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« El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (part 2) | Main | The Innocent »
Saturday
Jan222011

El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (part 1)

The first part of a work ("The garden of forking paths") by this Argentine.  You can read the original here.

On page 242 of Liddell Hart's History of the European War, one reads that an offensive of three British divisions (supported by one thousand four hundred artillery pieces) against the Serre-Montauban line had been planned for July twenty-fourth, 1916 and had to be postponed until the morning of the twenty-ninth.  Torrential downpours (Captain Liddell Hart notes) provoked this delay nothing significant, certainly.  The following statement, dictated, reread and signed by Dr. Yu Tsun, former chair of English at the Hochschule of Tsingtao, throws an unforeseen light on the case.  Missing are the two initial pages:

"... And I put down the receiver.  Immediately thereafter I recognized the voice that had answered in German.  It was the voice of Captain Richard Madden.  Madden, in the apartment of Viktor Runeberg, wished to declare an end to our efforts and but this seemed very secondary, or it ought to have seemed very secondary to our lives as well.  He wanted to say that Runeberg had been arrested or assassinated.*  Before the sun set that day I would share the same fate.  Madden was implacable.   More specifically, he was obliged to be implacable.  An Irishman at the command of England, a man accused of halfheartedness and perhaps of treason how could he not come to embrace and appreciate this miraculous favor:  the discovery, capture and maybe even the murder of two agents of the German Empire? 

"I went up to my room.  Absurdly, I locked the door; then I threw myself on my back onto the small iron bed.  In the window lingered, as always, the roof tiles and the hazy six-o'clock sun.  It seemed incredible that this day, without any premonitions or symbols, would become the day of my implacable death.  Despite my deceased father, despite having been a boy in the symmetrical garden of Hai Feng, I, now, was about to die?  Then I considered that all the things that occur to one person precisely, precisely now.  Centuries of centuries have passed and yet only in the present do things occur; innumerable men in sky, sea, and land, and everything that really happens happens to me ... The almost intolerable memory of Madden's equine features abolished all these digressions.  In the midst of my hate and my terror (now speaking about terror is of no consequence; now that I have mocked Richard Madden; now that my throat inhales the rope) I thought that this tumultuous and undoubtedly happy warrior did not suspect that I possessed the Secret: the name of the precise location of the new reserve arsenal of British artillery above the Ancre river.  A bird scratched the gray sky and I blindly translated it into an airplane and this airplane into many airplanes (in the French sky) annihilating the reserve arsenal with vertical bombs.  If my mouth, before it was destroyed by a bullet, could have screamed the name in such a way that it would be heard in Germany ... My human voice was very weak.  How could I get it within earshot of the boss?  Within earshot of that sick and odious man who did not know about Runeberg or about me save that we were in Staffordshire, waiting in vain for our news from his arid office in Berlin, endlessly examining the newspapers ...

"I said aloud: 'I have to escape.'  I sat up noiselessly in a useless perfection of silence, as if Madden were already there lying in wait for me.  Something perhaps the mere ostentation of testing that my memories were naught made me check my pockets.  I found what I knew I was going to find: the American watch, the nickel chain and the square coin, the key ring with the useless, compromising keys to Runeberg's apartment, the booklet, a map that I resolved to destroy immediately (and which I did not destroy), the fake passport, a crown, two shillings and a few pennies, the red-blue pencil, the handkerchief, the revolver with one bullet.  Absurdly, I brandished this last item and weighed it in my hand to give myself some courage.  I vaguely believed that a pistol shot could be heard from very far off.  In ten minutes my plan was fully ready.  The phonebook gave me the name of the only person capable of conveying the news.  He lived in a suburb of Fenton, at least a half-hour away by train.

"I am a cowardly man.  Now I say it, now that I have carried out a plan that no one would categorize as risky.  I know that his execution was horrible.  But I did not do it for Germany.  A barbaric country which has forced upon me the abasement of being a spy cannot matter.  Moreover, I know of a man from England a modest man who for me is no meaner than Goethe.  For more than an hour I did not speak to him, but for that hour he was Goethe ... I did it because I felt the boss had a bit of those of my race of the innumerable antecedents which flow in unison into me.  I wanted to see whether a yellow man could save his armies.  Moreover, I wanted to escape from the captain.  His hands and his voice could pound at my door at any moment.  I dressed noiselessly, bid farewell to the mirror, went downstairs, looked closely at the tranquil street and went out.  The station was not far from the house, but I thought it preferable to take a car.  I deduced that in this way I would incur less danger of being recognized; the fact is that in the deserted street I felt visible and vulnerable, infinitely so.  I remember that I told the driver to stop a bit before the main entrance.  I got out with willful and almost laborious slowness; I was going to the town of Ashgrove but I took a route to the more distant station.  The train was leaving in a few minutes, at eight-fifty.  I hurried; the next one would leave at nine-thirty.  There was practically no one on the platform.  I went past the train cars: I remember some manual workers, a woman in mourning, a young man who was avidly reading the Annals of Tacitus, and a wounded, happy soldier.  The cars set off at the end.  A man I recognized was running in vain to the end of the platform.  It was Captain Richard Madden.  Annihilated, trembling, I cowered at the other end of the seat, far from the timid window pane.                                     

