Borges : Death and the Compass (Summary)

I caught up with another of Borges's story "Death and the Compass", which is more of detective work that investigates a series of murder that seem to follow a pattern. The crimes are being investigated by 2 cops, Lonnrot  and Treviranus. A Jewish rabbi is killed in a  hotel room on Dec 3. T. postulates that he was killed by mistake for someone intended to steal from the person in the next room who owns the finest gems. On the typewriter in the room,  an unfinished line is written - "The first letter of the Name has been written.". Other possessions are mostly Kabbalah & Jewish books. L. shrugs off this explanation as not interesting and points to it being a planned murder. L. takes along dead man's books and studies them. Of particular interest to him is "tetragrammaton" which is the unspeakable name of the God. Word gets out that L. has taken to study the names of God in order find the murderer.

The next crime happens Jan 3 amid rhombus houses, a person lay dead with the "The second letter of the Name has been written." scribbled on the walls. On Feb 3, T. gets an anonymous call who offers to reveal the details of the murders. He traces the call to a hotel and when they reach the hotel room, they find the third crime committed and predictably scrawled on the wall is "The last letter of the Name has been written.". The hotel manager mentions that room guest had made a call and soon left. In the room L. finds a text underlined "The Jewish day begins at sundown and lasts until sundown of the following day."

On March 1, T. receives a letter predicting that this month there will be no crime and sending the exact location of the three crimes on map which turn out to be a equilateral triangle.T. is of the opinion that the killing spree is finished. L. pondered over the space and time symmetry of the crimes and declares that he will have killer arrested soon for there will be another crime. He leaves for the south a day earlier to pre-empt and catch the murderer. He reaches a villa that abounded in "pointless symmetries and obsessive repetitions." A niche reflected in a niche, a balcony was reflected in another balcony. A two-faced Hermes adored the garden. The abandoned house seemed infinite and ever growing.

Here he is ambushed by known criminal Scharlach Red and his henchmen. Red is previously known to L. for he arrested Red's brother in a shoot-out that also gravely injuring Red. Lying for nine days in midst of struggle between life and death in this complex villa, he vowed to hunt down L. and weave a labyrinth around him. Red discloses that the first murder was by chance for they were there to loot the gems, but his henchman double crossed and mistakenly killed the rabbi. The rabbi has just written a line on the typewriter. Red got the news that L. investigating the case was certain that the elusive line was linked to the murder. So Red set about justifying that link and killed the next two people on specific days & directions and left behind connecting clues to point to a greater conspiracy fully aware that only L. would see through it and find out that there is fourth piece to the puzzle for there are four directions, the day was the fourth Jewish day, and the Name of God "YHVH" consists of four letters. L. in his bitterness says that such a complex maze was not needed and proposes a easier solution before he is shot dead.

"There are three lines too many in your labyrinth," he said at last. "I know of a Greek labyrinth that is but one straight line. So many philosophers have been lost upon that line that a mere detective might be pardoned if he became lost as well. When you hunt me down in another avatar of our lives, Scharlach, I suggest that you fake (or commit) one crime at A, a second crime at B, eight kilometers from A, then a third crime at C, four kilometers from A and B and halfway between them. Then wait for me at D, two kilometers from A and C, once again halfway between them. Kill me at D, as you are about to kill me at Triste-le-Roy." "The next time I kill you,"Scharlach replied, "I promise you the labyrinth that consists of a single straight line that is invisible and endless."

One way to analyse this story is to read it at its face value as one detective investigation that goes horribly wrong or one can go about delving into the numerous niches and symbols and come up with all kind of fantastical and abstract propositions. This would in fact be the same mistake that L. did. He went about untangling the mystery, but in the act he tangles himself and ultimately the maze consumes him. He sees signs and scheme where there was none to begin with and that becomes his nemesis. Sometimes a rose it just a rose. Sometimes the most easiest explanation is the correct explanation. The form of the truth is its not its simplicity (or lack of it) but its essence. The mere fact that there is so much detail available does not change the substance of the situation or the truth about it.

Humans have this tendency to complicate things, to see it a part of a bigger design or of great game. No doubt world is a complex place with no particular order and whole life generally seems haphazard. But we do not like the idea that we are not in control, that we are not aware of it. We tend to see this randomness as a pattern in a big scheme of things, that is being controlled by someone higher. The idea that no one controlling it is more unravelling than the thought of someone controlling it. Like so many incidents these days (like 9/11) there are always people who go about finding theories and patterns and signs because the fantastical is sometimes more persuasive than the banal. To see the real in middle of all this noise and not misinterpret it or over analyse it and not give it a train of thought where it takes a life of its own. For now we can always take comfort in the fact that even with his lavish over-interpretation L. was able to solve, to prove to us that we can in fact ultimately see through the maze and reach the truth, even if at the cost of losing yourself.

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