The Garden of the Forking Paths

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’
in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings
translated by Donald A. Yates
(London: Penguin Classics, 2000)
First published: 1941

… and I hung up the receiver. Immediately afterwards, I recognized the voice that had answered in German. It was that of Captain Richard Madden.


If only my mouth, before a bullet shattered it, could cry out that secret name so it could be heard in Germany…. My human voice was very weak. How might I make it carry to the ear of the Chief?


In ten minutes my plan was perfected. The telephone book listed the name of the only person capable of transmitting the message; he lived in a suburb of Fenton, less than a half hour’s train ride away.

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ opens with an unobserved conversation ending via telephone, the unrelated import of which propels the protagonist, a war-time spy, into motion. He has information which he needs to relay to his handlers but he can’t pass it on directly; instead, he concocts a murderous plot to send the go-ahead signal to them metaphorically (by murdering someone with the same name of the city that is to be bombed). Having hung up, the phonebook provides the protagonist with the name of the necessary victim (who also turns out to be the only person who can explain—and thus resolve—the story). 

For our time, Jorge Luis Borges prefigures the telephonic technology which is set to dominate contemporary experiences of communication and understandings of mobility: class, cultural, technological and physical. The protagonist, as far as we can tell, does not call to check if the person they are seeking is there, or to arrange a meeting; in fact, when they arrive at their destination, they are misrecognised and yet nonetheless turn out to be the person for whom the information was also necessary all along.

by Don Sillence