Literature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 2 The South Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones | Part 2, The South : Artifices | Summary

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Summary

The protagonist, Juan Dahlmann, is the grandson of a German evangelical pastor, Johannes Dahlmann who emigrated to Argentina in 1871. His maternal grandfather, Francisco Flores, died a "romantic" death, "run through with a lance by Indians from Catriel," Argentina. Dahlmann feels a nationalist pride and identifies with his maternal grandfather.

One night as Dahlmann walks up the stairs to read The Thousand and One Nights he hits his head on an open door. He spends several feverish days in bed in a strange mental state. He is acutely aware of things, and time passes with agonizing slowness. He feels he is "in hell."

He is taken to a sanitarium for X-rays. Initially he is happy to be away from his home, the site of his hellish experience, but time in the sanitarium is more agonizing. "He had merely been, up until then, in a suburb of hell." He experiences intense self-loathing, hating "himself in minute detail, he hated his identity, his bodily necessities, his humiliation." A surgeon tells Dahlmann he has septicemia. The diagnosis shocks him. "Physical wretchedness ... had not allowed him time to think of anything so abstract as death."

A few days later Dahlmann is released from the hospital to recover at his ranch in the South. Heading to the train station in a taxi, he feels he is already in the South. On the train Dahlmann tries to read The Thousand and One Nights but finds "the morning itself and the mere fact of being" more interesting than the book. The narrator says Dahlmann "might have" considered "he was traveling into the past and not merely south."

The train conductor tells Dahlmann he will have to get off one stop early and is let off in a desolate spot on the plain. Walking to the nearby town to find transportation to his ranch, he finds the plain beautiful, with its "final splendor" of the evening's fading light. At a general store he arranges for a carriage to the ranch and eats at the store.

The eating area is peopled with "country louts." Squatting on the floor is a silent old man, "dark, dried up, diminutive, and ... outside time, situated in eternity." The "louts" throw spitballs of bread at Dahlmann, who tries to ignore them, turning to read The Thousand and One Nights "as a way of suppressing reality." When Dahlmann can no longer ignore the outrage, he gets up to leave. The owner tries to placate him, saying, "Don't pay any attention to those lads; they're half high."

Dahlmann confronts them, and one of them shouts insults at Dahlmann, then challenges Dahlmann to a knife fight. When the owner points out Dahlmann is unarmed, the old man—"the old ecstatic gaucho"—throws Dahlmann a knife. It seems to be fate: "It was as if the South had resolved that he should accept the duel." Bending to pick up the knife, he realizes picking up the weapon commits him to the fight, and he is going to lose because he is unskilled.

The two men go outside to fight. Dahlmann is "without hope ... [and] also without fear." Dahlmann thinks back to his first horrible night in the hospital. On that night he would have "chosen or dreamt" this death: "in a knife fight, under the open sky, and going forward to the attack."

Analysis

In the prologue to Part 2, Borges says "The South" can be "read as a direct narrative of novelistic events, and also in another way." As with "The Secret Miracle" the story raises questions about whether its events are real. It is possible Dahlmann never left the hospital and is only imagining this romantic gaucho-style duel in the South.

Like Borges Dahlmann hits his head and then suffers a serious infection. Borges's bout of septicemia, or blood poisoning, brought him to the brink of death and left him temporarily unable to speak. In several stories collected in Ficciones an illness or injury seems to precede a dreamlike state. But Borges does not romanticize illness. Dahlmann feels he is "in hell," and then the hospital is even worse. In the hospital the ill man has an experience like that of Red Scharlach in "Death and the Compass." While Scharlach lay in bed with fever, he "learned to abominate [his] body," particularly hating its symmetry. While Dahlmann is ill he "hate[s] himself in minute detail ... his identity, his bodily necessities, his humiliation." So Dahlmann has a strong motive to escape from reality.

There are hints the experience may be a kind of fantasy or dream. On the way to his house in the South Dahlmann stops at a café and strokes a cat, but he has the sense "this contact was an illusion." On the train, accompanied by his copy of The Thousand and One Nights, Dahlmann feels he is "two men at a time." One man "travel[s] through the autumn day" to the South, and the other is "locked up in a sanitarium and subject to methodical servitude." When Dahlmann faces down "the tough," he suddenly recalls the sanitarium: "They would not have allowed such things to happen to me in the sanitarium." Finally as he heads out to the plain, he feels "if he had been able to choose, then, or to dream his death," it would have been this one.
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