Fact or Fiction? Historical Narratives in Borges

By Timothy McGrath

In Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges attempts to skew the fundamental principles by which most people govern their lives. He constructs roughly allegorical worlds that reflect reality in their complexity and scope. By pulling the reader deeper into these labyrinths, Borges’ stories subtly and without mal-intent, demand a reexamination of the way we collectively relate to the world. Specifically, Borges questions the reliability of the past – something by which individuals, ethnicities and nations define themselves. In the first story of the collection, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges sets the precedent for later stories, by describing a completely fictionalized world that becomes a reality. By writing, “we know nothing about it with any certainty, not even that it is false,” Borges comments on the futility of attempting to determine that something is either true of false, when confronting it through writing. Therefore, the moment an act is recorded, it becomes an entity of its own – neither fact nor fiction. In “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” Borges writes, “historical truth, for [Menard], is not what took place; it is what we think took place.” History, as Menard understands it, resists commonplace phraseology like “truth” and “fact” altogether – instead, it becomes merely a widely accepted account of a lost moment in time. In “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” and “Three Versions of Judas,” Borges presents two individuals struggling with the realization that our present-day conceptions of the past may be inconsistent with the actual truth. By undermining the traditional concepts of hero and traitor, as they are presented in historical and religious narratives, Borges calls into question the absolute faith with which people place their trust in what may amount to just another story.
In “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” Borges assembles a collection of storytellers, whose variations on the theme of betrayal cast doubt on the reliability of both literal and literary accounts of history. The narrative begins suspiciously, setting the scene as either “Poland, Ireland, [or] the Republic of Venice.” The generalizing technique immediately universalizes both the story of Kilpatrick and the experience of Ryan the biographer. The narrator quickly explains that “although [Ryan] is contemporary, the narrative related by him occurred toward the middle or the beginning of the nineteenth century.” This comment serves as a subtle reminder that even Ryan’s version of Kilpatrick’s fall is subject to the same skeptical scrutiny as any historical account. The list of storytellers within the historical narrative includes: the historical biographers of Kilpatrick, Shakespeare and the writer/producer/director of Kilpatrick’s elaborately staged assassination – James Alexander Nolan. Borges’ notion of false history reveals itself through these three storytellers: as Shakespeare fictionalizes the death of Julius Caesar; Nolan plagiarizes the plays of Shakespeare in orchestrating his plan; and finally, as the gate-keepers of history record only the superficially relevant events of a deeply-involved labyrinth of historical value. The interaction between the storytellers produces a tangled web of correspondences where truth and lies meld inextricably and the fiction of Shakespeare becomes as factually accurate or inaccurate as a history textbook. Borges illustrates the blurring of literary and historical value by writing, “that history should have imitated history was already sufficiently marvelous; that history should imitate literature is inconceivable.” Borges draws his conclusions on the unreliability of history through this recurring theme of writing as storytelling. Borges seems to suggest that the act of touching pen to paper immediately abstracts the conventional notions of fiction and nonfiction – to the point where a conceivable work of fiction exists more tangibly than an extraordinary account of historical fact.
The two-way relationship inherent to a piece of writing requires a second party – the reader. Like reality, in the world of “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” the process of historical narration requires all readers to also be storytellers – they perpetuate this paradoxically-fictional/factual account of history. Through Ryan the biographer, and Kilpatrick’s town in Ireland, Borges implicates his readers, as a whole and as individuals, in the sustenance of fallacious history. By explaining, “Kilpatrick was brought to his end in a theater, but he made of the entire city a theater, too” Borges indicts people as a community for acting as an accessory to the manipulation of history. However, by saying, “what they said and did remains in the books of history, in the impassioned memory of Ireland,” Borges calls attention to a dangerous aspect of the cyclical nature of narrators and readers. Memory, only flawless in “Funes, the Memorious,” is deliberately compared to a history book – which must be understood as one which exaggerates each inconsistency with every successive revision. Likewise, Ryan’s daunting transgression at the close of the story proves to be more dangerous still. Whereas the imperfections of collective memory yield passively benign errors, Ryan’s individual omission withholds what would seem to be the final truth behind the legacy of Kilpatrick. However, according to Borges’s model of narration, even this supposed truth must be scrutinized. Ultimately, Ryan, finds himself trapped in a familiar labyrinth, where the promulgation of either account fails to produce anything other than another story.
