Jorge Luis Borges's "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (and other stories)
(comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)

Last month our science fiction discussion group read Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (ISBN 0-811-20012-4). As I described it to the group, "The fiction in this is included in Collected Fictions (ISBN 0-140-28680-2), a 1998 collection of all Borges's fiction. Several of the stories come from an earlier collection, Ficciones (ISBN 0-802-13030-5). Many (all?) of the essays and parables are in Selected Non-Fictions (ISBN 0-140-29011-7). All this is almost as convoluted as one of Borges's stories!"

But it gets better. Labyrinths, Ficciones, and Collected Fictions all have different translators for the corresponding stories. For copyright reasons, the translations used in Ficciones in 1962 could not be used for Labyrinths two years later. And Collected Fictions is an attempt by Borges's estate (i.e., widow) to produce a consistent new packaging of all his work. So (for example), "Death and the Compass" is translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in The Aleph and Other Stories (ISBN 0-142-43788-3), Andrew Kerrigan in Ficciones, Donald A. Yates in Labyrinths, and Andrew Hurley in Collected Fictions.

(Oh, and The Aleph and Other Stories is not the same collection of stories as the Spanish collection of Borges's work titled El Aleph.)

And just so you can see how translations can vary, here is the first line from "Death and the Compass", first in the original Spanish, and then in each translation:

Original Spanish: "De los muchoes problemas que ejercitaron la temeraria perspicacia de Lönnrot, ninguno tan extraño--tan rigurosamente extraño, diremos--como la perioódica serie de hechos de sangre que culminaron en la quinta de Triste-le-Roy, entre el interminable olor de los eucaliptos."

Norman Thomas di Giovanni: "Of the many problems ever to tax Erik Lonnot's rash mind, none was so strange--so methodically strange, let us say--as the intermittent series of murders which came to a culmination amid the incessant odor of eucalyptus trees at the villa Triste-Le-Roy."

Andrew Kerrigan: "Of the many problems which exercised the daring perspicacity of Lonnrot none was so strange--so harshly strange, we may say--as the staggered series of bloody acts which culminated at the villa of Triste-le-Roy, amid the boundless odor of the eucalypti.

Donald A. Yates: "Of the many problems which exercised the reckless discernment of Lonnrot, none was so strange--so rigorously strange, shall we say--as the periodic series of bloody events which culminated at the villa of Triste-Le-Roy, amid the ceaseless aroma of the eucalypti."

Andrew Hurley: "Of the many problems on which Lonnrot's reckless perspicacity was exercised, none was so strange--so rigorously strange, one might say--as the periodic series of bloody deeds that culminated at the Villa Triste-Le-Roy, amid the perpetual fragrance of the eucalyptus."

(For what it's worth, I do think that Hurley's is the best, at least for this sentence.)

And if you think this posting is long so far, remember I have not even gotten to the stories. Luckily for you I am going to limit my comments primarily to "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"), because "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" itself, though only twenty pages long, easily generates an entire column of comments on its own. It is so full of minutiae and detail--almost every sentence is worth noting or commenting on.

Uqbar is a fictional country, Tlön a fictional planet, and Orbis Tertius . . . well, it is not clear what Orbis Tertius is.

Uqbar is almost a practice run here, with Borges describing an article about it which appeared only in a some copies of pirated edition of the 1902 "Encyclopaedia Britannica" called the "Anglo- American Cyclopaedia". Uqbar is terrestrial, even if one is unable to determine its exact location.

Tlön is much more developed, with a mysterious "First Encyclopedia of Tlön" as the source of information. "Orbis Tertius" is stamped on a couple of pages of the one volume Borges has seen. Whether it is a location, a publisher, a bookseller, or something else is never explained, not why the title puts Urqar in the middle, when it has nothing to do with either of the other two.

Borges's description of the encyclopedia volume having 1001 pages evokes the 1001 nights of Arabian legend. And when he says that he had a description of "an unknown planet [Tlön] with its architecture and its playing cards, its mythological terrors and the sound of its dialects, its emperors and its oceans, . . ., its algebra and its fire," this reminds one of the Chinese categorization system in Borges's "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" (found in Other Inquisitions).

Part of what makes this story evoke others is that it is a story about world-building and shared worlds. Borges says it would take many people who were experts in their fields and also willing to "[submit] that inventiveness to a strict, systematic plan." Ask any organizer of a shared-world anthology (for a new world, not a pre-existing one) how easy that is!

Tlön has a language that is entirely verbs and adverbs (no nouns) (e.g., "upward beyond the constant flow there was moondling"), and another that is only adjectives (e.g., "airy-clear over dark- round"). One wonders if the author of the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Darmok" had read this. In that episode, there is a race that speaks entirely in analogies, similes, and metaphors. Borges is somewhat more convincing--he does not have the Tlönians developing a high technology with their languages.

Almost every sentence makes one want to stop and think. He talks about the Tlönians' notion of what is an object: "There are objects made up of two sense elements, one visual, and the other auditory--the color of a sunrise and the distant call of a bird." Or "The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth, or even an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement." One reads those and gets a frisson, a real sense of wonder.

The poems "made up of one enormous word." Some might say this reminds them of German, but I though of the sentences in Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", which are written as a single whole entity rather than a sequence of component words.

