“The South” by Jorge Luis Borges

At first impression, “The South” misses many of the signature Borgesian qualities of stories like “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and “The Library of Babel.” There are no magical numbers, no flights of philosophical fancy, no fake footnotes, and no intrusive first-person narrator. “The South” is just not that flashy.

But it subtly has many of the same dreamlike qualities. Juan Dahlmann, in a dreamlike state, doesn’t realize he’s gashed his head on an open window while walking up the stairs with his nose in a book. He perceived it as “[s]omething in the dimness brush[ing] his forehead,” but it lands him after days of septicemia locked in a sanatorium, undergoing tortures. Then, he is released.

“Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms,” and Dahlmann leaves the sanatorium the same way he came, in a cab. But is this reality? Fiction is also partial to symmetries after all. Dahlmann’s release is too literary and too romantic—too like himself. “The first cool breath of autumn, after the oppression of the summer, was like a natural symbol of his life brought back from fever and the brink of death.” Along with natural symbols are scenes constructed from the melding of memory with romantic imagination: “bouillon served in bowls of shining metal, as in the now-distant summers of his childhood”; “long glowing clouds that seemed made of marble…like some dream of the flat prairies”; “something in its sorry architecture that reminded Dahlmann of a steel engraving, perhaps from an old edition of Paul et Virginie.” The narrator notes that the city-dwelling librarian’s “direct knowledge of the country was considerably inferior to his nostalgic, literary knowledge.”

Dahlmann’s trip to the South ends as literarily as it begins (just as earlier, he feels “something lightly brush his face” which will turn out much more dangerous than it appears), and with more explicit hints that we are now in a story of his own construction (“had he been able to choose or dream his death that night, this is the death he would have dreamed or chosen”). The very last sentence switches intriguingly from the past to the present tense. Earlier, in Dahlmann’s dream-world, he petted a cat and felt “that he and the cat were separated as though by a pane of glass, because man lives in time, in successiveness, while the magical animal lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.” That puts a pretty dark spin on Dahlmann’s reality, stuck in the eternal present being tortured and like an animal, though perhaps the “magical” makes this more positive than it seems.

“The South” felt very appropriate after reading about Argentina’s immigrant history and literature. Juan Dahlmann is the grandson of Johannes Dahlmann and also of Francisco Flores, “who died on the border of Buenos Aires from a spear wielded by the Indians under Catriel.” Somehow “the contrary pulls of his two lineages” caused Juan’s “Germanic blood” to choose the “romantic ancestor” or “romantic death” and become Argentinized. And it is just this Argentinization, based on abstract and literary ideas about his country and heritage, that brings him to the South to begin with.

This is the last week of unstructured Borges short story reads hosted by Richard at Caravana de recuerdos. Check out his blog for links to this week’s other participants.

4 comments to “The South” by Jorge Luis Borges

  • Lovely post, Nicole! I agree that this story, while not appearing to be all that flashy, is very rewarding in its subtleties. I also think it’s kind of hysterical that that incomplete copy of The 1,001 Nights that Dahlmann was so eager to dip into in the first place never really got read except for momentary glances at the illustrations. Good points about the role Argentinean history plays in Dahlmann’s imagined brush with the past, too. P.S. I’m very interested in hearing about the Lat Am reading plans you mentioned over at Amateur Reader’s blog. Can you share anything? Pretty please? :)

  • Borges and subtlety, without the tricks; perhaps why it was Borges’s favourite of his stories and also mine. Also heavily autobiographical I understand, Borges’s father was obsessed with knives; Borges gashed his head and developed blood poisoning.

  • You got a lot more out of this than I did! I’m embarrassed to say that a lot of the subtleties went right over my head. But then, I was reading it on a computer screen instead of a book, which I’m not used to doing. I just thought it was such a simple story.

  • Actually he didn’t gash his head open on an open window… it was on a door that was left open with a sharp edge…. sooo yeah, i’d fix that if I were you.