‘Death and the Compass’ by Jorge Luis Borges

I’m not sure how I first came across Borges, although it may have been the striking cover of the King Penguin edition of this book that drew me in. However, as soon as I started reading, I felt that if ever there was a collection that had been constructed with me in mind as the reader, this was it.
Borges is essentially two very different writers. First of all, he is a philosopher. Every story absolutely fizzes with original and unusual theories and ideas – more so even than any science fiction writer, with the possible exception of Stanislaw Lem, who we’ll come along to in a minute. On the other hand, he is a wonderfully lyrical writer, full of poetry and magical imagery. But the extraordinary thing is that the two aspects are somehow completely intertwined, so that only Borges the poet could present the ideas of Borges the theorist.
I could have picked almost any one out of this set, but I’ve gone for ‘Death and the Compass’, a detective story that goes off at something of a tangent. The central conceit was borrowed by Peter Greenaway in the somewhat Borgesian film The Draughtsman’s Contract, and also by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose, where he even went so far as naming one of his characters Jorge de Burgos. (For what it’s worth, I tried to pull the same trick off myself in my first Mathematical Mystery The Truth About Archie and Pye, but sadly no-one noticed, even though the first murder victim was called George Burgess. Well, there you go.)

First published in Sur in May 1942 and collected in Labyrinths, various editions

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