Borges finishes off his Universal History of Iniquity with a section called Et Cetera, a compilation of fragments from various sources, some of which turn out to be real and others fictional or distorted.
A Theologian in Death
It’s quite bold to begin a story, “I have been told by angels that…” But it’s an appropriate way to open up this story of the Lutheran theologian Melanchthon, an important figure in the Reformation. It’s appropriate because it introduces the religious nature of the story, which is essentially a meditation on the consequences of the Lutheran doctrine of salvation by “faith alone” rather than good works, and also because it hints at the fantasy to come: Melanchthon’s steady degeneration in a place that turns out not to be heaven at all.
The Chamber of Statues
The structure of this tale is familiar from folk literature the world over: the arrogant man who overturns traditional rules and is punished. In this case, it’s an Andalusian king who ignores the long-standing rule that a certain tower must be kept closed and opens it up. He discovers wonderful treasures, including a beautiful set of statues of warriors, but in the final chamber he finds a chilling message, which also explains the conquest of Andalusia by Arabic armies:
“If any hand opens the gate of this castle, the warriors of flesh at the entrance, who resemble warriors of metal, shall take possession of the kingdom.”
The Story of the Two Dreamers
This is a fragment taken almost completely from The Thousand and One Nights, although Borges changes some details as usual. A destitute Cairo man is told in a dream that he will find riches in Persia, and he travels there, only to be beaten up and abused by a local governor. When he explains why he travelled there, his captor laughs and tells him he had a similar dream about finding riches in Cairo, but never followed it through. From the description, the Cairo man realises the treasure is buried in his own house, so he goes home and digs it up.
It’s a nice tale about having faith and also about the true riches being in your possession all along, and if it sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s the basic plot of Paulo Coelho’s massive bestseller The Alchemist. I kind of prefer this hyper-condensed three-page version, though.
The Wizard That Was Made to Wait
How easy it is to make promises when you have nothing, and how hard it is to keep them when you’re finally in a position to give something. That’s the basic premise behind this tale of a young dean who wants to learn the secrets of the magic arts from a mysterious man called Illan. The magician is wary of giving his secrets, fearing the dean will forget him afterward.
His fears are justified: he teaches the dean magic, and the grateful student promises to reward him, but he never does. Years pass, and the dean becomes a bishop, an archbishop, each time promising to help the magician but never following through. When he becomes Pope, Illan again asks for help and again is denied, this time violently, being threatened with imprisonment. It’s at this point that the entire story is revealed as an illusion: the men are both still young, the tuition has not even started yet, and the dean having failed the test, he is politely shown the door.
The Mirror of Ink
More magic and punishment here: this time it’s a cruel Sudanese ruler called Yakub the Afflicted, who is about to kill a sorcerer until the sorcerer saves himself by showing Yakub various wonders of the far-off world. Yakub starts to see a mysterious veiled figure in these visions, which become more violent and disturbing as they progress. Finally, he asks to see someone being executed, and the victim turns out to be the veiled figure. When the veil is removed, Yakub sees his own face, and as he watches the execution, he dies in agony.
I’m not really sure what to make of this one. It’s incredibly short, just a couple of paragraphs, and I don’t understand the point of it. If you do, please let me know in the comments.
Overall, this Et Cetera section is an odd way to end the book. Coming right after the beautifully developed story Man on Pink Corner, it feels like a letdown. There are some fascinating ideas in here, but none are fully developed. It feels like a set of notes for the author’s personal reference.
So not the highest point of my Borges Marathon, but sometimes you have to log the hard miles. Fortunately, I know there are some wonderful stories coming up in the next collection, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), which I’ll start working through next month.
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What curious fragments. Perhaps they can inspire you to make some short stories of your own from them? 🙂
Yes, maybe! They weren’t my favourite part of the book, but when you’re doing a marathon, you can’t take a shortcut through the park, right? Got to be complete. Thanks for cheering me on – I appreciate it!