The Approach To Al-Mu’tasim by Jorge Luis Borges, 1936
The magic trick:
Creating an alternative universe of literature
It’s Jorge Luis Borges Week on the SSMT website. So it might get a little dense, a little intellectually absurd. But it’s also beautiful stuff. Here we go…
You often read of parallel universes in fantasy and science fiction. World building, right? Well, Borges here is reveling in his own created universe. It’s just instead of warlocks or dwarfs or Martian volcanoes, he’s enjoying a literary world of his own making. It’s pretty ridiculous, really. But it’s also a great essay on the merits and purposes of art. And that’s quite a trick on Borges’s part.
Its central figure – whose name we are never told – is a law student in Bombay. Blasphemously, he disbelieves in the Islamic faith of his fathers, but, on the tenth night of the moon of Muharram, he finds himself in the midst of a civil disorder between Muslims and Hindus. It is a night of drums and prayers. The great paper canopies of the Muslim procession force their way through the heathen mob. A hail of Hindu bricks hurtles down from a roof terrace. A knife sinks into a belly. Someone – Muslim? Hindu? – dies and is trampled on. Three thousand men are fighting – stick against revolver, obscenity against curse, God the Indivisible against the many gods. Instinctively, the student freethinker joins in the battle.