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The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges

Read online The Garden of Forking Paths (“El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”) by Jorge Luis Borges

The Garden of Forking Paths is a short story, written in 1941 by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges about a Chinese professor, Doctor Yu Tsun who is living in the United Kingdom during World War I. 

He is a spy for Abteilung IIIb, the military intelligence service of Imperial Germany. 

The intricate theme has been said to foreshadow the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. 

Borges’s vision of “forking paths” has been cited as an inspiration by numerous new media scholars, in particular within the field of hypertext fiction, a genre of electronic literature, that uses hypertext links to provide a new context for non-linearity in literature and reader interaction. 

The Garden of Forking Paths

To Victoria Ocampo

In his A History of the World War (page 212), Captain Liddell Hart reports that a planned offensive by thirteen British divisions, supported by fourteen hundred artillery pieces, against the German line at Serre-Montauban, scheduled for July 24, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th. He comments that torrential rain caused this delay – which lacked any special significance. The following deposition, dictated by, read over, and then signed by Dr. Yu Tsun, former teacher of English at the Tsingtao Hochschule, casts unsuspected light upon this event. The first two pages are missing.

* * *

. . . and I hung up the phone. Immediately I recollected the voice that had spoken in
German. It was that of Captain Richard Madden. Madden, in Viktor Runeberg’s
office, meant the end of all our work and – though this seemed a secondary matter,
or should have seemed so to me – of our lives also. His being there meant that
Runeberg had been arrested or murdered. Before the sun set on this same day, I ran
the same risk. Madden was implacable. Rather, to be more accurate, he was obliged
to be implacable. An Irishman in the service of England, a man suspected of equivocal
feelings if not of actual treachery, how could he fail to welcome and seize upon this
extraordinary piece of luck: the discovery, capture and perhaps the deaths of two
agents of Imperial Germany?

I went up to my bedroom. Absurd though the gesture was, I closed and locked the
door. I threw myself down on my narrow iron bed, and waited on my back. The
never changing rooftops filled the window, and the hazy six o’clock sun hung in the
sky. It seemed incredible that this day, a day without warnings or omens, might be
that of my implacable death. In despite of my dead father, in despite of having been a
child in one of the symmetrical gardens of Hai Feng, was I to die now?

Then I reflected that all things happen, happen to one, precisely now. Century
follows century, and things happen only in the present. There are countless men in
the air, on land and at sea, and all that really happens happens to me . . . The almost
unbearable memory of Madden’s long horseface put an end to these wandering

In the midst of my hatred and terror (now that it no longer matters to me to speak
of terror, now that I have outwitted Richard Madden, now that my neck hankers for
the hangman’s noose), I knew that the fast-moving and doubtless happy soldier did
not suspect that I possessed the Secret – the name of the exact site of the new
British artillery park on the Ancre. A bird streaked across the misty sky and,
absently, I turned it into an airplane and then that airplane into many in the skies of
France, shattering the artillery park under a rain of bombs. If only my mouth, before
it should be silenced by a bullet, could shout this name in such a way that it could be
heard in Germany … My voice, my human voice, was weak. How could it reach the
ear of the Chief? The ear of that sick and hateful man who knew nothing of
Runeberg or of me except that we were in Staffordshire. A man who, sitting in his arid
Berlin office, leafed infinitely through newspapers, looking in vain for news from
us. I said aloud, “I must flee.”

I sat up on the bed, in senseless and perfect silence, as if Madden was already peering
at me. Something – perhaps merely a desire to prove my total penury to myself –
made me empty out my pockets. I found just what I knew I was going to find. The
American watch, the nickel-plated chain and the square coin, the key ring with the
useless but compromising keys to Runeberg’s office, the notebook, a letter which I
decided to destroy at once (and which I did not destroy), a five shilling piece, two
single shillings and some pennies, a red and blue pencil, a handkerchief – and a
revolver with a single bullet. Absurdly I held it and weighed it in my hand, to give
myself courage. Vaguely I thought that a pistol shot can be heard for a great distance.

In ten minutes I had developed my plan. The telephone directory gave me the name
of the one person capable of passing on the information. He lived in a suburb of
Fenton, less than half an hour away by train.

