Pulp Consumption: Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” (Guest Post by Anthony Perconti)

Editors’ Note: Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys well-crafted and engaging stories across a variety of genres and mediums.  His articles have appeared in several online venues and can be found on Twitter at @AnthonyPerconti.

I was introduced to the writings of Jorge Luis Borges through the recently departed American fantasists, Gene Wolfe. The two authors shared concurrent interests in exploring grand themes and big ideas in their respective works. Borges is the type of writer that is at once easily accessible and like Wolfe, highly perplexing. His stories are only a few pages long, yet they are densely packed with such information that relates to the metaphysical. One such tale is his 1941 offering, “The Garden of Forking Paths”. Published in English in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in August 1948, “Garden” is a ‘metaphysical detective’ yarn that prefigures such stories as Michael Moorcock’s “The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius” and The Metatemporal Detective sequence. 

“Garden” takes place in the midst of the First World War. Doctor Yu Tsun is a professor of English (of Chinese heritage) living in England. He is also an agent of the Kaiser’s military intelligence apparatus. When Tsun discovers that his cover has been compromised, he is ruthlessly pursued by Captain Richard Madden, an agent of the British Crown.  Narrowly escaping his pursuer, Tsun catches a train out of London to the village of Ashgrove. After wandering around (seemingly) aimlessly through the village, he is directed by a group of youths to the home of Sinologist, Doctor Stephen Albert. In what seems like a shocking turn of fate, Tsun discovers that Doctor Albert is something of an expert on his ancestor, Ts’ui Pen. This ancestor, who retired from the position of provincial governor, sequestered himself in his Pavilion of Limpid Solitude for thirteen years to “compose a book and a labyrinth.” The work of literature (The Garden of Forking Paths) is an indecipherable jumble in which the hero dies in the third chapter, only to be alive again in the fourth. 

Doctor Albert has cracked the mystery; the book and the labyrinth are one in the same.  “The explanation is obvious: The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as conceived by Ts’ui Pen. Unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times. That fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries, contains all possibilities. In most of those times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but I do not; in others, I do and you do not; in others still, we both do. In this one, which the favouring hand of chance has dealt me, you have come to my home; in another, when you come through my garden you find me dead; in another, I say these same words, but I am an error, a ghost.”

This is Borges tackling the cosmological concept of the multiple worlds or multiverse theory. The Garden of Forking Paths is a tome whose core conceit is an exploration of parallel timelines; where any and all possible outcomes are represented. Nonlinear time is Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth; a constantly bifurcating and ever expanding cosmological tree of divergent universes. Not to spoil the ending of the tale, but suffice it to say that Tsun takes matters into his own hands and creates a new branch in the multiversal tree, while simultaneously fulfilling his duty to Germany in the war effort. 

In the decades since the publication of this tale, the theme of parallel worlds in science fiction has become commonplace. However, it should be noted that Borges was exploring these trippy metaphysical concepts in the early 1940’s; he was a trailblazer in this regard. The concepts found in “Garden”, would be taken up and expanded upon greatly a few decades later by British writer, Michael Moorcock. In Moorcock’s cosmology, every single one of his characters and stories, regardless of genre, are interlinked through the meta-concept of the Multiverse. A fan favorite character such as Elric for example, is just another aspect, another filament, in a vastly larger, interwoven tapestry. Like Tsun and Albert, it is quite possible that a multiplicity of versions of the same characters exist in neighboring timelines. In addition to exploring these grand metaphysical ideas in their fiction, Borges and Moorcock, are also extremely entertaining story tellers. You can’t go wrong with either of their works. A word of warning though; once you start reading them, it’s very difficult to stop.

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1 Response to Pulp Consumption: Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” (Guest Post by Anthony Perconti)

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