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Borges Marathon, Part 11: The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim

Only Borges could get away with writing a book review of a book that doesn’t exist.

Only Borges could get away with writing a book review of a book that doesn’t exist.

In The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, Jorge Luis Borges appears to have written a standard, somewhat erudite book review. He introduces the novel and its author, discusses the merits of different editions, summarises the plot, and gives his verdict.

The twist is that the book he has reviewed does not exist. Its author, the Bombay attorney Mir Bahadur Ali, and his novel The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim are inventions of Borges himself. What we are reading is not a book review but a short story.

The story is mostly encapsulated in the plot summary part of the review. We read about an unnamed protagonist, a young law student who becomes embroiled in a street battle between Hindus and Muslims in Bombay and ends up killing a man.

He goes on the run, travelling across India and coming to associate with “people of the lowest, vilest sort”. He becomes like those people himself, until one day he meets a despicable man who nonetheless displays “a moment of tenderness, of exaltation, of silence”. Knowing that the man himself is incapable of such decency, he realises it must have come from contact with someone good.

“Somewhere in the world there is a man from whom this clarity, this brightness, emanates; somewhere in the world there is a man who is equal to this brightness.”

He dedicates the rest of his life to searching for this man from whom the decency in the world emanates, a man who is the Al-Mu’tasim in the title of the novel/story/review. He searches for the beautiful soul of Al-Mu’tasim through the traces and reflections left in others. He traces his progress by the amount of decency they possess:

“The more closely the men interrogated by the law student have known Al-Mu’tasim, the greater is their portion of divinity, but the reader knows that they themselves are but mirrors.”

I found it a beautiful idea. A good friend of mine called Howard Delmonte used to talk a lot about the ripples we create by living in the world, affecting other people’s lives and leaving traces of the way we think and behave everywhere we go. Although he died several years ago, he certainly rippled through my life and still exists in all the ways he affected me, the ideas he shared, the kindness and other qualities he displayed. I’m sure someone could search for his soul and find similar traces and reflections in his friends and patients.

This story by Borges also has clear religious overtones—it starts, of course, with the battle between Muslims and Hindus, and the search for Al-Mu’tasim seems a lot like the search for God, particularly since it was sparked by the law student’s killing of another man and his need for redemption/forgiveness.

In his fictional review, Borges lambasts the fictional author Mir Bahadur Ali for allowing his fictional 1934 edition to “sink into allegory” by making this religious symbolism so plain, whereas in the fictional 1932 edition “the supernatural notes are few and far between”. He is perhaps warding off criticisms of his own story by disavowing the idea of a simple allegory and pronouncing himself uninterested in the idea of a single, unitary god symbolised by Al-Mu’tasim. Wearing his reviewer’s hat, he suggests that the idea of God himself looking for Someone, and that Someone looking for yet another Someone until the end of time, would be far more interesting.

I found this way of telling a story through a fictional book review very creative and surprisingly effective. By using such a familiar non-fiction style, Borges achieves the effect of slipping the story in through the back door—we’re paying attention to the review, and suddenly we realise we’ve actually read a story. It also has the effect of distancing the author from the story, while also allowing him to criticise it before his critics are able to!

The review is remarkably plausible—the story is somewhat outlandish, but not so much as to be impossible. The book and its author could exist, and if I hadn’t read it in a collection of fictions, I might have taken it for a straight book review. Indeed, Borges later remarked that one of his friends ordered a copy of the non-existent book from London.

Note: this is part of my Borges Marathon, a steady reading and reviewing of the 100+ Borges short stories in his Fictions collection. At this rate, it’s debatable whether I’ll finish it before catastrophic climate change wipes out the servers on which this blog is stored, so please join in and help me along, either by commenting below or by reviewing a story on your own site if you’d like to.

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There are 3 comments

  1. You write in the second paragraph:

    “What we are reading is not a book review but a short story.”

    I disagree. Borges writes in the foreword to Ficciones that his short stories are like summaries of unwritten full-length stories. He imagines the full-length story and tries to write a summary of it. With this in mind, the genre of The Approach must be understood as a review of a fictional book. Borges summarizes the story in the form of a book review. One must interpret The Approach as a book review, not as a short story.

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