"From this annihilation I passed into almost abject happiness.  I said to myself that my duel was already determined and that I had won the first round by mocking, if for but forty minutes, if only for a pleasantry of fortune, the attack of my adversary.  I deduced that this minimal victory prefigured a complete one.  I deduced that it was not minimal at all, since without this precious difference in the trains' departure schedule I would be in jail or be dead.  I deduced (in no less sophisticated a manner) that my cowardly happiness proved that I was a man capable of crowning an adventure with success.  From this weakness I summoned forces that did not abandon me.  I foresee that man will resign himself every day to increasingly atrocious undertakings; soon there will be nothing but soldiers and bandits;  to them I give this piece of advice:  he who undertakes an atrocious deed ought to imagine it already completed, and ought to impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.  Thus I proceeded while my eyes of an already dead man registered the flow of that day which perhaps was the last, and then the diffusion of the night.  The train rolled along softly between ash trees.  It stopped almost in the middle of the field.  No one shouted the name of the station.  'Ashgrove?'  I asked some boys on the platform.  'Ashgrove,' they answered.  I got out.

"A light illumined the platform, but the boys' faces remained in the zone of shadows.  One of them asked me: 'Are you going to the house of Dr. Stephen Albert?'  Without awaiting a response, another said: 'The house is far from here, but you won't get lost if you take this road on the left and then turn left at each crossing.'  I tossed them a coin (my last one), went down a few stone steps, and started on the solitary road.  This descended, slowly.  Above the rough, plain earth crowded webs of branches, and a low, round moon seemed to be accompanying me.

"For a moment I thought that Richard Madden had in some way penetrated my desperate proposition.  Very soon I understood that this was impossible.  The advice to keep turning left reminded me that this was a procedure commonly used to discover the central clearing of certain labyrinths.  I understand something of labyrinths; not in vain I am the great-grandson of the same Ts'ui Pên who was once governor of Yunnan and who renounced his post temporarily so as to write a novel that would become even more popular than the Hung Lu Meng, as well as to build a labyrinth in which all men would get lost.  Three years he devoted to these heterogeneous travails but was slain by the hand of a foreigner; his novel was silly and no one found the labyrinth.  Below the English trees I pondered this lost labyrinth.  I imagined it inviolate and perfect in the secret summit of a mountain; I imagined it erased by paddies or underwater; I imagined it infinite, without those octagonal kiosks or turning paths, but with rivers, provinces, and kingdoms ... I thought about the labyrinth of labyrinths, about a sinuous, growing labyrinth which spanned the past and the future and which in some way involved the stars.  Absorbed by these illusory images I forgot my destiny as quarry.  For an indeterminate time I felt like the abstract perceiver of the world.  The lazy and alive field, the moon, the remains of the day, all of them acted within me; the decline likewise eliminated any possibility of fatigue.  The evening was intimate, infinite.  The road descended and forked between the confused meadows.  A sharp and almost syllabic music was approaching and then fading on the to-and-fro of the wind, blemished only by the leaves and the distance.  I thought that a man could be the enemy to other men, to other moments belonging to other men, but not to a country: not to fireflies, words, gardens, flowing waters, west winds.  In this way I arrived at an old rusted gate. 

"Between the bars I could make out a tree-lined avenue and some type of pavilion.  At once I understood two things, the first trivial, the second almost incredible: the music was coming from the pavilion, and the music was Chinese.  For that reason had I fully accepted it without actually paying it any attention.  I do not recall whether there was a bell or whether I called out slamming my fists.  The sizzling of the music continued.

"But from within the intimate chamber a lantern was nearing, a lantern that scratched and at times erased the trunks, a paper lantern in the shape of drums and the color of the moon.  It was being carried by a tall man.  I did not see his face because I was blinded by the light.  He opened the gate and spoke slowly in my language:

"'I see that the pious Hsi P'êng insists on correcting my solitude.  You doubtless would like to see the garden?'

"I recognized the name of one of our consuls and repeated, disconcerted:

"'The garden?'

"'The garden of forking paths.'

"Something agitated in my memory and I then spoke with incomprehensible assuredness:

"'The garden of my ancestor Ts'ui Pên.'

"'Your ancestor?  Your illustrious ancestor?  Come on in.'

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

*An odious and outlandish hypothesis.  The Prussian spy Hans Rabener alias Viktor Runeberg assaulted the bearer of the arrest warrant, Captain Richard Madden, with an automatic pistol.  The latter in self-defense caused him injuries that would lead to his death (Editor's Note)

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