"The humid path zigzagged like those of my childhood. We arrived at a library of Eastern and Western books. I recognized, encased in yellow silk, several handwritten volumes of the Lost Encyclopedia, a project directed by the Third Emperor of the Tang Dynasty and never prepared for printing. The disc on the gramophone spun adjacent a bronze phoenix. I also remember a vase of the rose family and another, centuries older, of that particular shade of blue that our buildings copied from the potters of Persia ...
"Stephen Albert was observing me and smiling. He was (as I already mentioned) very tall, with fine features, grey eyes and a grey beard. He had something of the priest in him, but also of the sailor; later he clarified that he had been a missionary in Tientsin 'before aspiring to become a sinologist.'
"We sat down: I on a long, low sofa, he with his back to the window and to an old circular clock. I calculated that my stalker Richard Madden would not arrive for an hour. For one more hour, then, my irrevocable destiny could wait.
"'An amazing destiny, Ts'ui Pên's,' said Stephen Albert. 'Governor of his native province, learned in astronomy, astrology, and in the indefatigable interpretation of the canonical books, chess player, famous poet and calligrapher: all of this he abandoned so as to compose a book and design a labyrinth. He renounced the pleasures of oppression, of justice, of his enormous bed, of his banquets, and even of erudition and ensconced himself for thirteen years in the Pavilion of Pure Solitude. At his death his heirs found nothing but chaotic manuscripts. His family, as you may happen to know, wanted to commit them to the flames; but his executor – a Taoist or Buddhist monk – insisted on their publication.'
"'Those of the bloodline of Ts'ui Pên," I replied, 'continued to curse this monk. The publication was foolish. The book is an indecisive heirloom of contradictory sketches. I took a look at it once: in the third chapter the hero dies, and in the fourth he is alive. As far as Ts'ui Pên's other project, his Labyrinth ...'
"'And here is the Labyrinth,'" he said, indicating to me an old lacquered desk.
"'A labyrinth of marble!' I exclaimed. 'A miniature labyrinth ...'
"'A labyrinth of symbols,' he corrected me. 'An invisible labyrinth of time. It is incumbent upon me, the English barbarian, to reveal this diaphanous mystery. After more than one hundred years the details are irretrievable, but it is not difficult to speculate as to what happened. Ts'ui Pên once said: I am withdrawing from the world to write a book. And on another occasion: I am withdrawing from the world to construct a labyrinth. Everyone thought he meant two distinct works; no one considered that book and labyrinth were the same object. The Pavilion of Pure Solitude functioned as the center perhaps of such an intricate garden; and yet the fact would have suggested to the human mind a physical labyrinth. Ts'ui Pên died; no one in the expansive lands that were his came across the labyrinth; the confusion of the novel suggested that this was the labyrinth. Two circumstances told me the correct solution to the problem. The first: the curious legend that Ts'ui Pên had proposed a labyrinth that was, strictly speaking, infinite. The second: a fragment of a letter that I discovered.'
"Albert got up. For a few moments he turned his back to me; he opened a drawer within the blackish-golden desk. He returned with a paper that had once been crimson; now it was pink and faint and quadrangular. It was indeed the renowned calligraphy of Ts'ui Pên. With incomprehension and fervor I read the words which a man of my bloodline had edited with a tiny brush: I leave to certain futures (but not to all) my garden of forking paths. I returned the paper in silence. Albert went on:
"'Before exhuming this letter, I had asked myself how a book could be infinite. The only procedure I could devise was a cyclical, circular volume. A volume whose last page was identical to its first with the possibly of continuing indefinitely. That night I also remembered that it was at the center of The Thousand and One Nights when the queen Scheherazade (in a magical moment of distraction on the part of the scribe) began to refer to the history of The Thousand and One Nights, with the risk of arriving anew at the night to which she was referring and so continuing into infinity. I also imagined a hereditary Platonic work, transmitted from father to son, in which every new character added a chapter or corrected with pious care the pages of the older characters. Such conjecture distracted me; and yet none of them seemed to correspond, not even remotely, to the contradictory chapters of Ts'ui Pên. Still in this state of perplexity, I at Oxford was sent the manuscript which you have examined.
"'I halted, quite naturally, at the phrase: I leave to certain futures (but not to all) my garden of forking paths. Then I suddenly almost grasped it all: the garden of forking paths was the chaotic novel; the phrase certain futures (but not to all) suggested to me the image of the bifurcation in time, not in space. A general rereading of the novel confirmed this theory. In all the works of fiction, every time a man is confronted with various alternatives he opts for one and eliminates the others; in the work of the almost inextricable Ts'ui Pên, he simultaneously chooses all of them. In this way, he creates various futures, various times, which likewise proliferate and fork. Hence the contradictions of the novel. Fang, let us say, has a secret. A stranger knocks on his door; Fang resolves to kill him. Naturally there are various possible dénouements: Fang could kill the intruder; the intruder could kill Fang; both could be saved; or both could die, etc. In the work of Ts'ui Pên, all the dénouements occur: each one of them is a starting point for other bifurcations. At some point, the paths of the labyrinth converge. For example, you arrive at this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy; in another you are my friend. Should you resign yourself to this hopeless declaration, we will read a few pages.'
