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Ficciones | Plot Summary

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Summary

Part 1: The Garden of Forking Paths

Prologue

Jorge Luis Borges introduces the first eight stories of Ficciones, previously published in 1941 as the collection The Garden of Forking Paths. He says the stories need no "extraneous elucidation," but he gives hints on how to read some of them. He says "The Garden of Forking Paths" is a detective story in which the readers assist in the execution of the crime. He also tells readers several of the stories are commentaries on imaginary books.

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

In a doctored encyclopedia the narrator and his friend read about Uqbar, a mysterious land. This discovery leads them to discover Tlön, a planet invented by a secret society. The discovery has far-reaching consequences for the planet Earth.

The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim

The narrator comments on commentary about a book titled The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim by "the Bombay lawyer Mir Bahadur Ali." Commentators say the book combines a "mystic undercurrent" and a detective novel. The narrator then paraphrases the novel's plot. A man searches for another man, Al-Mu'tasim, by looking for traces of him in other people.

Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote

A 20th-century man of letters, Pierre Menard, attempts to write Don Quixote. He wants to write the exact text as Cervantes wrote, without copying it. He succeeds in writing a few disconnected chapters, which the narrator finds "almost infinitely richer" than the original.

The Circular Ruins

At a ruined temple in the jungle a man creates another man by dreaming him. An ancient fire god animates the dreamed-of man. When the dreaming man's temple burns, he realizes he too is the product of someone else's dream.

The Babylon Lottery

The first-person narrator reveals he has had many high positions in society and many misfortunes, all of these determined by lottery. He describes the evolution of the lottery, which soon subjects all of Babylonian life to chance. The narrator is about to leave on a ship, perhaps because a lottery drawing has determined he must.

An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain

The story is a fictional essay about the works of a fictitious, deceased Irish writer named Herbert Quain. He wrote strange and inventive works, including a story with nine possible paths to the end. The narrator reveals he used ideas from Quain's work to write one of the stories in Ficciones, "The Circular Ruins."

The Library of Babel

The first-person narrator describes an immense, or perhaps infinite, Library. The books are all the same length and consist of combinations of letters. Only occasionally do the combinations form words. The librarians despair over the unreadable books.

The Garden of Forking Paths

Dr. Yu Tsun, descendant of the maker of an "infinite labyrinth," spies for Germany in England during World War I. He senses he is close to being captured and makes a desperate attempt to get vital information to his German spy chief. Whether by chance or destiny, Dr. Yu Tsun meets the one man who has solved the puzzle of his grandfather's labyrinth.

Part 2: Artifices

Prologue

Borges makes special mention of two stories in Part 2 of Ficciones, "Funes, the Memorious" and "Death and the Compass." He contrasts them: "Funes, the Memorious" is about insomnia, while "Death and the Compass" is set in a world of dreams. In a postscript he says he added three stories after the original publication of Ficciones.

Funes, the Memorious

The narrator recalls a childhood friend, Ireneo Funes, who had a remarkable mind. Then an accident and a head wound leave him with a remarkably detailed memory that sets him apart from other people. The narrator meets Funes again as an adult, and gains insight into his peculiar genius and stultifying limitations.

The Form of the Sword

The narrator recounts a meeting with an Irishman in Uruguay. When he asks the man how he got the scar on his face, the man tells a story of the Irish fight for independence and of his betrayal by a cowardly man named John Vincent Moon. At the end of his story he reveals he is the coward Vincent Moon.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero

The narrator proposes the basic outlines of a future story. It is about the descendant of assassinated Irish hero and martyr Fergus Kilpatrick. The descendant, Ryan, discovers Kilpatrick was in fact a traitor as well. He arranged to have himself assassinated in a dramatic way that would inspire future generations.

Death and the Compass

The cerebral detective Erik Lönnrot chases an infamous criminal, Red Scharlach. Lönnrot investigates the murder of Hebrew scholar Marcel Yarmolinsky by reading Yarmolinsky's books on Judaism and Jewish mysticism, believing the main clues lie in the texts and ignoring the obvious. Scharlach reads similar books and sets a trap for Lönnrot.

The Secret Miracle

In Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1939 the writer Jaromir Hladík is arrested by the Nazis and sentenced to death. As he stands before the firing squad, he prays to God for one year of life so he can finish writing his tragedy The Enemies. Time stops, though Hladík cannot move and the rifles remain pointed at him. As he completes the work, mentally beginning the last lines of the tragedy, time starts again and he is shot.

Three Versions of Judas

A fictional 20th-century Swedish theologian, Nils Runeberg, writes some heretical works about Judas. He proposes Judas was the true incarnation of God. To become truly human, Runeberg reasons, God had to become a despicable human, Judas rather than Jesus.

The End

A paralyzed barman, Recabarren, witnesses a fight between a guitarist and horseman Martín Fierro. The singer and Fierro are characters from the 19th-century Argentinean epic poem The Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) by José Hernández. In Borges's story the guitarist kills Fierro.

The Sect of the Phoenix

An underground society thrives for centuries, united by its practice of "the Secret," which the narrator never explains. The narrator compares this society, the sect of the Phoenix, to Jews and gypsies. But unlike them, says the narrator, the sect of the Phoenix has never been persecuted for itself and practices its uncomplicated rite anywhere.

The South

Juan Dahlmann, Argentinean descendant of a German pastor, receives a copy of The Thousand and One Nights. On his way to read it, he hits his head and then is hospitalized. He recovers from blood poisoning but is later challenged to a knife fight in which he thinks he will surely die.
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