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Monday
Aug102009

Borges, "Parábola del palacio"

A prose poem ("Parable of the palace") by this Argentine writer.  You can read the original as part of this collection.

That day, the Yellow Emperor showed the poet his palace.  They left behind in a long procession the first Western terraces which, like tiers of an almost boundless amphitheatre, sloped down towards a paradise or garden whose metal mirrors and intricate hedges of juniper already called to mind the labyrinth.  Gleefully they lost themselves within; at first, however, it was as if they had condescended to a game.  Later and not undisturbingly the straight paths sustained a very gentle yet continuous curve; secretly, then, they were encircled.  Around midnight, observation of the planets and the propitious sacrifice of a turtle allowed them to unbind themselves from this ostensibly bewitched region but not from the sensation of being lost, a sensation that would accompany them to the end.  They visited antechambers and patios and libraries; they walked through a hexagonal room with a water clock; and one morning from a tower they espied a man of stone who then eluded their sight forever.  Many a resplendent river was crossed in sandalwood canoes or perhaps just one river many times.  The poet reached the imperial retinue and the people lay prostrate at his feet, yet one day they stopped at an island on which someone did not stop owing to his never having glimpsed the Son of Heaven, and an executioner was obliged to behead him.  Their eyes looked with indifference upon black hair and black dances and complex masks of gold; what was real and what was dreamt became confused or, rather, the real was one of the configurations of dream.  It seemed impossible that the land could be something other than gardens, waters, architecture and forms of splendor.  Every ten paces a tower sliced through the air; to the eyes the color was identical, but the first was yellow and the last scarlet, so delicate were the gradations and so long the sequence.

It was at the foot of the penultimate tower where the poet (who was alien to the spectacles that all found so marvelous) recited the brief composition to which we now attach his name and which, according to the most eloquent historians, lent him both immortality and death.  The text itself has been lost; there are those who understand it to consist of one verse, others that think it but one word.  What is certain and incredible is that in the poem was an entire enormous palace in meticulous detail with every illustrious porcelain piece and every drawing upon that piece, and the shadows and lights of the dusks, and every ill-fated or joyous moment of the glorious dynasties of mortals, gods and dragons who had inhabited the palace throughout its endless past.  All were silent, but the emperor exclaimed: You have robbed me of my palace!  And the hangman's iron blade separated the poet from life.  

Others remember the story differently.  In our world no two things can be truly equal; the poet's having said the poem sufficed (they tell us) for the palace to vanish as if abolished and struck dead by the final syllable.  Such legends, of course, are mere literary conceits.  The poet lived and died the emperor's slave; his composition fell into oblivion because it deserved oblivion and his descendants still search, and will never find, the word of the universe.  

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