HomeLiterature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 1 The Approach To Al Mutasim Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones | Part 1, The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim : The Garden of Forking Paths | Summary



An unnamed first-person narrator comments on the commentary surrounding the novel The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim, by Bombay lawyer Mir Bahadur Ali. Commentators agree the book combines a detective novel with a "mystic undercurrent." The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim was first published in 1932 in Bombay, on cheap paper, in four printings of 1,000 copies each. This edition was followed by an illustrated one titled The Conversation with the Man Called Al-Mu'tasim: A Game of Shifting Mirrors.

The protagonist is a skeptical, irreligious law student in Bombay. Born into Islam "he finds himself in the center of a civil tumult between Moslems and Hindus." In the fray "he kills (or thinks he kills) a Hindu." He flees, entering a garden and climbing a tower. At the top of the tower he finds a grave robber. After spending the night in the tower he wakes to find the grave robber has robbed him. The student cannot stop thinking about a woman the grave robber cursed: "a certain malka-sansi (a woman of the robber caste) of Palanpur." He sets off on his way at the end of the second chapter.

Interrupting himself, the narrator continues, recounting how the "incredulous and fugitive student" falls in with "people of the vilest class" and has a strange experience. He perceives "a tenderness, an exaltation, a silence in one of the abhorrent men." These perceptions of clarity, he decides, are traces of one man, Al-Mu'tasim, and he dedicates his life to finding him.

The narrator comments on the plot structure: a man's "insatiable search for a soul through ... subtle reflections which this soul has left in others." The reflections become progressively more refined, from the "vilest" people to a saint to a Persian bookseller. Finally the student arrives at Al-Mu'tasim himself, seated behind a curtain. The book ends before the curtain is drawn and Al-Mu'tasim revealed. The narrator finds the second version of the book sinks into an allegory of "a unitary God who accommodates Himself" to different people's ideas about God. Unimpressed the narrator is captivated by another idea: perhaps "the Almighty is also in search of Someone, and that Someone in search of some superior Someone."

The narrator concludes with several remarks. He thinks the Al-Mu'tasim books could be based on an idea by the 16th-century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria, who believed in reincarnation. The narrator also notes a link to a book called The Colloquy of the Birds, by the Persian mystic Farid ud-din Abu Talib Muhammed ibn-Ibrahim Attar in which 30 birds search for a king of birds. In the end they realize they are the bird-king they seek.


Three stories in Part 1 are structured as commentaries on imaginary books. They can be divided in two categories: those about complex ideas and those about a book with a plot too complex for a short story. "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" is an example of the former, a story about complex ideas. "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" is an example of the latter, and it has the pleasures of plot: adventure, suspense, and jeopardy. Sometimes Borges presents the plot by summarizing it, thus giving the reader a fast-paced adventure. Other times he merely gestures to a plot too complex to retell: "It is impossible to trace the vicissitudes of the nineteen remaining chapters." Although this story is less known than "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," it is in some ways more exciting.

Although the story ends before Al-Mu'tasim is revealed, the narrator comments the word Al-Mu'tasim means "the seeker of shelter." The law student who sought Al-Mu'tasim was seeking himself, "the seeker." However, his search has not come to an end. If the sought-after one is a "seeker," the search is endless. The narrator hints at this concept when offering his interpretation: "the Almighty is also in search of Someone, and that Someone" also seeks "some superior Someone."

The narrator compares the law student's search to the poem The Colloquy of the Birds, an allegorical poem by 12th-century Persian Muslim poet and Sufi mystic Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār. In the poem many birds go in search of "the faraway king of the birds, the Simurgh." They travel far, and some birds die along the way, their travels "an almost infinite adventure." When the birds reach the Mountain of Simurgh, they realize the word Simurgh can mean "30" and they themselves are the king they seek. However, this realization brings their search to an end. The law student's search, by contrast, is infinite.

"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" is not merely an adventure story. (Although it is an adventure story: the law student is wanted for murder and narrowly escapes by hiding at the top of a Parsi corpse burial tower. He then falls in with vagabonds and criminals as he wanders across South Asia.) It is also a story of ideas, and Borges originally published it in his 1936 essay collection, A History of Eternity. Its main idea is a Gnostic one, that a god has imbued human souls with a divine spark. The narrator rejects the idea the Al-Mu'tasim novel is an allegory of a god who accommodates himself to all peoples because it is not "stimulating." This preference reveals the narrator too has a Gnostic bent. "All peoples" are not necessarily worthy or capable of salvation in many Gnostic doctrines. Only possessors of a certain mystical knowledge—intuited or learned—are saved.

One day the law student senses a divine spark in "a tenderness, an exaltation, a silence in one of the abhorrent men" in the lowest ranks of society. From then he searches for that "clarity" in a series of vagabonds, criminals, and beggars. The spark is transmitted in a relationship of reflection. Each of these remarkable individuals the law student encounters is "the reflection of a friend, or of a friend of a friend." The spark has almost nothing to do with whichever "vile man" the law student encounters. The vile man "is not capable" of the clarity he radiates. When the law student senses the spark, says the narrator, now quoting directly from the Al-Mu'tasim novel, "It was as if a more complex interlocutor had joined the dialog." Thus this story of the Gnostic search for a divine spark can also be read as a story of literary history and the transmission of inspiration. The literary spark is not the property of an author's personality or circumstances. It emanates from something "more complex" than the writer or his or her society. Literary beauty the writer does not even seem capable of nonetheless issues from him or her. (Though chiefly, in Borges, from him, since he does not mention any women writers in Ficciones.)

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