Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius



Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

by Jorge Luis Borges
Short story

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A small, metallic cone is discovered beside a corpse. Blinding and bullet-like, it proves almost impossible to prise from the ground. A boy, a man, and finally the author try to lift the unidentified item, with the latter briefly succeeding. Its burden is felt upon the narrator’s palm long after he has set it back down. This triangular mass is cited as extra-terrestrial debris from an apocryphal planet, Tlön, the inhabitants of which colonise the material world through a series of insidious incursions. Ceasing to be contained in a fictional universe, the planet’s unfathomable laws bleed through to Earth.

As the author discusses, the members of Tlön’s fabled population conceive not of things but only of temporality. Accordingly, the cone’s heaviness is measured out in minutes. The incident, too, is evoked through the time it takes us to navigate Jorge Luis Borges’ prose, in a seemingly intentional short circuit. The three attempts to raise the alien object give the episode the rhythm of a biblical or philosophical lesson. If we are to draw conclusions from the uncanny affair, perhaps it is that this cautionary tale is best left unfinished, lest the act of reading triggers the permeation of Tlön into our own reality.

Words by Elizabeth Brown

In the first sentence of ‘Tlön’, Borges announces that he owes ‘the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopaedia’. The prose, too, is in debt to the two objects. The former hangs opposite the author as he debates with a friend, imagining an unreliable narrator whom only a few readers would be able to fully understand. Caught in the reflection, Borges’ protagonist is implied to be such a creation. He leads us through his detective story as we struggle to keep up. Throughout, he relies on anecdotes and extensive name-dropping, without acknowledgement of, or apology for, the fact that we may not know the many individuals to whom he so fleetingly refers.

As the list of proper nouns piles up, we are left with the impression that this text is a rough encyclopaedia of its own, a jotter of scrambled notes that aims to disentangle the contradictions and clues discovered. Publication dates, page numbers, and the syntax of the Tlön language are chronicled scrupulously. Philosophical paradigms and paradoxes are put forward and dissected, as are the duodecimal system and plagiarism. Borges offers no neat categorisations; the ideas scattered before us seem far from ordered. Much like the story’s author, we are drawn into an invented, mysterious world, shrouded in subtleties that we feel unable to grasp in their entirety.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

You can read an excerpt from 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' here. Jacob Mikanowski has written about Borges and fiction invading reality for The Awl. Berny Tan has written about Borges and collective memory for Visual & Critical Studies.

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