a journal in comparative literature

Category: 2013

National Allegory and the Parallax View in Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm’s “Maṣīr Ṣurṣār”

Egyptian playwright Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm’s 1966 play Maṣīr Ṣurṣār (Fate of a Cockroach) has been widely understood by most critics to be a juxtaposition of two separate plays, one centered around a miniature cockroach kingdom, and the other a human married couple’s apartment. This paper challenges this separation by emphasizing the relationship between these seemingly distinct worlds and by investigating their subtle relationship through interactions, interpretations, and linguistic and symbolic continuities. Furthermore, this paper argues on a theoretical level that this structural phenomenon provides an innovative way to allegorize the nation through its presentation of two private narratives with the singular referent of the Egyptian national narrative. Because the two distinct narratives remain irreconcilable but coexistent, the notion of parallax—as a merely apparent shift in the object caused by a change in the observer’s perspective—provides a useful frame to understand a more complex and tenuous relationship of the private and the national in the national allegory.

“Come along – wake up! It’s time for work.”[2] Echoing the ethos of the Nasserist regime (1952-1970), the King Cockroach’s imperative opens Maṣīr Ṣurṣār by rallying us to emerge from our slumber to “work,” to engage as laborers in Egypt’s production-based materialist economy well underway by the play’s publication in 1966. The play undoubtedly operates as a national allegory, wherein the smaller private narrative of the work represents the larger national story. But what happens to this relationship between private and national when a work consists of two entirely separate narratives as does Maṣīr Ṣurṣār? Indeed, the play can be and has been read as two plays put together, with the first act occurring within the world of cockroaches and the remainder taking place in the human realm.[3] It would be necessary in this case to understand how two private stories might work both individually and together to convey the national story of Egypt. Parallax, as an apparent shift of an object caused by a change in the observer’s perspective, provides a useful frame with which to understand the way two private stories relate to the national. Through Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm’s Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, I interrogate the possibilities of a parallactic link between the private and the national in national allegory and the capacities of this link to portray the inescapable tension between the nationalist rhetoric of the state and the popular nationalism of the multitude. Meanwhile, I elaborate a dialectical method for reading through national allegory which will draw out the political and poetic implications of the parallactic link.

Linking the Private Story and the National Story

It would first be useful to present one of the foremost influential works on the subject of national allegory. In his seminal article, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Frederic Jameson implores us to read all ‘third-world’ literature as national allegory. He polemically states that, “All third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel” (69). While his sweeping claim was the point of much criticism, national allegory still provides a useful framework for interrogating the relationship between politics and literature. As a play from the ‘third world’, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār falls under the conditions set forth by Jameson’s claim. In what follows I will use national allegory as the starting point for my analysis; although, I will depart from it only periodically in order to open up a deeper interpretation which can, upon returning to it, contribute to a stronger overall national allegorical reading.

The most important concept within Jameson’s argument is the special relationship between the literal text and the referent external to the text. Gil Hochberg successfully teases out the link between the ‘national story’ and ‘private story’ in Jameson’s conception of national allegory. She locates the crux of Jameson’s argument to be the contrast between the radical split between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ in western culture and its connection in nonwestern cultures: “Jameson describes the national allegory as a link between two separate stories, or to be more precise, as a link between two stories perceived in ‘western eyes’ as separate: the ‘private story’ and the ‘national story’” (35). It is exactly this link between the private and the national that is here subject to interrogation, namely in the event—as is the case with Maṣīr Ṣurṣār—where the existence of a singular private story is at best questionable.

Maṣīr Ṣurṣār consists of two entirely separate private stories: one belonging to the cockroaches of the first act, the other belonging to the humans of the second and third. The first act features the self-appointed administration of a cockroach society inhabiting an apartment bathroom; the King, Queen, Vizier, Scientist, and Priest debate primarily about the ongoing ant problem that has recently claimed the Vizier’s son as its latest victim. The act ends after the King, led on by the Scientist, finds himself stranded in the lake/bathtub. The second act shifts gears to the human world, that of the apartment inhabitants: ‘Ādil, his wife Sāmya, and the ‘cook’ Umm ‘Aṭiyya (who is actually a maid). ‘Ādil wakes up to find a cockroach (the King from the first act) in the bathtub hopelessly struggling to climb out. Because of his obsession with the cockroach, ‘Ādil constantly thwarts attempts by Sāmya to kill it. She calls in the Doctor to try to cure ‘Ādil of what she considers a psychological problem. Throughout the bickering, the group is eventually distracted enough to ignore Umm ‘Aṭiyya’s entering the bathroom to clean, which results in the death and subsequent wiping away of the cockroach.

