‘Death and the Compass’ by Jorge Luis Borges

A tale of murder, scholarship and the flawed nature of inductive reasoning, ‘Death and the Compass’ takes liberties with the conventions of detective fiction and, I would argue, provides one of the earliest examples of a story based on a semiotic quest for meaning. Borges exposed readers to the idea that the extensive and obsessive collation of sinister information might reflect a quest for meaning and pattern in a world that seems absurd, random and arbitrarily cruel. The idea has been rendered familiar by some great novels –White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, The Crying of Lot 49Illuminatus! and Foucault’s Pendulum– but Borges tackled the theme first and in a more concentrated form. The narrative follows the efforts of celebrated detective Lönnrot to solve a series of murders involving cryptic messages, Kabbalistic philosophy, the geometry of the built environment, the detective’s nemesis Red Scharlach and the tetragrammaton – the sacred four-letter name of God. As Lönnrot solves the case, the lines between hunter and hunted are blurred and distinguishing between actions of will and destiny becomes increasingly tricky. A ludic tale with philosophical twists, it’s as entertaining as it is erudite.

First published in Sur in May 1942 and collected in Labyrinths, various editions. Also available online here

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