to him, nostalgia for a culture that believes in the mysteries of angels and for a past that includes his own childhood and its familiar (though often illogical) languages. He retreats to the hotel where he spent happy days as a child (although it is also the hotel where Herbert Ashe left A First Encyclopedia of Tlön) not to act decisively but to continue a revision, to continue to take pleasure in words from the past, that past that the Tlön revisionists are now obliterating and replacing. Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial of 1658 traces the inevitable mortality of humankind through all of Western history. The narrator’s translation of the Urn Burial is both a refuge from a terrible present and an indication of the futility of all intellectual effort. Within a labyrinthine, incomprehensible universe, man creates further mental labyrinths, such as totalitarian ideologies. The most absurd and unrealistic of these ideologies is, in this story, the invention of a planet, whimsically presented through the provisional encyclopedia that describes it. However, absurd as it is (far more unrealistic than Nazi expansion), the invented world begins to impinge on and gradually to dominate reality. The world as one knows it disintegrates. There is nothing the narrator can do but watch in horror. He retreats to another futile intellectual game: the translation of a difficult seventeenth century English Baroque writer into the no-less-difficult seventeenth century Baroque Spanish of Francisco Gomez Quevedo y Villegas.