Literature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 2 Death And The Compass Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones | Part 2, Death and the Compass : Artifices | Summary



Master detective Erik Lönnrot foresees but does not prevent the last in a "staggered series of bloody acts." Although he fails to guess the identity of the killer, he interprets the secret form of the crime and "the participation of Red Scharlach, whose alias is Scharlach the Dandy." The narrator backs up and tells how it all began.

The first crime happens at the Hotel du Nord in an unnamed city. Dr. Marcel Yarmolinsky is in town for the Third Talmudic Congress on December 3. He has a room near "the Tetrarch of Galilee." (A tetrarch is a local ruler.) On December 4 Yarmolinsky does not answer a phone call from the Yiddische Zeitung [Yiddish newspaper] and is found dead in his hotel room, a stab wound in his chest.

Lönnrot and Commissioner Treviranus enter the room to investigate. The editor of the Yiddische Zeitung is also there. Treviranus proposes a theory. A thief trying to steal some sapphires from the Tetrarch of Galilee entered Yarmolinsky's room by mistake. Yarmolinsky surprised him, and the thief killed him. Lönnrot admits the motive is possible but rejects it as "not interesting." He says even if reality is not interesting, hypotheses have to be. "Here lies a dead rabbi," says Lönnrot. "I should prefer a rabbinical explanation" and dismisses Treviranus's "imaginary robber" idea.

In the hotel room Lönnrot sees Yarmolinsky's books: works on Judaism, mysticism, and the history of the Hasidic sect of Judaism. Lönnrot takes the books to study them, while Treviranus says he is a Christian and scorns the books as "Jewish superstition." The editor of the Yiddische Zeitung quips Christianity is also a Jewish superstition. A police agent in the room finds a piece of paper on which is written "The first letter of the Name has been spoken."

On January 3 a second, similar crime occurs. A dead man is found on a deserted street. Naked except for a large cape, Daniel Simon Azevedo, a former political operative turned thief, has been stabbed in the chest. Nearby, written in chalk, are the words "The second letter of the Name has been spoken."

On February 3 the third crime occurs. Someone giving his name as Ginzberg calls Commissioner Treviranus saying he can explain the murders of Yarmolinsky and Azevedo in return for money. But "the discordant sound of whistles and horns" drowns out his voice, and the connection goes dead. The call is traced to a pub called Liverpool House whose owner, Black Finnegan, says the call was made by a lodger named Gryphius. Gryphius was last seen leaving the pub with two short people dressed as harlequin clowns and speaking Yiddish. Gryphius and the harlequins left in a cab. As they went, one harlequin scrawled on the wall of a shed, "The last of the letters of the Name has been spoken."

Treviranus examines Gryphius's room, noting a Latin book about Hebrew philology. Treviranus summons Lönnrot to the scene. As they leave, they discuss the case. Lönnrot reads a passage underlined in the Latin book, translating it as "the Hebrew day begins at sundown and lasts until the following sundown." Newspapers discuss the case, some proposing it is "an anti-Semitic plot." The "illustrious gunman" Red Scharlach says such crimes never happen in his district, the South.

On March 1 Treviranus receives a letter signed "Baruj Spinoza" saying there will not be a fourth crime on March 4, and the three previous crime scenes form an equilateral triangle. The letter includes a map illustrating the triangle. Treviranus sends the letter and the map—"a piece of insanity"—to Lönnrot who studies them and announces he has solved the crime. The next night the criminals will be in jail and adds they are indeed planning a fourth crime. On a train to the villa Triste-le-Roy, site of the next crime, Lönnrot thinks about the case, now uninteresting to him: "mere circumstances, or reality ... and penal proceedings."

Lönnrot enters the estate of Triste-le-Roy, a symmetrical building. He explores "antechambers and galleries, [and] ... duplicate patios." He is "infinitely reflected in opposing mirrors," thinking the size of the house is an illusion enlarged by shadows, by "the symmetry, the mirrors, the years, my ignorance, the solitude." Finally he enters an observatory and confronts Red Scharlach. Lönnrot asks Scharlach if he is looking for "the Secret Name." Scharlach tells him he is looking for "something more ephemeral and slippery, Erik Lönnrot." He explains why he seeks revenge. Three years ago Lönnrot arrested Scharlach's brother. In the tumult Scharlach was shot and spent nine days near death, wracked by fever. "An Irishman" tried to convert him to Christianity. He grew to hate his body and its symmetries. Now seeing the world as a labyrinth in which "all roads lead to Rome," he has created a labyrinth to ensnare Lönnrot. The components of the labyrinth are "a dead writer on heresies, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger" and the rhomboid shapes of a paint shop.

