“Death and the Compass”

Jorge Luis Borges and his characteristic cane, who wrote “El Aleph”, “The Library of Babel”, among other titles. AFP UPI PHOTO SABETTA


“—There is no need to look for three feet to the cat,” said Treviranus, brandishing an imperious cigar. We all know that the tetrarch of Galilee has the best sapphires in the world. Someone, to steal them, will have entered here by mistake. Yarmolinsky has risen; the thief had to kill him. What do you think?”, Jorge Luis Borges

Infinity, circles, mirrors, reality within the absurd, the strangeness of everyday life, geometry, metaphysics, mazes, repetitions, time, the distance between fiction and reality; That was Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), that giant who became the identity axis of Argentine literature and culture.

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He was one of the most representative writers of both Latin American literature and universal letters. Although he himself refused that his writings were pigeonholed in a literary genre, his work consists of poetry, short stories, essays and short stories. Essays that dress up as stories, fictional stories that simulate academic articles, quotes that are part of literary fiction, fantastic narratives that are confused with chronicles and book reviews. An example is “Funes el Memorioso”, written in the style of a journalistic chronicle that narrates the life of a character with a mysterious superpower, when in reality it is a phenomenological essay on what it means to think. Another of the iconic stories is, precisely, “Death and the Compass” (1942): at the same time a detective story, a parody of the crime novel and an essay on various topics such as identity, geometry, time, the death, the cardinal points and the senses; but it is also one of his stories that, in my opinion, best sums up his narratological technique.

Jorge Luis Borges Acevedo was born in Buenos Aires (Argentina), on August 24, 1899. Some of his ancestors were heroes of the independence of Argentina. He grew up surrounded by books and from a very young age he realized that he wanted to be a writer. He lived in Argentina, Spain, England and Switzerland. voracious, insatiable reader; The phrase from his poem “A reader” is famous: “Let others boast of the pages they have written; I am proud of what I have read”. He contributed to numerous literary magazines, was a librarian, professor of English literature, translator, and one of the most outstanding intellectuals of his time; a man of the right, unlike many of his contemporaries, who were traditionally on the left. In fact, an award received from Augusto Pinochet, along with other statements about the dictatorship, is rumored to have cost him the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in Geneva (Switzerland) on June 14, 1986.

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“Death and the compass” was published in 1942 in the magazine Souththen it was included in the storybook Fictions I, in 1944, as part of the section called “Artifices”. Its thematic axis is the following:

Detective Erik Lönnrot has the mission to solve a series of murders that occurred in a city, on the 3rd of each month, at a different cardinal point. The first is that of Marcelo Yarmolinsky, an expert in the Jewish religion who has come to participate in the Third Talmudic Congress; while Lönnrot and Commissioner Treviranus investigate the crime, the second occurs, that of Daniel Simón Azevedo, a professional thief expert in the use of knives, and finally that of a certain Ginzberg, who calls Treviranus to give him information about the two first murders. In all three cases notes have been found that say respectively: “The first letter of the Name has been articulated”, “the second letter of the Name has been articulated” and “the last letter of the Name has been articulated”. After the third murder (which was actually staged, because there was no crime), a note appears at the police station stating that there will be no fourth murder because the previous three form a perfect equilateral triangle. But the detective is sure that there will be a fourth murder and that, with this, instead of a triangle, a rhombus will be formed. That is why the precise day arrives, in the place where the last crime should have occurred, but he discovers that everything has been a trap that an old enemy has set for him.

It is therefore a strange detective story that, although it complies with the formality of a detective story (murder problem, versions of it, alternatives to solve the crimes and the solution) uses the essay structure, although he himself assures that It is a story, because it says: “To the south of the city of my story flows a blind stream of muddy waters, infamous for tanneries and garbage.” Throughout the story he uses geometry, which becomes the necessary element to solve the murders; the number four is equally essential and symbolic, which also dialogues with the Jewish religion. Number four is the reality that the detective finds, while number three is the elaborate explanation.

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Within this ambivalent game between the essay and the story, he inserts texts from classical Greece, such as the paradoxes of Zenón de Elea (“Achilles and the turtle”, for example). Basically, what he does is change the police plot into a story loaded with symbolism. It uses the Jewish religion to disguise a revenge story in which the hunter ends up being hunted.

I close with a quote from Joaquín Marco: “Understanding Borges simply means reading him. The ideal recipient of it is one who has already read everything before: a reader who comes from reading. In this sense, Borges’s work is ‘metaliterature’. But the reader can leave aside, parked, the texts mentioned, the complicit winks, the invitations and abandon himself to an original world, so alien to ours, that paradoxically it seems familiar to us” (history of literature, Chair, 2002, p. 1067).

“Death and the Compass”