I am a timorous man. I can say it now, now that I have brought my incredibly risky
plan to an end. It was not easy to bring about, and I know that its execution was
terrible. I did not do it for Germany – no! Such a barbarous country is of no
importance to me, particularly since it had degraded me by making me become a spy.
Furthermore, I knew an Englishman – a modest man – who, for me, is as great as
Goethe. I did not speak with him for more than an hour, but during that time, he
was Goethe.

I carried out my plan because I felt the Chief had some fear of those of my race, of
those uncountable forebears whose culmination lies in me. I wished to prove to him
that a yellow man could save his armies. Besides, I had to escape the Captain. His
hands and voice could, at any moment, knock and beckon at my door.

Silently, I dressed, took leave of myself in the mirror, went down the stairs, sneaked
a look at the quiet street, and went out. The station was not far from my house, but
I thought it more prudent to take a cab. I told myself that I thus ran less chance of
being recognized. The truth is that, in the deserted street, I felt infinitely visible and
vulnerable. I recall that I told the driver to stop short of the main entrance. I got out
with a painful and deliberate slowness.

I was going to the village of Ashgrove, but took a ticket for a station further on. The
train would leave in a few minutes, at eight-fifty. I hurried, for the next would not go
until half past nine. There was almost no one on the platform. I walked through the
carriages. I remember some farmers, a woman dressed in mourning, a youth deep in
Tacitus’ Annals and a wounded, happy soldier.

At last the train pulled out. A man I recognized ran furiously, but vainly, the length of
the platform. It was Captain Richard Madden. Shattered, trembling, I huddled in the
distant corner of the seat, as far as possible from the fearful window.

From utter terror I passed into a state of almost abject happiness. I told myself that
the duel had already started and that I had won the first encounter by besting my
adversary in his first attack – even if it was only for forty minutes – by an accident of
fate. I argued that so small a victory prefigured a total victory. I argued that it was
not so trivial, that were it not for the precious accident of the train schedule, I
would be in prison or dead. I argued, with no less sophism, that my timorous
happiness was proof that I was man enough to bring this adventure to a successful
conclusion. From my weakness I drew strength that never left me.

I foresee that man will resign himself each day to new abominations, that soon only
soldiers and bandits will be left. To them I offer this advice: Whosoever would
undertake some atrocious enterprise should act as if it were already accomplished,
should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.

Thus I proceeded, while with the eyes of a man already dead, I contemplated the
fluctuations of the day which would probably be my last, and watched the diffuse
coming of night.

The train crept along gently, amid ash trees. It slowed down and stopped, almost in
the middle of a field. No one called the name of a station. “Ashgrove?” I asked some
children on the platform. “Ashgrove,” they replied. I got out.

A lamp lit the platform, but the children’s faces remained in a shadow. One of them
asked me: “Are you going to Dr. Stephen Albert’s house?” Without waiting for my
answer, another said: “The house is a good distance away but you won’t get lost if
you take the road to the left and bear to the left at every crossroad.” I threw them a
coin (my last), went down some stone steps and started along a deserted road. At a
slight incline, the road ran downhill. It was a plain dirt way, and overhead the
branches of trees intermingled, while a round moon hung low in the sky as if to keep
me company.

For a moment I thought that Richard Madden might in some way have divined my
desperate intent. At once I realized that this would be impossible. The advice about
turning always to the left reminded me that such was the common formula for
finding the central courtyard of certain labyrinths. I know something about
labyrinths. Not for nothing am I the greatgrandson of Ts’ui Pen. He was Governor of
Yunnan and gave up temporal power to write a novel with more characters than
there are in the Hung Lou Meng, and to create a maze in which all men would lose
themselves. He spent thirteen years on these oddly assorted tasks before he was
assassinated by a stranger. His novel had no sense to it and nobody ever found his

Under the trees of England I meditated on this lost and perhaps mythical labyrinth. I
imagined it untouched and perfect on the secret summit of some mountain; I
imagined it drowned under rice paddies or beneath the sea; I imagined it infinite,
made not only of eight-sided pavilions and of twisting paths but also of rivers,
provinces and kingdoms … I thought of a maze of mazes, of a sinuous, ever growing
maze which would take in both past and future and would somehow involve the

Lost in these imaginary illusions I forgot my destiny – that of the hunted. For an
undetermined period of time I felt myself cut off from the world, an abstract
spectator. The hazy and murmuring countryside, the moon, the decline of the
evening, stirred within me. Going down the gently sloping road I could not feel
fatigue. The evening was at once intimate and infinite.