If you want a philosophy of time, Borges gives you a half dozen such philosophies on a single page. Each of those could be elaborated into an entire culture. (There's an idea--an anthology of stories all inspired by Borges. I freely give this idea to any editor who wants it, because I would love to read such an anthology!)

(We have now reached just the halfway point of the story!)

The arithmetical system of Tlön "states that the operation of counting modifies quantities and changes them from indefinites into definites." The former reminds one of the common conception (or perhaps misconception is more accurate) of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: that observation modifies the objects observed. (Though this is not what Heisenberg said, it is indeed quite often true, particularly with sentient objects.) The latter sound like an expression of the Schroedinger's Cat experiment, where the wave form does not collapse until an observer peeks into the box. It is actually a better example in some ways, since one objection to Schroedinger's Cat is that the cat is already an observer. So the non-sentience of numbers weakens the first part of the description and strengthens the latter.

"Thus was discovered the unfitness of witnesses who were aware of the experimental nature of the search...." Well, anyone who has studied clinical trials that use single- and double-blind experiments knows that this is true.

Borges's description of the various stages of "hronir" ("copies" of a sort) starts with the notion that copies get less and less accurate, but then assumes other changes, to the extent that "[hronirs] of the eleventh degree have a purity of form which the originals do not possess," making them perhaps a version of Platonic forms.

Encyclopedias have often had revisions in subsequent editions. However, Borges's description of the revisions in "First Encyclopedia of Tlön" being "in keeping with the plan of projecting a world which would not be too incompatible with the real world" calls to my mind the idea that when a science fiction author makes mistakes in science in a book or story, and it is pointed out, he usually wants to fix this. (For example, the first edition--but not later ones--of Larry Niven's Ringworld has the Earth rotating in the wrong direction!)

And finally, Borges postulates, "Contact with Tlön and the ways of Tlön have disintegrated this world. . . . Now the conjectural 'primitive language' of Tlön has found its way into the schools. Now, the teaching of its harmonious history, full of stirring episodes, has obliterated the history which dominated my childhood." This brings up two parallels to me. First, that of becoming so immersed in a fictional world that it starts to seem real. Whether the Society of Creative Anachronism qualifies here is not clear, but two more inarguable examples would be the Sherlockian who maintain that Holmes and Watson were real and that Doyle was merely Watson's literary agent, and the Trekkies/Trekkers who spend time learning Klingon and translating Shakespeare into it. (And then claiming that that is the original!) And the other parallel would be to the idea that what is taught in the schools as history changes over time. People talk about this in regard to political correctness these days, but it is much older than that. Some of it is "the victors write the history books" and some is an attempt to change the society itself. Borges's references to Communism and Fascism make clear, I think, just what sort of revisionism he is talking about here.

This wealth of allusions and ideas is all the more astonishing when one realizes that "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" was Borges's second work of fiction, published in May 1940 (with a postscript added in 1947 [see correction below]). (His first was "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote", published a year earlier.)

"Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" is shorter and has less density of ideas, though as biographer James Woodall noted, in it Borges "carries out a razor-sharp act of literary deconstruction long before any 1960s toiling campus critic promoted the cause for actual academic use."

These were followed in 1941 by "The Circular Ruins", "The Library of Babel" (arguably Borges's most famous story) and "The Babylonian Lottery". The latter is clearly commenting on the arbitrariness and irrationality of the political systems that Borge was seeing at the time (especially given its reference to Kakfa ["its sacred privy called Qaphqa"]). But when I read it now, the image it brings to my mind is that of the transition scene in the film Dark City, where the poor become rich, and the rich lose their status. Could this be a reference to Borges?

One more comment: The most common recurring reference in Borges's work is to mirrors. They are mentioned in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", "The Library of Babel", "Funes the Memorious", "Death and the Compass", "The Theologians", "Story of the Warrior and the Captive", "Emma Zunz", "Averroes' Search", and "A New Refutation of Time". (And I may not have caught them all.)

The most notable and important stories in Labyrinths are "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", "The Garden of Forking Paths" (a spy story), "The Lottery in Babylon" (a Kafka-esque society), "The Library of Babel" (an infinite library), and "Death and the Compass" (a detective story). While these form the core reading of Borges's fiction, the other eighteen stories, ten essays, and eight parables are well worth reading as well.

[This article originally appeared in the 09/09/05 issue of the MT VOID.]

[The following is from "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/21/2005]

Addendum: I had said, "There's an idea--an anthology of stories all inspired by Borges." There is not yet such an anthology, but there is a web site that lists Borgesian influences:, compiled by Allen B. Ruch, For example, on sub-page, Ruch says, "[Gene Wolfe] also brought to life two creatures directly from Borges's Book of Imaginary Beings and turned them free in the pages of his universe: a giant named Baldanders, and an enigmatic 'fish' that swims in the mysterious mirrors of Father Inire." And China Mieville's "The Tain" is based on Borges's "Fauna of Mirrors."

[The following is from "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/21/2005]

Correction: In the 09/09/05 issue of the MT VOID, I wrote about the Jorge Luis Borges story, "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", and said that it had been "published in May 1940 (with a postscript added in 1947)." According to an article by James E. Irby that I just read, the postscript is dated 1947, but existed even in the first publication in 1940! This is just another example of the games Borges plays in his writing, I guess.

					Evelyn C. Leeper
					Copyright 2005 Evelyn C. Leeper