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The Garden of Forking Paths: A Loop of Redemption?

is a free online copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ translated collection Labyrinths, published in augmented form in 1964, but “The Garden of Forking Paths” was initially published by translator Donald Yates as a story in 1958.


Dr. Yu Tsun, formerly a professor of English at the German college in Tsingtao, resides in England where he has been compelled by the Germans to act as a spy during WW1. He phones his German contact and hears counter-intelligence agent Richard Madden answer in German. He decides to flee and devises a plan to communicate the secret location of a massing of British artillery in France so the Germans can attack it.

Yu Tsun takes a train to the home of Sinologist Stephen Albert, who immediately refers to the mysterious labyrinth that Yu Tsun’s great-grandfather Ts’ui Pen built during 13 years of seclusion after renouncing his position as governor of Yunnan. To the dismay of his family, no labyrinth was ever found.

Albert reveals that the labyrinth is not a garden maze but a novel that portrays forking paths in time. After expressing gratitude for this insight, Yu Tsun notices the approach of Madden and shoots Albert. The newspaper report of Yu Tsun killing Albert signals the German intelligence chief that Albert is the name of the town where the British artillery is located.


The story provides an excellent example of the distinction between plot and theme. The most obvious reading of the plot is that it describes a form of indirect communication: the spy doesn’t actually tell the information to the Chief back in Berlin, but instead creates an event whose routine description in a widespread medium (newspaper) will reveal the information to someone who is looking for it.

Readers of Borges are familiar with his ruminations on time, identity, destiny, and other aspects of human existence. In this story, he voices speculation via his characters, such as Yu Tsun reflecting: “In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pen, he chooses — simultaneously — all of them.”

Thus the recluse’s construction of a Garden of Forking Paths reveals that any event can lead to multiple futures, which is why his novel appears chaotic and embarrasses his family, who wanted to destroy it after he died. “I leave to the various futures (but not all) my garden of forking paths.” This is the main theme of the story.

I think the story goes beyond the basic notion of multiple universes. Albert mentions his failed attempts to solve the mystery of the infinite novel: perhaps it was a cyclic “book whose last page was identical with the first,” or a book reminiscent of nested Chinese boxes or Matryoshka dolls such as 1001 Nights in which Scheherazade repeats the beginning of the tale before it ends. Finally Albert realizes that the novel presents a “network of times” that fork infinitely, sometimes converging.

Immediately after he conveys the correct explanation to Yu Tsun, the latter trembles as he says, “In every one, I am grateful to you.” However, Albert replies, “Not in all…In one of them I am your enemy.”

Why only one? Why not an infinite number? I believe that the story describes a subtler type of “network of times” in which the revelation of the mystery of the Garden of Forking Paths by the doomed Albert redeems the great-grandfather of his killer in a kind of emotional time loop.

It’s not hard to imagine that the shame associated with a governor who became a reclusive author reverberated down the family line from Ts’ui Pen to Yu Tsun, causing the latter to become vulnerable to manipulation.

We don’t know the reason he reluctantly became a spy — in the opening narration, Borges informs the reader that the first two pages of the “document” (which we later realize is Yu Tsun’s confession to the police) are missing. Presumably, the police would ask him to explain the crime’s background during interrogation after Madden arrested him for the killing.

After rereading the story towards the end of 2019, it occurred to me  that Albert’s revelation of the mystery served as a kind of redemption, making “illustrious ancestor” Ts’ui Pen no longer hateful in Yu Tsun’s eyes. My insight is that the network of times generated a time loop or backwards transmission of this redemption to the past.

Consequently, in Yu Tsun’s other existences he is not taught from birth about the embarrassing project of Ts’ui Pen because the latter’s intent has been made manifest by Albert’s solution of the mystery. Thus, there is no shame about a deranged ancestor, no susceptible state of mind, and no spying. So the Chinese professor of English becomes the friend of the English Sinologist in their other existences.

