George Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths
The Garden of Forking Paths by the post-modern Spanish novelist George Luis Borges is a short story originally published in 1941 as part of a collection of short stories with the same title. Originally published in Spanish, its first translation came out in 1951 in French and it was this first translation that paved the way for George Luis Borges to be recognized as a reputable writer in Europe.
The Garden of Forking Paths is a detective/mystery short fiction set in Staffordshire, England during wartime with Germany. The main protagonist of the story, Dr. Yu Tsun, is a Chinese professor and spy for the German government on a mission to identify a British artillery’s location in the city of Albert. Complications arise and the mission is compromised when his partner Runeberg is killed by an Irish officer named Richard Madden who was sent to arrest the two spies. This leads Yu Tsun to devise a desperate plan that eventually led to a fateful encounter with a certain Dr. Stephen Albert, a sinologist and scholar in Chinese culture. Coincidentally, Dr. Albert reveals that he is working on a text written by Tsui Pen, Yu Tsun’s direct ancestor: “The Garden of Forking Paths”. This encounter eventually leads to an understanding of the ancestor’s cryptic texts about a never-ending labyrinth, Dr. Albert’s untimely demise and Yu Tsun’s arrest.
George Luis Borge’s The Garden of Forking Paths is a piece of post-modern literature that, like his fable On Exactitude in Science, exemplify some concepts present in Jean Baudrillard’s theories on simulation and simulacra. In the story, Dr. Albert discovers the truth behind the last work(s) of Tsui Pen. What Tsui Pen’s descendants and fellow Chinese scholars dismissed as nothing but incoherent mix of unfinished drafts turns out to be a dissimulation of Tsui Pen’s ultimate thesis: time is not a linear concept but rather is a series of co-existing forks diverging from a single point of existence. In essence, according to Dr. Albert’s analogy, Tsui Pen’s last novel was trying to simulate reality by recreating not one reality but all realities that could possibly stem from one single event. Quintessentially, Tsui Pen’s last novel was in fact a simulacrum of time.
Aside from the above example, the mere fact that the story is told in hindsight from the last reflections and confessions of Dr.Yu Tsun is also an example of Baudrillard’s (1994) third order simulacra, “the simulacrum precedes the original and the distinction between reality and representation break down […].” Even the story teller (before the point-of-view shifts from third person to first-person) acknowledges this in the first two introductory paragraphs, one of which states “The following statement, dictated, reread and signed by Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, throws an unsuspected light over the whole affair. The first two pages of the document are missing” (Borges 1963). Here, despite the missing two pages and despite the fact that Dr. Yu Tsun is no longer available to question (he has been executed), the reader is presented with the memoirs under the precedent that the events detailed in it are true, that in fact it was the reality behind the postponement of a planned attack on Serre-Montauban originally scheduled on July 24 1916 – a clear display of a simulacrum (Yu Tsun’s memoirs) preceding the real (the events behind the postponement) that cannot be truly ascertained any longer. As a result, this leads the reader to believe Yu Tsun’s account as the reality that has transpired (history) instead of a (personal) representation of reality – completely blurring the line between simulacrum and reality in the process.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Borges, George Luis. “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Ficciones. Grove Press, 1963.