Donald A. Yates, in The Cardinal Points of Borges (1971: 405),explains that one way to approach Borges is to see him through fourcardinal points, each representing a core aspect of his identity as a writer.According to Yates, Borges’s North would be language and more specifically the aesthetic expression thatcharacterises his literature. This author’s fondness for different literaryforms stems from his childhood memories of his father’slibrary of English books, partly explaining why Borges devoted his life toliterature and experimenting with it.
The recurring and unique literary tool heuses is the labyrinth, which appears in the structures, the plots, thecharacters and the intertextual references featuring in his short stories.However, whereas labyrinths usually solve riddles through space, Borges usesthis literary device as a representation of time in order to change ourunderstanding of it. In his stories, Borges demonstrates that there is a clear link betweenmazes and time. The author himself(1986: 210) defined a labyrinth as being ‘un sitio en el cual uno se pierde enun sitio que, a su vez, se pierde en el tiempo; de modo que la idea de unlaberinto que se pierde … es doblemente mágica’.
In a labyrinth one gets lost not only in space but also in time becausethe longer one stays stuck inside, the closer one will be to remaining trappedand eventually dying from dehydration and starvation (Angélica and Torrecilla2017). Additionally, like time, mazes give one a choice of path and direction.Finally, in both cases, they are meant to be un-escapable.
Indeed, the veryfirst mythological labyrinth built for King Minos of Crete was so complex thatthe designer himself, Daedalus, was almost unable to find his way out, meaningthat anyone other than him would be trapped (Matthews 1922: 18-19). Time is, ina similar way, impossible to escape from, except in God’s case, because nohuman is immortal. Labyrinths are explicitly presented as symbols of time in Borges’s works.In ‘El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan’, Ts’ui Pên’s novel is describedby Stephen Albert as being a labyrinth in itself. When Yu Tsun visits him, heexplains: ‘me había preguntado de qué manera un libro puede ser infinito. Noconjeturé otro procedimiento que el de un volumen cíclico, circular. Un volumen cuya última página fuera idéntica ala primera, con posibilidad de continuar indefinidamente.’ (Borges 1995 : 112).
In the unfinished novel written by Yu Tsun’sancestor, every choice leads to multiple chapters, which in turn lead to morechapters. Thus, through this literary piece inserted in the plot, Borges expressesthe simultaneous existence of all possible situations (Campaignolle-Catel 2006:83-84). Moreover, Albert’s explanation suggests that the image of the labyrinthreflects time. According to this theory, within a space, there are multipleuniverses in which an infinite number of possible outcomes of a single actionmay occur. If all possibilities can coexist, the universe- or multiverses- areinfinite because every possibility creates a new one. Ts’ui Pên’s novel is away of simultaneously including all these time frames within a single narrativespace (Campaignolle-Catel 2006: 88). However, the fact that this text was neverfinished –despite thirteen years of work- shows that representing the conceptof multiverses is almost impossible. The plots of Borges’s stories implicitly refer to labyrinths.
In ‘Elmilagro secreto’, the year of mental time given to Hladik to finish his playreflects Borges’s idea of timelessness. The instant between the bullets beingfired and them reaching their target should, in theory, last a fraction of asecond. However, if ‘God’ was able to freeze time and give the main character awhole extra year, the existence of a time within time is proven, thereforemirroring Borges’s metaphor of the labyrinth (Boldly 2013). This is the samevision of time that is explored in ‘El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan’.
Weed (2004: 176) explains that another way of understanding the latter would beto compare the story to the labyrinth of Crete, which led to a minotaur locatedin a central chamber. Yu Tsun, in the role of Theseus, makes his way throughthe labyrinth, here replaced by the paths of the English countryside, turningleft at every crossroads which leads him to Stephen Albert’s garden, which is initself a labyrinth of footways also called “El jardín de los senderos que sebifurcan” (Curto 2017: 43). Yu Tsun reaches the centre, and kills thesinologist. The plot of ‘the Garden of Forking Paths’ is therefore very muchlabyrinthine. Moreover, the train is a recurring reminder of time andstructures the text, just like time structures our lives. Unlike the labyrinth,however, it follows a continuous line and constitutes the only linear elementof the story (Campaignolle-Catel 2006: 77-78). In this way Borges shows the twoopposite faces of time: it is both linear and circular according to the author.
The characters in Borges’s stories are also designed to be in some waylabyrinthine and some are even explicitly connected to time. In ‘Funes el memorioso’,the main character’s mind functions like time. Indeed, past and futuremoments are ordered in a non-linear way, as if the present were eternal (Mosher1994:56). In the story, Funes reveals that, since his fall from a horse, heremembers everything in full detail such as the shape of the clouds at anygiven time, as if moments could live on forever, thus highlighting thecontinuity of time (Boldly 2013: 107-109). In the case of ‘Funes el memorioso’,time can be compared to a maze because the latter does not necessarily requirea correct order of paths to follow, simply one solution in the end, which intime is symbolised by death. In ‘El milagro secreto’, the freezing ofphysical time by God allows Hladik to complete his play.