Then Scharlach explains. On Scharlach's orders Azevedo tried to rob the Tetrarch. But Azevedo blundered into Yarmolinsky's room and killed him to silence him. At the time of the killing Yarmolinsky had just written, "The first letter of the Name has been spoken." Ten days later Scharlach read Lönnrot was studying Yarmolinsky's Hebraic library for clues. So Scharlach studied similar books. Then he killed Azevedo and scattered mystical Jewish clues all around. He knew Lönnrot would know there had to be four crimes, because Tetragrammaton means the four letters of the name of God, the only four that can be written. Scharlach planned everything to lure Lönnrot "to the solitude of Triste-le-Roy."

Looking at the rhomboid shapes in the windows Lönnrot thinks about "periodic death" and tells Scharlach they might be destined to meet again. Next time Scharlach should set up a labyrinth made of a straight line, not a square or rhomboid. Scharlach agrees to do so "the next time I kill you." He adds the straight line is an "invisible and everlasting" labyrinth. He then shoots and kills Lönnrot.


Lönnrot is styled after some of the classic crime-solvers of detective fiction, particularly Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Dupin and Holmes were gentlemen with no need to work as detectives for money; they were men of leisure who solved crimes for the pleasure of the intellectual exercise. Lönnrot, like Dupin and Holmes, draws on his vast learning and makes pronouncements that bewilder those with lesser minds. Yet Borges's detective is more of a parody of these men, for his intellect causes him to be wrong and ultimately killed.

Commissioner Treviranus plays a role similar to Inspector Lestrade in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Treviranus is the literal-minded police detective who sees things in an ordinary light. Like Lestrade Treviranus proposes a commonplace solution for the murder of Yarmolinsky: a thief aiming to rob the Tetrarch blundered in and killed Yarmolinsky as a cover-up. Just as Holmes would, Lönnrot dismisses this theory. But Lönnrot gives an odd reason for doing so: Treviranus's theory is "not interesting." Lönnrot prefers "a purely rabbinical explanation; not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber." In fact, in an instance of situational irony, Treviranus has solved the case already. The true explanation of Yarmolinsky's murder exactly follows Treviranus's commonplace account. Thus "Death and the Compass" draws on the tradition of classic detective fiction while also mocking the infallible detective.

The cleverest, and thus most interesting, character in the story is Red Scharlach. Perhaps in a nod to the Sherlock Holmes mystery A Study in Scarlet, Scharlach's name means "scarlet" in German. Although Scharlach has ordinary criminal aims—money and revenge—he is smart enough to pretend to be a super-villain with elaborate schemes that need intellectual interpretation. Wanting money in the form of the Tetrarch's sapphires, he sees a chance to plot revenge on Lönnrot. Thus Scharlach is a double criminal; he is himself and he plays the mastermind of Lönnrot's imagination.

Scharlach's lair, the villa at Triste-le-Roy, signifies its owner's doubleness and duplicity. With the complete symmetry, every architectural feature has a corresponding double. When Lönnrot enters the first thing he sees is a statue of a "two-faced Hermes." Hermes was the ancient Greek messenger god. In this function Hermes lent his name to the study of interpretation, hermeneutics. Hermes is not usually depicted as having two faces, however, and Scharlach calls the same statue a "double-faced Janus." The statue represents the crime's double interpretations: the commonplace and the "rabbinical," or Treviranus's interpretation and Lönnrot's. There are also two rabbinical interpretations. One follows up on clues relating to the number three and solves the crime as ending with the creation of the equilateral triangle. Chief among these "three" clues is the date; the murders happen on the third day of the month, though no one is murdered at crime site number three. The other interpretation follows up on all the clues relating to the number four and assumes the series concludes when the fourth letter of the name is written. The Tetragrammaton, the name of God, has four letters. Ginzberg supplies the information Jewish days are reckoned from sundown to sundown, so all the crimes in fact occur on the fourth of the month. Ultimately both interpretations—the one with threes and the one with fours—are false, or at least fictional, concocted by Scharlach. Every time Lönnrot deduces something from his abstruse learning, he is thinking only what Scharlach thinks he would think.

Lönnrot and Scharlach are also doubles in a way. Lönnrot seizes on the books in Yarmolinsky's room, thinking the solution must be there because the solution must be "interesting." Scharlach reads similar books in imitation of Lönnrot. So Scharlach's scheme mirrors Lönnrot's thoughts. As in other stories in Ficciones, the double overtakes the original, and Scharlach outwits Lönnrot. Since Lönnrot is undone by his pursuit of the more interesting, "rabbinical" interpretation of the crime, perhaps is a judgment of some kind on the (intellectual) risks or dangers of a certain kind of close interpretation.

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