Two Worlds, Two Narratives

The Cockroach as an Allegory of the State

To truly understand how disparate these two worlds are portrayed in the play, we can look at the primary basis of what constitutes a ‘world’ according to Heidegger. A world is constitutive of those relationships and ‘ontic objects’ into which a person is ‘thrown,’ only to appropriate them by perceiving them in terms of his or her own existence and utilizing it for self-realization (Habib 715). The drastic difference between the first and second parts consist of an entirely new set of characters as well as a shift in language to refer to those ‘ontic’, material objects in the apartment. The courtyard of the first act is the bathroom floor of the second and third; likewise, the lake in which the King falls is also the bathtub where a cockroach is found. Thus the two worlds of Maṣīr Ṣurṣār involve two independent sets of relationships as well as sets of perceptions of ‘ontic objects’, and it is these worlds that constitute two different private stories that comprise the national allegory.

The first act opens with the King’s aforementioned imperative to get up and work, which leads to his squabble with the Queen. As story continues, the Vizier, the Scientist, and the Priest arrive in sequence to contribute to a discussion revolving around the ant problem. Their petty bickering and absurd logic lends a comedic element that serves simultaneously as a pointed condemnation of the post-1952 regime, its projects and failures. Perhaps the most poignant moment featuring this critical satire comes shortly after the King, Queen, and Vizier come to the conclusion that the cockroaches can better forestall the ants by mimicking them in their ability to organize in columns, the Scientist enters to contribute his observations regarding past instances of cockroach mobilization:

Scientist: Yes, I once saw – a very long time ago, in the early days of my youth – several cockroaches gathered together at night in the kitchen round a piece of tomato.

Queen: Tomato?

Scientist: Yes.

King: An extraordinary idea – this matter of a tomato!

Vizier: We begin from here.

Queen:  And you say that science cannot solve the problem?

Scientist: What has science to do with this? That was no more than a general observation .

King: This is the modesty of a true Scientist. The idea is, however, useful. If we were able to get a piece of tomato, then a number of cockroaches would gather together round it.

Scientist: The real problem is how to get hold of a piece of tomato.

King: How is it, therefore, that we do sometimes get a hold of a piece?

Scientist: By chance.

Queen: And when does sheer chance occur?

Scientist: That is something one cannot predict.

King: You have therefore arrived at solving one problem by presenting us with another.

Queen: Suggest for us something other than tomatoes.

Scientist: Any other type of food puts us in the same position, for though we can find food we are unable to make a particular sort of food available.[4]

The choppy dialogue, the tomato obsession, and most importantly, the logic of deferment (of “solving one problem by presenting us with another”) all serve to articulate the lengths to which the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) under Nasser had degenerated into an absurd bureaucracy unable to come to terms with its own shortcomings. The tomato here comes to represent a number of failures. The material failure to produce food is a direct indictment of the agrarian reforms carried out shortly after the July coup, wherein land was reallocated in a seemingly socialist measure and much of it underproduced or went unused. The intellectual inability to move from the material tomato to the concept of food or any other motivations for mobilization demonstrates a failure to move from material specificities to conceptual universals. The tomato then functions as a symbolic exemplar of the multiplicity of layers of political critique featured in the first act.

The group continues to debate the ant problem while often going off on tangents and returning to the discussion until the Scientist ultimately distracts the King by enticing his interest in the lake. Looking for anything “more useful than talk about fairy tales and fanciful projects,”[5] the King disregards the question at hand of the ants and embarks with the Scientist to go see the lake, into which the King falls at the end of the act and eventually dies at the end of the play. The lake distraction is ostensibly referring to Nasser’s large-scaled Aswan High Dam project; the lake itself in the play could very well be a direct analogy to the state-owned Lake Nasser reservoir into which the water surplus was redirected after the dam’s construction. Seen in this light, al-Ḥakīm’s critique introduces what he sees as yet another failure of the post-1952 government in its distracting itself with various projects of industrialization at the expense of more pressing and critical issues.

