Today marks day five in my 30 day, self-imposed short story challenge. I’m in the midst of trying to find homes for some of my short stories and decided I need to read more short stories myself—to enjoy some good literature, to learn, and to improve my own writing. I share my findings with you. Enjoy!
“The South” by Jorge Luis Borges
Every Argentine knows that the South begins at the other side of Rivadavia. Dahlmann was in the habit of saying that this was no mere convention, that whoever crosses this street enters a more ancient and sterner world. From inside the carriage he sought out, among the new buildings, the iron grill window, the brass knocker, the arched door, the entrance way, the intimate patio.
Juan Dahlmann is reading an advance copy of The Thousand and One Nights when he unconsciously strikes his head against an open door. He does not even notice until a woman sees him bleeding and screams.
Dahlmann is fevered and miserable for eight days before he is taken to a sanitarium and treated for septicemia. It is unclear exactly how much time he has passed there, though it seems that the summer has changed to fall by the time Dahlmann is released.
In need of convalescence, he sets out for a remote ranch in the south. On the train he takes out the same book, The Thousand and One Nights, that had been the cause of his illness in the first place. Full circle, he muses, it will do him no harm now. Then, after inspecting his ticket a train attendant tells Dahlmann that he won’t be able to get off at the station, but at an earlier stop a short distance away.
Dahlmann walks to the general store where he arranges for a bed and something to eat. He has wine and sardines and meat, and as he is eating he feels something against his face: a spitball of breadcrumb. He excuses the incident and begins reading.
Another spitball comes. Men at another table laugh at him. Thinking it would not be wise to start a brawl in his current state, Dahlmann stands to leave. The shop owner begs him to pay no attention; those customers are half high. But Dahlmann confronts the peones. One of them curses in his face and takes out a knife, challenging him. The owner protests, saying that Dahlmann is unarmed. An old man throws Dahlmann a blade.
Thinking that at least it would be a respectable way to go, Dahlmann goes out into the open plain to fight.
“Dahlmann closed his book and allowed himself to live.”
Dahlmann reads “by way of suppressing reality”. There’s a fair amount of play between dream and reality here, especially with Dahlmann being sick and disoriented. Then he has wine with dinner and talks about how far away everything feels, people seem.
Also, something bad seems to happen every time Dahlmann picks up A Thousand and One Nights. Coincidence? It seems too pointed to not mean something.
Based on what I remember of Jorge Luis Borges, I was expecting the blurs between reality and fantasy to be more vivid and captivating. Was a little disappointed, and will continue looking for more stories I can learn from as far as that element goes.
One thing I find really interesting is that Borges himself thought of this story as one of his best, if not the best. I’ve also read The Encounter by him (in Spanish, of course) and liked it better. I will have to read more of his work and see whether or not I agree with his verdict.
daguerreotype: a photograph made using iodine-sensitive silvered plate and mercury vapor
auscultation: listening to the heart, lungs, or other organs via stethoscope or other instruments
septicemia: blood poisoning, especially caused by bacteria or their toxins
vestibule: an enclosed entrance compartment in a railroad car
impetus: the force, energy, or momentum with which a body moves; the force that makes something happen or happen quickly (like a catalyst?)
sumptuous: luxurious; splendid and expensive-looking
conciliatory: intended to pacify
peon(es): (Spanish) a farm worker or unskilled laborer
torpid: mentally or physically inactive; lethargic; listless
poniard: a small, slim dagger
Until tomorrow, fellow readers!