Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“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...

(The entire section is 1377 words.)