However, to achieve the full effect of the political edge of this first act involves exploring interpretations beyond the immediate meanings provided by national allegory, which means we must temporarily bracket the allegorical reading. Obviously, interpreting anthropomorphized cockroaches outside the logics of the allegory relegates us to a realm beyond that of realism. Tsvetan Todorov allots three categorical possibilities with which a text designates such elements: marvelous, uncanny, and fantastic. The marvelous consists in comprehending the anthropomorphized cockroaches as such, that is, unnatural or supernatural. The uncanny appropriates the supernatural as a component of the natural, often by some kind of perceptual error (e.g. considering the cockroaches an illusion). Between these two, the fantastic rests upon a hesitation between rationalizing the supernatural as such (marvelous) or as something natural (uncanny) (Todorov 25). The first act of Maṣīr Ṣurṣār does not lend any such rationalization in either direction, and in this way it can be located in the hesitation of the fantastic. This is, of course, only if we maintain this line of thought of the allegory in absentia, which is the precondition for the taxonomy elaborated here.

Now, a fusion of the allegorical and the literal reading can open up new questions of the text, because we are now able to allegorize the hesitation inherent in the fantastic. Although Todorov would disagree in the contradiction, I would like to attempt a kind of synthesis of the political allegory and the fantastic by allowing for both the literal and the allegorical meanings to exist at once. The tension between the literal and allegorical meanings in relation to the fantastic is elaborated here:

If what we read describes a supernatural event, yet we take the words not in their literal meaning but in another sense which refers to nothing supernatural, there is no longer any space in which the fantastic can exist. There exists then a scale of literary sub-genres, between the fantastic (which belongs to that type of text which must be read literally) and pure allegory (which retains only the second, allegorical meaning): a scale constituted in terms of two factors, the explicit character of the indication and the disappearance of the first meaning. (Todorov 63-4)

Although the coexistence of the literal and allegorical meanings compromise the Todorovian sense of the fantastic (for he seems to only allow a kind of spectrum where one exists at the expense of the other), it is entirely possible for the fantastic itself to serve as an allegory. The conception of the fantastic, as teetering on the border of uncanny and marvelous, is essentially a hesitation with regards to the laws of possibility. This hesitation read in light of the various failures of the RCC allegorizes its experimental undertakings to nationalize Egypt. The hesitation is indicative of a new regime attempting to find its footing, lacking confidence but appearing otherwise. Conclusively, we have arrived at the private story of the cockroaches in the first act of Maṣīr Ṣurṣār allegorizing the state’s articulation of post-1952 Egyptian nationalism, which contrasts heavily with the popular nationalism of the multitudes evident in the realm of the human.

The Human as an Allegory for the Multitude

The latter two acts of the play shift gears entirely from the world of cockroaches to that of  humans. The second act opens similarly to the first, focusing on the couple ‘Ādil and Sāmya waking up to begin their day. Contrasting the imperative in the first, the second act begins with the interrogative from the wife: “You’re up, ‘Ādil?” ‘Ādil continues on to explain how he awakens by himself without the use of an alarm clock.[6] The dialogue between the married couple consists of constant reiterations like this of ‘Ādil’s independence from external objects and even his relationship with Sāmya. From the very beginning, ‘Ādil exudes an ethos of rebellion on the domestic plane; he even repeatedly affirms Sāmya’s explicit question as to whether he is rebelling when he prevents her from entering the bathroom: “Have you raised the flag of rebellion?”[7] His affirmation of his independence borders on ridiculous, but allegorized on the national level, ‘Ādil represents the resistance characteristic of popular decolonization movements, characteristic more of the 1919 revolution than the 1952 coup. The absurdity of the context of ‘Ādil’s insurgency begs the reader to interpret Maṣīr Ṣurṣār through the lens of national allegory.

As we did with the first act, a temporary bracketing of the national allegory can uncover new meanings behind the text. Revisiting Heidegger’s philosophy, ‘Ādil’s resistance can also be read as an endeavor toward self-actualization; his involvement with his world consists of disregarding the everyday by neglecting work and hygiene, in order to focus on the cockroach. He spends the majority of scenes two and three contemplating the cockroach, while intermittently staving off threats from Sāmya to kill it. His identification and obsession with the cockroach presents us with a kind of portrait of a philosopher quietly ruminating on the meaning of life, battling those material factors that come to him more as nuisances than anything else. When ultimately the cockroach is killed and wiped away, ‘Ādil confronts his own finitude, which for Heidegger is the key to the human attaining knowledge of itself as a whole, a “being-towards-death” (Habib 716). Here then we may uncover a hidden message of hope within the text. While the death of the cockroach forces ‘Ādil to confront his ephemerality, he is now able at the end of the play to acknowledge a responsibility to actively construct his self in relation to his world. In this way and in the private space of his apartment bathroom, ‘Ādil journeys towards the shedding of his inauthentic existence.