In “Three Versions of Judas,” Borges logically proves Judas to be the Son of God as a hyperbolic way to debunk dogmatic adherence to accepted interpretations of the Gospel Story. Whereas “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” examines storytelling as it relates to literature and history, “Three Versions of Judas” addresses the relationship between storytelling and interpretation in Scripture. The story’s narrator, Nils Runeberg, begins with a parochial and fundamentalist principle in assuming that “to suppose an error in Scripture is intolerable; no less intolerable is it to admit that there was a single haphazard act in the most precious drama in the history of the world.” This statement places Runeberg in a twentieth century religious context, where many faiths condemn slight digression from doctrine as heresy. By the logic of “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” such blind faith in the infallibility of a narrative referred to as “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” signals an immediate refusal to read Biblical history skeptically. However, Borges sets Runeberg against his time period, citing it as a mere turn of fate that “God assigned him to the twentieth century, and to the university city of Lund.” Whereas Runeberg’s contemporaries fail to see Scripture in the light of Kilpatrick’s fictional/factual biographies, Runeberg works within the restrictions of his faith-based belief system to find alternative interpretations supported by textual evidence. Initially, Runeberg’s subscription to the notion of the malleability of textual analyses appears to supercede his reliance on religious doctrine. However, his interpretation of Scripture proceeds from the accepted doctrines of Christ’s humanity, Christ’s sacrifice and the idea that God created Christ and Man in His image. Therefore, Runeberg employs sound reason in paralleling Judas’s spiritual descent into Hell and Jesus’s physical sacrifice on the cross. By assuming that God “could have chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web of history,” Runeberg’s logic implies that God could have chosen all destinies, including Alexander, Pythagoras, Rurik, Jesus and Judas. Runeberg, however, never reaches this final step. Instead, he commits a fatal error by essentially producing an interpretation of the Gospel Story that is as rigid and incontrovertible as the one from which he proceeded.
Runeberg’s regression into unyielding assertions creates new problems for examining Borges’s theory of truth and untruth in historical narratives. Runeberg begins rationally, with impressive, general comparisons between Judas and Jesus, and Heaven and Earth. It requires a commendable sort of mental reprogramming to regard Judas and Kilpatrick as both traitors and heroes in equal parts. However, his logic leads him to conclude definitively that “[Jesus] was Judas.” This single declarative sentence pulls Runeberg from the abstract world of textual interpretation into Ryan’s world of narration. In three words, he succeeds in writing his own narrative of the life of Christ. Seamlessly, Runeberg traverses the line between positive rethinking of history and a rewriting of history. By this, Borges seems to suggest that, within the reader/writer organic relationship, the reader inevitably forces an interpretation to the point where that interpretation reinvents the details of the narrative. The “impassioned memory of Ireland,” in “Themes of the Traitor and the Hero,” now acts more like a critical reader of Shakespeare than the collective minds of a town – taking in the scenes, hearing the actors, interpreting and drawing concrete meanings. As readers becomes narrators, the cycle continues - with the infinite revising and rewriting of the same events, none of which being more true or untrue than any other.
This intentional undermining of conventional “truth” emphasizes the value found in the story, rather than the story’s basis in fact. Borges seems to find merit in the notion that a single event in history, much like both of these stories, can be manipulated and contorted to fit a dozen interpretations. The craft of writing, historical or literary, carries with it the intimate relationship between writer and reader, which facilitates the cyclic morphing of reader into narrator. As Pierre Menard teaches us, history serves better as the mother of truth, rather than a truth unto itself. Through the progression of history, the readings, interpretations and rewritings of narratives create a thousand different meanings – where history, religion and literature twist and turn in Borges’ labyrinth and everything becomes just another story.

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