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Borges’ Labyrinth

suspense by Jonathan Pinnock

The National Library of Argentina is an ugly T-shaped concrete piece of late twentieth-century brutalism – the kind of building for which Albert would normally be the first to recommend demolition.

But he will overlook this, because he is here on a pilgrimage – a pilgrimage that has led him to spend his first jet-lagged afternoon in Buenos Aires here instead of grabbing a few hours’ sleep before tonight’s tango demonstration.

“I’m a librarian myself,” he explains to the clerk at the desk.

“Sign your name, please,” says the clerk, uninterested. Albert does so.

“From England?”

“Yes. From a little village called Ilam. In Staffordshire.”

“Ilam, huh?” The clerk gives him a curious look.

“I was wondering,” says Albert, “I mean I don’t know if this is at all possible, but would it –”

“You wish to see Borges collection?”

Albert is taken aback. “Well, as it happens –”

“Is normal. You are librarian, you are on vacation in Buenos Aires, you wish to see Borges’ collection, no?”

“Well, yes – ”

“Follow me,” says the clerk, motioning towards a staircase leading down into the basement. There is a brief pause whilst the clerk fumbles around for the light switch.

“Is said Borges’ spirit lives on down here,” he says.

Albert ponders this. “But surely the library was completed after his death?”

“Is in the books,” says the clerk, with a hint of contempt.

“Oh,” says Albert.

“I leave you here,” says the clerk as they reach the bottom. “Library closes in one hour.”

“OK … er … thank you,” says Albert.

So this is it. Borges’ famed private collection. The little basement is packed tight with rows of shelves, and each one is crammed with books. And what books.

Albert’s heart skips a beat as he realises what they are.

Lost books. The books that everyone knows have been written but have disappeared, obscure gospels that haven’t even made it into the Apocrypha, several early works of Hemingway, Shakespeare’s Loves Labours Won.

Albert picks one out at random and starts to read. Three-quarters of an hour later he is still standing there. Despite being tired and uncertain of what time of the day his body thinks it is, he is riveted. Then, without warning, the lights go out.

“¿Quién es éste?” comes a faint voice from the far end of the room.

“I’m sorry?” says Albert.

“Ah! Inglés,” says the voice. “I did not realise that I was entertaining a visitor from such a far-off country.”

Albert feels the hairs start to twitch on the back of his neck. Surely not?

“You are very quiet, my friend.”

“Er … sorry. I was a little unprepared for this. And I’m also somewhat uncomfortable in the dark.”

“Ah, the dark. I understand that the power company is – how do you say? – unreliable. However, it makes little difference to a blind man.”

Albert’s heart skips a beat, and he begins to feel very cold.

“I … imagine not,” he says. “I am at something of a disadvantage here, then. Are you -?” He pauses. “Are you … sorry, this must sound ridiculous … a ghost?”

“An interesting existential question. If I were to be a ghost, the verb ‘to be’ would be singularly inappropriate, would it not?”

Bloody hell, thinks Albert. It is Borges.

“Come here,” says the voice. “I will show you an easy way out. Follow me.”

As the voice says this, it seems to move away slightly. Albert moves towards where he thinks it has gone, feeling his way along the shelves. He soon reaches the far end of the room, where there is an opening in the wall.

“This way,” says the voice, apparently from the other end of a corridor.

Albert follows, and as soon as he reaches that point, the voice calls him on further, and he spends the next quarter of an hour fumbling his way through a labyrinth of underground tunnels. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere nearer the way out. So he is extremely relieved when the lights come back on.

This relief is short-lived. The room that he now occupies does not contain any books, but instead appears to be wired up with a considerable amount of high explosive. The door behind him slams shut.

“What the -?” he begins.

“Ah, Mr Albert,” says the voice, which he now realises belongs to the clerk who signed him in. “You have reached the end of the labyrinth.”

Albert is frozen to the spot.

“I should perhaps offer you explanation,” says the clerk’s voice, which Albert notices is coming from a speaker set in the wall. Several more speakers are now apparent at various other locations in the room. “You are familiar with Borges’ story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, no doubt?”

Albert nods. He has a feeling that this is not going to end well.

“Very soon, the world’s news media will begin to tell the story of how the National Library of the Argentinean Republic was destroyed in a massive explosion soon after it closed for the day, and that the only casualty was an Englishman from Ilam. So at 11 AM English time tomorrow, members of my global anarchist movement will rise up as one and overthrow their governments. I intended to synchronise the uprising by blowing up eleven victims, but when you said where you came from, a much more elegant solution presented itself.”

“But the books … Borges’ collection …”

“I have little time for the man. Do not forget that he was an admirer of Pinochet.”

“Yes, but –”

“And nobody cares about literature any more, my friend. You are one of a dying breed.”

“Surely –”

“Have you noticed, my friend, that in ninety-nine percent of stories set in libraries, the library burns down at the climax? Consider what that says about the world’s attitude to books. Goodbye.”

There is a brief click, and then everything goes white.

Copyright 2009 by Jonathan Pinnock

Jonathan Pinnock lives in the United Kingdom. He blogs about writing at Jonathan Pinnock’s Write Stuff.

[Return to the July 2009 stories]

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8 Responses

  1. […] Borges’ Labrynith […]

  2. spooky

  3. Very spooky. Love the use of a labyrinth and Borges in any story. Well done here.

  4. […] inaugural edition of 10Flash has now gone live, featuring my piece Borges’ Labyrinth. I first had the idea for this in early 2007, would you believe. I was casting around for something […]

  5. Ha! Very entertaining, Jonathan.

    –dj

  6. A great little chiller Jon!

  7. Excellent story well told, as ever, Jon. You are disgustingly knowledgeable and well-read – damn you! 😉

    Oscar

  8. Good lord, there are comments! Many thanks, everyone!

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