Returning to the national allegorical reading in light of ‘Ādil’s philosophical undertaking, we can allegorize the private search for authenticity on a national level. Certainly there exists in any decolonizing movement the task of the nation, especially of writers, to find an authentic voice outside the bounds of colonial rule. Among other things, they are faced with a series of choices to make about their practices; questions arise regarding the use of forms, genres, styles, and language associated with the colonizer. At this level it is possible to read ‘Ādil’s hopeful ending—his angst qua opportunity for authenticity—as a promising message for the Egyptian people at the time: that its then-current angst would lead to its coming into being.

The Parallax View

Now that we have established two entirely separate private stories with individual links to the national, we can interrogate the parallactic link between the private and the national. It is important at this juncture to present a major text concerned with parallax. In his book The Parallax View (2006), Slovoj Zizek elaborates on Kojin Karatani’s notion of parallax as a metaphor:

The standard definition of parallax is: the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight. The philosophical twist to be added, of course, is that the observed difference is not simply “subjective,” due to the fact that the same object which exists “out there” is seen from two different stances, or points of view. It is rather that, as Hegel would have put it, subject and object are inherently “mediated,” so that an “epistemological” shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an “ontological” shift in the object itself. Or—to put it in Lacanese—the subject’s gaze is always-already inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its “blind spot,” that which is “in the object more than the object itself,” the point from which the object itself returns the gaze (17).

The difference between the two perspectives involved in parallax is so great that the object in view seems to have changed or shifted to the point of resembling something utterly ‘ontologically’ dissimilar. Viewing the relationship between private and national stories through the parallactic frame allows us to see the two private narratives in Maṣīr Ṣurṣār as two ‘observational positions’ wherein the allegorical referent, or object, is the national story. Understood in this way, the shift from the private story of cockroaches to the private story of humans between the first two acts is not a shift within the national narrative, but rather a repositioning of perspective in relation to it.

I want to restrict my analysis to the points of Zizek’s text relevant to the subject at hand. One: the gap between the two observational positions is irreconcilable. And two: the political deployment of the parallax gap (he also discusses philosophical and scientific modes) consists of “the social antagonism which allows for no common ground between the conflicting agents” (Zizek 10). In what follows, I will evaluate the way al-Ḥakīm’s play manages the parallax gap between the two perspectives of cockroach and human.

Evaluating the relationship between the two ‘private stories’ in Maṣīr Ṣurṣār (the parallax gap) will further develop the parallactic link in national allegory; this entails an interpretation from each perspective of the other. From the cockroach perspective, the humans are understood as multiple and separate sublime forces that resemble those of nature. For example, when the Scientist is explaining the disastrous occurrences when many cockroaches are assembled in the same place, he points toward supernatural forces: “This has today been confirmed from a scientific point of view. If a number of cockroaches gather together in one place, and there is a bright, dazzling light, mountains that have neither pinnacles nor peaks move and trample upon our troop, utterly squashing them. At other times there teems down a choking rain that destroys every one of us.”[8] He later debates the Priest as to whether these phenomena are natural events understood by scientific fact or the gods’ “miracle[s] from the skies.”[9] Whether they are explained by the cockroaches through science or religion, it is clear to the reader that the trampling mountains are the people that live in the apartment (‘Ādil, Sāmya, Umm ‘Aṭiyya) and the ‘choking rain’ is insecticide. The cockroaches deify and fear the humans, even praying to them. The first interaction of the two private stories in Maṣīr Ṣurṣār occurs from the perspective of the cockroach world and exhibits a hierarchical relationship mimicking that of man and the divine. Thus, the allegory of the cockroach world standing in for the state’s articulation of nationalism seems to be from this perspective subject the human world, standing in for popular nationalism. Al-Ḥakīm here insists in the power of the multitudes over the government. However, to get a deeper understanding of the parallax gap between the two private stories entails evaluating both perspectives, and so we move on to the humans.