The road kept descending and branching off, through meadows misty in the twilight.
A high-pitched and almost syllabic music kept coming and going, moving with the
breeze, blurred by the leaves and by distance.

I thought that a man might be an enemy of other men, of the differing moments of
other men, but never an enemy of a country: not of fireflies, words, gardens,
streams, or the West wind.

Meditating thus I arrived at a high, rusty iron gate. Through the railings I could see an
avenue bordered with poplar trees and also a kind of summer house or pavilion.
Two things dawned on me at once, the first trivial and the second almost incredible:
the music came from the pavilion and that music was Chinese. That was why I had
accepted it fully, without paying it any attention. I do not remember whether there
was a bell, a push-button, or whether I attracted attention by clapping my hands. The
stuttering sparks of the music kept on.

But from the end of the avenue, from the main house, a lantern approached; a
lantern which alternately, from moment to moment, was crisscrossed or put out by
the trunks of the trees; a paper lantern shaped like a drum and colored like the
moon. A tall man carried it. I could not see his face for the light blinded me.

He opened the gate and spoke slowly in my language.

“I see that the worthy Hsi P’eng has troubled himself to see to relieving my solitude.
No doubt you want to see the garden?”

Recognizing the name of one of our consuls, I replied, somewhat taken aback.

“The garden?”

“The garden of forking paths.”

Something stirred in my memory and I said, with incomprehensible assurance:

“The garden of my ancestor, Ts’ui Pen.”

“Your ancestor? Your illustrious ancestor? Come in.”

The damp path zigzagged like those of my childhood. When we reached the house,
we went into a library filled with books from both East and West. I recognized some
large volumes bound in yellow silk-manuscripts of the Lost Encyclopedia which was
edited by the Third Emperor of the Luminous Dynasty. They had never been
printed. A phonograph record was spinning near a bronze phoenix. I remember also
a rose-glazed jar and yet another, older by many centuries, of that blue color which
our potters copied from the Persians . . .

Stephen Albert was watching me with a smile on his face. He was, as I have said,
remarkably tall. His face was deeply lined and he had gray eyes and a gray beard.
There was about him something of the priest, and something of the sailor. Later,
he told me he had been a missionary in Tientsin before he “had aspired to become a

We sat down, I upon a large, low divan, he with his back to the window and to a
large circular clock. I calculated that my pursuer, Richard Madden, could not arrive in
less than an hour. My irrevocable decision could wait.

“A strange destiny,” said Stephen Albert, “that of Ts’ui Pen – Governor of his native
province, learned in astronomy, in astrology and tireless in the interpretation of the
canonical books, a chess player, a famous poet and a calligrapher. Yet he abandoned
all to make a book and a labyrinth. He gave up all the pleasures of oppression,
justice, of a well-stocked bed, of banquets, and even of erudition, and shut himself up
in the Pavilion of the Limpid Sun for thirteen years. At his death, his heirs found only
a mess of manuscripts. The family, as you doubtless know, wished to consign them
to the fire, but the executor of the estate – a Taoist or a Buddhist monk – insisted on
their publication.”

“Those of the blood of Ts’ui Pen,” I replied, “still curse the memory of that monk.
Such a publication was madness. The book is a shapeless mass of contradictory
rough drafts. I examined it once upon a time: the hero dies in the third chapter,
while in the fourth he is alive. As for that other enterprise of Ts’ui Pen … his
Labyrinth . . .”

“Here is the Labyrinth,” Albert said, pointing to a tall, laquered writing cabinet.

“An ivory labyrinth?” I exclaimed. “A tiny labyrinth indeed . . . !”