My personal view at present is that all fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction, can be seen as an expression of “what if” that imagines our reality forking into new paths, whether as alternate histories like Man in the High Castle or completely different worlds such as Middle Earth or Mars.

Hints and Foreshadowing:

A footnote on the story’s first page questions Yu Tsun’s assumption that his German contact “had been arrested or murdered,” informing the reader that Madden actually killed the man in self-defense. Borges thereby preps the reader to see more than two alternative explanations. Later Albert resolves the duality of the garden maze and the novel as opposites. 

When Yu Tsun prepares to flee, he reflects that “a pistol report can be heard at a great distance.” He then formulates a plan to convey the secret to the Chief in Berlin: “The telephone book listed the name of the only person capable of transmitting the message.” Why would a spy look in a public phone book to find someone to collaborate with? Most readers (including me the first time) don’t notice how odd such a search would be.

Yu Tsun boards a train and feels emboldened when he sees Madden miss it. He conceives advice to men who will commit future crimes: “The author of an atrocious undertaking ought to imagine that he has already accomplished it, ought to impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.” But in the network of times, is past or future really irrevocable?

When Yu Tsun disembarks, local boys guess from his ethnicity that he plans to visit Albert. One of them tells him to go left at every crossroads, which reminds him of “the common procedure for discovering the central point of certain labyrinths.” Indeed, learning Albert’s solution to the mystery will become the focal point of Yu Tsun’s multiple existences.

The thought of labyrinths makes him recall his great-grandfather’s attempt to “construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost” but Ts’ui Pen’s task was interrupted when “the hand of a stranger murdered him” — at this point in the network of times, Yu Tsun is a stranger to Albert.


After hanging up the telephone, Yu Tsun refers to the “cloud-shaded six o’clock sun” and at the train station he buys a ticket for the 8:50 am train. As he walks from Ashgrove station to Albert’s house, he notices the full moon and feels that his afternoon journey on foot is very long. But the full moon is always opposite the sun, so it would only be visible around sunrise and sunset, not at mid-day.

More significantly, the opening narration refers to Capt. Basil Liddell Hart’s famous history of WW1, noting that an “insignificant” delay occurred in the British attack planned for July 24, 1916, officially explained as due to heavy rains. This might be a typographical or translation error, because the artillery based in Albert bombarded the German position on June 24, and the main attack occurred on July 1 — a success despite the British losing more lives on July 1, 1916 than any other day in their entire military history.

refers to a 2005 analysis by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson that challenges the traditional description of the battle by Liddell Hart and other historians, asserting that the British artillery bombardment of German machine gun emplacements was the most significant factor in victory.

Borges had been dead for nearly two decades, and Liddell Hart more than three, when Prior and Wilson published their revision. This brings to mind Borges’ brief essay “A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw” in Labyrinths, where he criticizes

“making metaphysics and the arts into a kind of play with combinations. Those who practice this game forget that a book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory.”

And later in that huge initial paragraph he muses that

“One literature differs from another, prior or posterior, less because of the text than because of the way in which it is read: if I were granted the possibility of reading any present-day page — this one, for example — as it will be read in the year two thousand, I would know what the literature of the year two thousand will be like.”

We’re way past 2000 and can appreciate his prescience in rebutting the tendency to “play with combinations” (e.g., claims that computers can be creative in the same way that they can win at chess) by reminding us that readers bring the experience of their own era to the act of reading literature, thereby creating each story anew.

Suggested reading:

my outline of The Saragossa Manuscript movie, in which the protagonist writes the rest of his life story in a book, similar to Albert’s notion of an infinite book that is passed from one generation to the next

my novel Awakening the Butterfly which includes a scene where characters discuss how branching possibilities can converge

the Lost Encyclopedia that Yu Tsun sees in Albert’s library, which was actually incomplete not lost; Yongle was the Ming emperor who authorized the voyages of Zheng He (Cheng Ho)

a review of various secret communication tricks used by WW1 spies

a sufi tale demonstrating indirect communication of an escape method

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