On a Rereading of “Death and the Compass”

The big ideas behind a Borges short story

Like so many of Jorge Luis Borges’ works, “Death and the Compass” (“La muerte y la brújula”) is a brief piece that contains big ideas. Just as Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa) did, this deconstruction of detective fiction appropriates the genre’s trappings, even likening the protagonist, Erik Lönnrot, to Poe’s Auguste Dupin to help usher us down the primrose path (where Eco more subtly suggests Sherlock Holmes with his William of Baskerville). Indeed, Borges said that Poe created a new audience, which distrusted everything the author related, and penned this piece to deliberately provoke readers into overinterpreting it.

Clearly, Borges is having some fun mocking whodunnit tropes; the names, the overwrought prose are all lampshades. Scharlach means “scarlet” in German, making the villain’s name “red red”. A Study in Scarlet is also the name of the Poe work that created the detective genre. Lönnrot, too contains rot, German for “red”, as well as being a likely reference to Elias Lönnrot, creator of the Finnish epic, Kalevala. The red herring also comes to mind as an important element of the genre.

Many of the names contain references to numbers as well, tying to the numerological associations of the tetragrammaton, another central motif in the work. By contrast to Red Scharlach, Black Finnegan’s names are a pair of opposites, as finn is Old Irish for “white”. Taken together, they remind us of the black and white and read/ red all over riddle. The harlequins and the bear mask worn by Gryphius also seem to be details included to create an air of the bizarre and ridiculous and throw us off the scent.

Almost immediately, the narrator gives us a bit of misleading prefiguration, telling us:¹

It is true that Erik Lönnrot did not succeed in preventing the last crime, but he did, indisputably, foresee it. Nor did he divine the identity of Yarmolinsky’s unlucky murderer, but he did perceive the evil series’ secret shape and the part played in it by Red Scharlach […].

To me, this seems a clear influence on of one of the most deconstructive sentences ever penned—one by Gabriel Garcia Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad):²

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Both throw information at you for which you are not prepared and misdirect your expectations of how events will unfold—and naturally enough, Márquez’ oeuvre was inspired by Borges.

But gradually Borges turns more serious as he approaches the real core of his work: the symmetry of the final setting, Triste-le-Roi, is depicted as monstrous; a concrete labyrinth matching that created by the detective’s own devotion to reason, neither of which he can ultimately escape, also recalling another Borges work, “The Garden of Forking Paths” (“El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”).

Borges has turned the detective genre on its head—rather than cleverly following the clues and catching the criminal, Lönnrot becomes the victim of a Batman gambit leading to his own doom. In this way the author’s thesis is revealed: it is pointless to seek reason, meaning, and pattern in a reality that, in fact “has not the slightest obligation to be interesting,” by Lönnrot’s own admission, or to contain any of these things. This brings another of Borges’ works to mind; “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, which concludes:³

The truth is, [reality] wanted to cave in. Ten years ago, any symmetry, any system with an appearance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—could spellbind and hypnotize mankind.

Despite all the humorous deconstruction then, “Death and the Compass” is a warning not to be seduced by phantom shapes that appeal to our aesthetic sense, or to engage in temptingly far-fetched conspiracy theories, but instead to accept that life is sometimes random and meaningless.


Notes

  1. I’m quoting the version in Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley, 1998.
  2. This is from Gregory Rabassa’s English translation of 1970.
  3. Also in Collected Fictions.

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