“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which first appeared in the literary magazine Sur in 1940, is one of Borges’s best-known stories. Because of its documentary style, which provides detailed “facts” about an imaginary universe, the text defies the term “short story” and, like many of Borges’s other texts, verges on essayistic fiction. The story begins with the first-person narrator describing a conversation that he has had with his friend, Bioy Casares, during which his friend mentions a place called Uqbar, presumably discussed in the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, a reprint of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. After some futile searching, the unusual article is found in a deviant and pirated copy of the same encyclopedia. The description of Uqbar, a mysterious city supposedly located in Asia Minor, seems deliberately vague. The narrator and his friend fail to establish whether such a place really exists, and the problem remains unresolved for two years. After this period, the narrator comes across another, equally mystifying encyclopedia that tells of a planet called Tlön, describing in some detail its culture, philosophy, language, and literature.
In the description of the planet and its idealistic philosophy, the reader can find some typically Borgesian ideas. The language spoken on Tlön includes verbs and adjectives but no nouns, because the existence of nouns would point to a materialistic and empirical conception of the universe, something that is anathema to the inhabitants of Tlön. Because the inhabitants also deny the possibility of reduction or classification, the only science that flourishes on the planet is psychology. Similarly,...
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