22 May 2010

"The South" (Jorge Luis Borges)

from A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Anthony Kerrigan, story translated by Anthony Kerrigan (Grove Press, 1967)

A man named Juan Dahlmann suddenly took ill, was hospitalized, almost died, was cured, and then journeyed by train to the South, to his property ranch. After he came down from the train, Dahlmann walked into a store to eat and there encountered some bystanders who provoked him to a fight. Dahlmann stood up and confronted them. A knife suddenly materialized.

That's the bare bones of the story, told in just a few pages, ending with a duel to the death. What was interesting here was that Borges fashioned the existential pains of a convalescent man into an inquiry on the nature of time and violence: Time had never erased the desire to fight, always in the guise of upholding one's pride. Thus, what one sometimes ascribe to fate's decisions was but one's own flirtation with self-destruction, the seeming inevitability of violence when confronted with the other.

"Time" can mean here, in this place, in the South, an onward movement toward blood and dust. Time is biding its time. As we are all marked for death at the beginning, the entrance of (random) chance that seizes us without warning, forgets to apprise us of its malign intents. Time is the natural forward motion of existence. The seeming randomness or purposelessness of living is more than a matter of chance; rather, it is just a matter of time.

One seems to be presented with a conventional story, something with more of an actual plot than "Pierre Menard" or "The Library of Babel." The narrative at least appears to move linearly, the fantastical speculations held at bay. Or maybe not? Time suddenly shifted from 1871 to 1939. Time expanded such that eight interminable days seemed like eight centuries of bondage. Pure chance, aided by the beastly genetic makeup of men, gradually made its way to the temporal axis, finally reached its victim to strangle his throat.

"The South" was permeated with the images of time's passing: the sun changing its colors from one moment to the next, Dahlmann’s line of descent from a Johaness Dahlmann who arrived in Buenos Aires in 1871, sudden time shifts, sudden events that changed the climate of a situation from amiable to perilous. Even an edition of The Thousand and One Nights that Dahlmann acquired was trying to undermine time’s infinite regression: "To travel with this book, which was so much a part of the history of his ill-fortune, was a kind of affirmation that his ill-fortune had been annulled; it was a joyous and secret defiance of the frustrated forces of evil." Oh, if only he knew!

Dire events terminate into inevitability. The onus is on anyone found vulnerable. Twice in the story Dahlmann felt something brush his face, and in both occasions fate did not augur well. "Brushing cheeks with death," as Roberto Bolaño* would have it. In the first instance, a brush of bat (or bird) wings(?) on his cheeks, the appearance of blood, altogether harmless but which nonetheless signaled the start of a feverish lapse into sickness (septicemia, said the doctor), just a thin thread away from death. Sometimes time passes by as swift as a bat or bird brushing the face. This first premonition of death produced in Dahlmann a hypersensitivity of the senses. Sensations to external stimuli (colors, smell) were intensified. As much as it can, the body fought the disease to the last. Dahlmann recovered from this first brush, and lived another, just another, day.

The second time something brushed his cheek was when a gang of tough guys threw breadcrumbs at him. After recuperating from a near-death experience, he was dead set (no pun intended) to come down his ranch at the South to fully recover, only to fall again by the wayside. With an insult, a sneer in his direction. His life, just given a new lease, was again on the brink of extinction. Borges never told us how the knife duel ended.** Maybe it doesn’t matter. When mortals are already going down south, one escapes and survives, only to fall down the next trap.

Note: This is the third story discussed in the May reading of three Borges pieces.

*  I just learned from Nonsuch Book that Roberto Bolaño paid homage to "The South" in his own story, "The Insufferable Gaucho." How exciting! Reading Borges pays in itself, but recognizing his influences on Roberto, now that's value-adding. In 2666, Professor Amalfitano’s questions to Chucho Flores seemed to be inspired by "The Library of Babel": "That night Amalfitano asked the Mexican three questions. The first was what he thought of hexagons. The second was whether he knew how to construct a hexagon. The third was what he thought about the killings of women in Santa Teresa." Chucho didn't give satisfactory answers. The answers were perhaps locked away in one of the (infinite) hexagonal rooms.

**  In Dreamtigers, Borges sketched in "Martín Fierro" a possible ending to this short story: "...a man dreamed about a fight. A gaucho lifts a Negro off his feet with his knife, throws him down like a sack of bones, sees him agonize and die, crouches down to clean his blade, unties his horse, and mounts slowly so he will not be thought to be running away."


  1. As I read everyone's posts on this I keep coming across stuff I didn't pick up on. The two occurrences of something brushing Dahlmann's face, for example, and Borges's exploration of time.

    I think the deceptively simple nature of "The South" actually requires the reader to examine it more closely than either "Pierre Menard" or "The Library," which are obviously speculative in nature (whereas "The South" seems like a conventional short story). It's pretty neat how that worked out - like "The South" is double-layered.

  2. Rise, despite what you say is time's "onward movement toward blood and dust," one of the things that tickles me in "The South" is Borges' equation of the future with the past: i.e. Dahlmann's future ends with an imagined return to his family's past. From the reader's perspective, this can be either a sad ending (inevitable, tragic violence...) or a happy one (Dahlmann choosing to meet death on his own terms like his famous ancestor) depending on how you look at it. Also love how Borges mirrors the physical journey to "the South" with the character's "soul journey" to the underworld and the geography of the country with the history of the country. Lots to think about!

  3. E. L. Fay, it's great that we started on the more abstract, 'difficult' stories before going on a more 'straightforward' story. It appears like we first sharpened our minds with the Borges in Menard and Babel. So 'The South' - as with the first 2 stories - turns out to be not as it seems at first.

    Richard, great thoughts! I like your interpretation of the of equating future with the past. Somehow I recognize it in the many twinning moments and images in the book, the multiple instances of déjà vus in the story. Thanks for providing further contexts on this "soul journey."