“A symbolic labyrinth,” he corrected me. “An invisible labyrinth of time. I, a
barbarous Englishman, have been given the key to this transparent mystery. After
more than a hundred years most of the details are irrecoverable, lost beyond all
recall, but it isn’t hard to image what must have happened. At one time, Ts’ui Pen
must have said; ‘I am going into seclusion to write a book,’ and at another, ‘I am
retiring to construct a maze.’ Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No
one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same. The Pavilion of
the Limpid Sun was set in the middle of an intricate garden. This may have suggested
the idea of a physical maze.

“Ts’ui Pen died. In all the vast lands which once belonged to your family, no one
could find the labyrinth. The novel’s confusion suggested that it was the labyrinth.

Two circumstances showed me the direct solution to the problem. First, the curious
legend that Ts’ui Pen had proposed to create an infinite maze, second, a fragment of
a letter which I discovered.”

Albert rose. For a few moments he turned his back to me. He opened the top
drawer in the high black and gilded writing cabinet. He returned holding in his hand a
piece of paper which had once been crimson but which had faded with the passage
of time: it was rose colored, tenuous, quadrangular. Ts’ui Pen’s calligraphy was justly
famous. Eagerly, but without understanding, I read the words which a man of my
own blood had written with a small brush: “I leave to various future times, but not
to all, my garden of forking paths.”

I handed back the sheet of paper in silence. Albert went on:

“Before I discovered this letter, I kept asking myself how a book could be infinite. I
could not imagine any other than a cyclic volume, circular. A volume whose last page
would be the same as the first and so have the possibility of continuing indefinitely. I
recalled, too, the night in the middle of The Thousand and One Nights when Queen
Scheherezade, through a magical mistake on the part of her copyist, started to tell
the story of The Thousand and One Nights, with the risk of again arriving at the
night upon which she will relate it, and thus on to infinity. I also imagined a Platonic
hereditary work, passed on from father to son, to which each individual would add a
new chapter or correct, with pious care, the work of his elders.

“These conjectures gave me amusement, but none seemed to have the remotest
application to the contradictory chapters of Ts’ui Pen. At this point, I was sent from
Oxford the manuscript you have just seen.

“Naturally, my attention was caught by the sentence, ‘I leave to various future times,
but not to all, my garden of forking paths: I had no sooner read this, than I
understood. The Garden of Forking Paths was the chaotic novel itself. The phrase ‘to
various future times, but not to all’ suggested the image of bifurcating in time, not in
space. Rereading the whole work confirmed this theory. In all fiction, when a man is
faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost
unfathomable Ts’ui Pen, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He thus creates
various futures, various times which start others that will in their turn branch out
and bifurcate in other times. This is the cause of the contradictions in the novel.

“Fang, let us say, has a secret. A stranger knocks at his door. Fang makes up his mind
to kill him. Naturally there are various possible outcomes. Fang can kill the intruder,
the intruder can kill Fang, both can be saved, both can die and so on and so on. In
Ts’ui Pen’s work, all the possible solutions occur, each one being the point of
departure for other bifurcations. Sometimes the pathways of this labyrinth converge.
For example, you come to this house; but in other possible pasts you are my enemy;
in others my friend.

“If you will put up with my atrocious pronunciation, I would like to read you a few
pages of your ancestor’s work.”

His countenance, in the bright circle of lamplight, was certainly that of an ancient, but
it shone with something unyielding, even immortal.

With slow precision, he read two versions of the same epic chapter. In the first, an
army marches into battle over a desolate mountain pass. The bleak and somber
aspect of the rocky landscape made the soldiers feel that life itself was of little value,
and so they won the battle easily. In the second, the same army passes through a
palace where a banquet is in progress. The splendor of the feast remained a memory
throughout the glorious battle, and so victory followed.

With proper veneration I listened to these old tales, although perhaps with less
admiration for them in themselves than for the fact that they had been thought out
by one of my own blood, and that a man of a distant empire had given them back to me,
in the last stage of a desperate adventure, on a Western island. I remember the
final words, repeated at the end of each version like a secret command: “Thus the
heroes fought, with tranquil heart and bloody sword. They were resigned to killing
and to dying.”