"In the vivid circle of the lamp his face was undoubtedly that of an old man, but with something unbreakable and even immortal. I read with slow precision two versions of the same epic chapter. In the first version an army marches towards battle across a deserted mountain; the horror of the rocks and the shadow make them depreciate the value of life and they gain victory with great ease. In the second, the same army crosses a palace where a celebration is taking place; the resplendent battle seems to them to be a continuation of this celebration and they gain victory. I listened with decent veneration to these fictions, maybe less admirable than the fact that it was my blood who had devised them and that a man from a remote empire had restored them to me in the course of a desperate adventure on a Western isle. I remember the final words, repeated in each version like a secret commandment: Thus fought the heroes; calm was their admirable heart, violent their sword, resigned as they were to kill and be killed.
"From that point on I felt in my immediate surroundings and in my dark body an invisible, intangible swarming. Not the swarming of the divergent, parallel and ultimately coalescing armies, but a more inaccessible and more intimate agitation which they in some way prefigured. Stephen Albert went on:
"'I don't think that your illustrious ancestor played with the versions idly. I cannot deem it plausible that he would sacrifice thirteen years of his life to the infinite execution of a rhetorical experiment. The novel is a secondary genre in his country; and in his time it was a despicable genre. As a novelist Ts'ui Pên was brilliant, but he was also a man of letters who undoubtedly did not consider himself only a novelist. The testimony of his contemporaries proclaims – and his life confirms this all the more – his metaphysical and mystical interests. The philosophical controversy usurps a great part of his novel. I know that of all problems, nothing disquieted and plagued him as much as the abysmal problem of time. Now then, this is the only problem that does not figure in the pages of The Garden. He does not even use the word that means time. How do you explain this voluntary omission?'
"I proposed various solutions – all of them insufficient. We discussed them; when we finished, Stephen Albert said:
"'In a riddle whose theme is chess, what is the only forbidden word?'
"I thought for a moment and responded:
""The word chess.'
"'Precisely,' said Albert. 'The garden of forking paths is a enormous riddle, or parable, whose theme is time. For this recondite reason the riddle is prohibited from mentioning its name. Always omitting a word, resorting to inept metaphors and obvious periphrases, is perhaps the most emphatic means of indicating its existence. This was the tortuous method that he, the oblique Ts'ui Pên, preferred in every one of the meanders of his indefatigable novel. I have gone through hundreds of manuscripts; I have corrected the errors introduced by the scribes' negligence; I have devised a plan for this chaos; I have reestablished – that is, I believe I have reestablished – the original order; and I have translated the entire work. I can aver that the word time is not used at any juncture whatsoever. The explanation is obvious: The garden of forking paths is an incomplete, but not false image of the universe as conceived by Ts'ui Pên. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing and vertiginous network of different, convergent and parallel times. The scheme of these approaching, nearing, forking, or intersecting times covers all the possibilities. We do not exist in the majority of these times. In some of them you exist but I do not; in others I exist, but you do not; in yet others, we both exist. In this time, granted to me by favorable chance, you have come to my house; in another, you, while crossing the garden, have found me dead; in yet another, I say these same words, but they comprise an error, a ghost.'
"'And in all these times,' I articulated not without trembling, 'I appreciate and worship your recreation of the garden of Ts'ui Pên.'
"'Not in all of them,' he murmured with a smile. 'Time forks perpetually towards innumerable futures. In one of those, I am the enemy.'
"Again I felt that swarming I mentioned before. The humid garden that surrounded the house seemed infinitely saturated with invisible persons. These persons were Albert and I, secret, busy and multiform in other dimensions of time. I lifted my eyes and the faint nightmare dissipated. In the yellow and black garden there was only one man, but this man was as strong as a statue. And this man advanced towards the path and was Captain Richard Madden.
"'The future already exists,' I responded. 'But I am your friend. May I see the letter once more?'
"Albert got up. Tall, he opened the drawer of the tall desk; for a moment he turned his back to me. I had the revolver ready. I shot with the utmost caution: Albert collapsed without a groan, immediately. I swear that his death was instantaneous, a fulmination.
"The rest is unreal and insignificant. Madden burst in and arrested me. I was condemned to hang. Abominably I won: I communicated to Berlin the secret name of the city which ought to be attacked. Yesterday it was bombed; this I read in the same newspapers which put forth the enigma regarding the famed sinologist Stephen Albert's assassination by a stranger, Yu Tsun. The Boss deciphered this enigma. He knows that my problem was that I indicated (through the din of war) the city called Albert and that I found no other means but to kill a person of this name. He does not know (no one could know) my boundless contrition and fatigue."