Similarly to Funes,Hladik is stuck (in the physical sense) as he cannot bend the laws of space.Because time is non-linear, however – like a maze- his mind is free to wanderand finish the play (Mosher 1994: 55). Although some short stories do not explicitly refer to labyrinths, theirstructure has labyrinthine aspects. In ‘El jardín de los senderos que sebifurcan’, the word ‘labyrinth’ itself is repeated twenty-one times,which emphasizes the omnipresence of the theme. Additionally, the story is fullof redundant details such as the page number of Liddell Hart’s book, or thefact that there were thirteen British divisions and one thousand four hundredpieces of artillery.
Similarly, the narrator in ‘El milagro secreto’ gives anoverwhelming number of exact dates and times: ‘la noche del catorce de marzo de1939’; ‘el diecinueve’; ‘el mismo diecinueve, al aterdecer’; el día veintinuevede marzo, a las nueve a.m’ (Borges 1995:175-176). In contrast, in ‘El jardín delos senderos que se bifurcan’, Borges uses prepositions, adverbs, nouns andverbs which express undefined periods of time.
For instance, the narrator says:’me sentí por un tiempo indeterminado’; ‘algunas veces’; ‘uno de los pasadosposibles’, ‘innumerables futuros’ (Ester Martinez 1983: 17). While ‘El milagrosecreto’ misleads and confuses the reader through its extensive detailssurrounding time, it appears that the time frame in the second story is keptpurposefully vague so as to convey Borges’s sense of infinity. Moreover, Borgespurposefully uses very long and complex sentences, often with brackets, like inthe opening of ‘Funes el memorioso’ (Borges 1995:125).
The reader could also bepuzzled by the presence of numerous narrators, of which there are four in ‘Eljardín de los senderos que se bifurcan’: one whom is not defined, Yu Tsun,Stephen Albert and Ts’ui Pen. The labyrinthine structure of these works may beintended to force the reader to go over the story repeatedly in order to graspits meaning. Indeed, a maze cannot be completed in one try. This cyclical patternrecalls Borges’s idea of circular and infinite time explained previously. Intertextuality erases the notion of an original text, thus allowingBorges to introduce the idea of timelessness in literature. Indeed, G. Curto(2017: 40) refers to Borges’s work as ‘infinite Chinese boxes’ due to this useof intertextuality and repeated ‘mises en abyme’. As Curto then points out,Borges plays on the semantic definition of ‘infinity’ in his works, leaningtowards the Greek sense of chaos and disorder.
Like a labyrinth, time isconfusing and one can get lost in it due to its non-linearity. Intertextualitycan be found in ‘El milagro secreto’, for instance. Hladik has a dream, set inthe Prague library of Clementium, which could refer to ‘La Librería de Babel’.This short story, also in Ficciones (Borges 1995: 87) depicts a universe in the form of a library containing allimaginable books with every possible combination of letters and pages.
Hladik’splay The Enemies is also a text within a text, therefore recreatingBorges’s idea of infinity and circular time (Boldy 2013: 120). In ‘El jardín delos senderos que se bifurcan’, intertextuality also plays a major role inmisleading the reader. Firstly, the war is introduced by reference to LiddellHart’s The History of the World War, a book which explains why theBritish offensive on the Serre-Montauban Line was postponed. This explanation alsohappens to be the plot of Borges’s story. Secondly, Yu Tsun’s travels toAshgrove may refer to both the ash tree and Herbert Ashe, the sorcerer of ‘TheCircular Ruins’. Lastly, the reference to Ts’ui Pen’s novel, also called ‘Eljardín de los senderos que se bifurcan’ emphasizes the short story’s circularnature (Campaignolle-Catel 2006: 81) Borges also shows that books in general are essentially labyrinths.
Indeed, both are designed to lose whoever ventures into them whilstentertaining them (Planells 1991: 204). Moreover, by reading and by thinking,the reader creates his own maze, just like he creates his own path in time.Despite the paths and indications given by the narrator, the reader can chosewhether or not to follow them (Weed 2004: 169). If the labyrinth can be interpretedin different ways, there is also an infinite number of choices and pathsavailable to us in life.
If books, like labyrinths and time, are of circularstructure or in other words infinite, it means that they live on after theirauthor’s death. Novels therefore become self-referential, independent from timeand space in the present, past and future (Angélica and Torrecilla 2017:68-69). The comparison between book and maze is alsorelevant because the reader himself can get lost in a book just like he can ina labyrinth, by misunderstanding the main theme for instance. In Ts’ui Pên’s’El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan’ the word time does not appear oncebut is instead replaced with vague circumlocutions and metaphors. StephenAlbert, the sinologist, then explains to Yu Tsun that it is the author’s way ofindicating, subtly, that it is the central theme of the text (Borges 1995: 115).
Borges, through his playful–but complex- literary devices and twisted plots, manages to turn his worksinto puzzles for the reader to solve. These puzzles, very much labyrinthine intheir structure, are a clever way for the author to convey his vision ofinfinite time, an idea which leads onto the concept of multiverses. In theattempt to grasp the meaning behind Borges’s stories, the reader has to rethinkthe way he sees and understands the world –maybe even question his ownexistence. Indeed, although he is introduced to a mysterious paradoxical,hostile and unfamiliar universe, he cannot deny the plausibility of Borges’sarguments.