Death and the Compass, by Jorge Luis Borges

Perhaps, in other posts, I’ve been a bit harsh on Borges – or, at least, I’ve been harsh on his critical adherents. There are aspects of his work I find inimical, yet I am finding – with Bustos Domecq and now with this – that I’m becoming more inclined towards (some might say, more understanding of) his way of seeing things.

Death and the Compass is a murder mystery of a Robbe-Grillet bent – a serial-killer is murdering people according to some obscure Talmudic teaching. (You could see it as a Hollywood thriller, though as it happens it was Alex Cox who filmed it – of which more, perhaps, anon). Or at least, so supposes our hero Erik Lönnrot. So that, while Inspector Treviranus starts conducting a traditional and formal police investigation into the murder of Talmudic scholar, Marcel Yarmolinsky, assuming absurdly that he was killed by accident by a jewel thief, Lönnrot – “a pure reasoner” – seeks to find the clues to the murder in the Cabalistic books and studies of Yarmolinsky, and in particular in the Tetragrammaton (“the unutterable name of God”). There follows much referencing of Jewish texts, as you might expect – and as you might expect, *** Spoilers abound, though not if you’re familiar with Borges*** it all turns out to be nonsense, all this intellectuality, all this search for mystical truth – Inspector Treviranus was right all along: it was at first all chance, and then – when it wasn’t chance, it was man-made mystification.

So we sweep aside centuries of man’s search for the truth, just as in Bustos Domecq we swept aside the critic’s attempts to find meaning in that equally man-made practical-joke called art. It is all just people seeing patterns where there are no patterns, that mad ignis fatuus which shines in our brains and leads us to believe there must be something at the back of it all.

(It is interesting Ignacio Echevarría chose merely this and Bustos Domecq – two very similarly-themed works – to represent the best of Borges).

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2 thoughts on “Death and the Compass, by Jorge Luis Borges

  1. Belated thanks for this juicy murder mystery/theological post, Detective Rabbi Obooki (I thought I’d commented on it before, but it seems I haven’t). Will have to check this out eventually though I suspect my next Borges will be another nonfiction one somehow. By the way, remember that Echevarría’s list only dates back to 1950. I think I remember him, like other critics, thinking Borges’ best work was behind him when he started to become internationally famous for inferior work in the ’60s and the ’70s and so on.

  2. True enough: I don’t have much of an idea about Borges’ chronology: I’ve always assumed it was much of a muchness all the way through his career. Apart from the Argentinian knife-fight stories which are always rubbish.

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