At that moment I felt within me and around me something invisible and intangible
pullulating. It was not the pullulation of two divergent, parallel, and finally converging
armies, but an agitation more inaccessible, more intimate, prefigured by them in
some way. Stephen Albert continued:

“I do not think that your illustrious ancestor toyed idly with variations. I do not find
it believable that he would waste thirteen years laboring over a never ending
experiment in rhetoric. In your country the novel is an inferior genre; in Ts’ui Pen’s
period, it was a despised one. Ts’ui Pen was a fine novelist but he was also a man of
letters who, doubtless, considered himself more than a mere novelist. The testimony
of his contemporaries attests to this, and certainly the known facts of his life confirm
his leanings toward the metaphysical and the mystical. Philosophical conjectures take
up the greater part of his novel. I know that of all problems, none disquieted him
more, and none concerned him more than the profound one 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 which means time. How can these voluntary omissions be

I proposed various solutions, all of them inadequate. We discussed them. Finally
Stephen Albert said: “In a guessing game to which the answer is chess, which word is
the only one prohibited?” I thought for a moment and then replied:

“The word is chess.”

“Precisely,” said Albert. “The Garden of Forking Paths is an enormous guessing game,
or parable, in which the subject is time. The rules of the game forbid the use of the
word itself. To eliminate a word completely, to refer to it by means of inept phrases
and obvious paraphrases, is perhaps the best way of drawing attention to it. This,
then, is the tortuous method of approach preferred by the oblique Ts’ui Pen in every
meandering of his interminable novel. I have gone over hundreds of manuscripts, I
have corrected errors introduced by careless copyists, I have worked out the plan
from this chaos, I have restored, or believe I have restored, the original. I have
translated the whole work. I can state categorically that not once has the word time
been used in the whole book.

“The explanation is obvious. The Garden of Forking Paths is a picture, incomplete
yet not false, of the universe such as Ts’ui Pen conceived it to be. Differing from
Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not think of time as absolute and
uniform. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading
network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time – the strands of
which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the
centuries – embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some
you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us
exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In
another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these
very same words, but am an error, a phantom.”

“In all of them,” I enunciated, with a tremor in my voice. “I deeply appreciate and am
grateful to you for the restoration of Ts’ui Pen’s garden.”

“Not in all,” he murmured with a smile. “Time is forever dividing itself toward
innumerable futures and in one of them I am your enemy.”

Once again I sensed the pullulation of which I have already spoken. It seemed to me
that the dew-damp garden surrounding the house was infinitely saturated with
invisible people. All were Albert and myself, secretive, busy and multiform in other
dimensions of time. I lifted my eyes and the short nightmare disappeared. In the
black and yellow garden there was only a single man, but this man was as strong as a
statue and this man was walking up the path and he was Captain Richard Madden.

“The future exists now,” I replied. “But I am your friend. Can I take another look at
the letter?”

Albert rose from his seat. He stood up tall as he opened the top drawer of the high
writing cabinet. For a moment his back was again turned to me. I had the revolver
ready. I fired with the utmost care: Albert fell without a murmur, at once. I swear
that his death was instantaneous, as if he had been struck by lightning.

What remains is unreal and unimportant. Madden broke in and arrested me. I have
been condemned to hang. Abominably, I have yet triumphed! The secret name of the
city to be attacked got through to Berlin. Yesterday it was bombed. I read the news
in the same English newspapers which were trying to solve the riddle of the murder
of the learned Sinologist Stephen Albert by the unknown Yu Tsun. The Chief,
however, had already solved this mystery. He knew that my problem was to shout,
with my feeble voice, above the tumult of war, the name of the city called Albert,
and that I had no other course open to me than to kill someone of that name. He
does not know, for no one can, of my infinite penitence and sickness of the heart.

‘ A malicious and outlandish statement. In point of fact, Captain Richard Madden
had been attacked by the Prussian spy Hans Rabener, alias Viktor Runeberg,
who drew an automatic pistol when Madden appeared with orders for the spy’s arrest.
Madden, in self defense, had inflicted wounds of which the spy later died.

Last Updated on 2021/11/22

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