From the ‘Ādil’s perspective, the cockroach is a point of contemplation and obsession as we saw above. Additionally, ‘Ādil holds it in a much higher regard than he does people, as a hero even. While convincing the Doctor that he has not gone mad, ‘Ādil describes the cockroach with a sense of distant admiration:

Doctor (pointing at the cockroach in the bath): That?

‘Ādil: Yes, that hero.

Doctor: Hero?

‘Ādil: Indeed a hero. Imagine yourself in a deep well with walls of smooth marble and that you found it impossible to get out despite having made exhausting efforts to do so, what would you do?

Doctor: I’d give up of course.

‘Ādil: But it hasn’t given up.

Doctor: By no means – I see it repeating its attempts dozens of times.

‘Ādil: Even hundreds. Since early morning I’ve been occupied in counting up the number of times.

Doctor: Is that what you were engaged in since this morning?

‘Ādil: Yes, I wanted to know when its struggle would come to an end.

Doctor (looking into the bath with real interest): As of now it looks as if it will not give up yet.

‘Ādil: Indeed. We’re tired from watching but it’s not tired from trying.

Doctor (continuing to watch it): What hope has it of escaping?

‘Ādil: No hope of course.

Doctor: Unless you were to intervene and save it.

‘Ādil: And I will not intervene.

Doctor: Why not, seeing that you admire it?

‘Ādil: I must leave it to its fate.[10]

‘Ādil is concerned with the cockroach, but he keeps his distance. He chooses not to intervene in its fate and yet admires its persistence. His feeling for the cockroach is ultimately ambivalence. Furthermore, the disconnect between the two occurs on the level of language,  made explicit later on when the Doctor explains that the cockroach could very well be screaming, but it is so tiny that it is impossible for the human ear to detect his voice. This ambivalence from the human perspective operating along the parallax gap allegorizes the multitudes’ reluctance to action even when the promising Nasserist regime of the 1952 coup had degenerated into hopeless. On the other hand, the distance between them begs the question if there is any possibility that the gap could be resolved.

The vast difference in these viewpoints’ perceptions of each other demonstrate the irreducible parallax gap between the two ‘private stories’. The cockroaches and humans in al-Ḥakīm’s play—allegorizing the state and the people—are living the political parallax gap, the “social antagonism that allows for no common ground.” In fact, the play dramatizes this irreconcilability in the ultimate interaction between the cockroach and human worlds, when the cook Umm ‘Aṭiyya kills the King by simply performing her duties around the house. She not only kills, but wipes the cockroach out of existence. The King was not simply ‘trampled by the mountains’ nor did he fall victim to the ‘choking rain’. Rather he was erased from history without a trace. For al-Ḥakīm, such is the fate of Nasser’s dictatorship. The only way to ‘reconcile’ the parallax gap is through its utter eradication: via the erasure of the cockroach’s/state’s observational position. Furthermore, this resolution comes from the only laborer in household, Umm ‘Aṭiyya. Thus the actual work erases the utterance, “Come along – wake up! It’s time for work,” signaling a triumph of the real material labor over the flat rhetorics of the worker-savior in the state’s articulation of nationalism.

Now, it is possible to forego all of the preceding analysis and allegorize Maṣīr Ṣurṣār‘s disruption and lack of unity as simply a representation of the abrupt and sweeping changes resulting from the 1952 revolution. But to do so would be to ignore essential meanings within the text. Politically, it would trivialize the irreconcilable social antagonism drawn out by parallax to simply a shift in the national story; it would maintain a monolithic view of the ‘national story’. Poetically, it would reduce the play to an unremarkable dramatization of the shift rather than an articulation of the complexities and difficulties of merely an apparent change. Furthermore for critics, it would involve a focus so heavily drawn to the form of the transition that it would be ignoring the substance surrounding it, resulting in a kind of buffet-style interpretation where national allegory is only applicable to convenient elements.

Al-Ḥakīm even warns us of the dangers of slipping into interpreting the parallactic link between the private and national as simply a shift in the national story. First, to do so would to presume that instead of two private stories of the cockroach and human, there is only one that experiences a shift itself. In this view, the story of the humans is merely a continuation of the cockroach story of the first act. To combat this slippery misconception, al-Ḥakīm dedicates a portion of the dialogue in the third act to distinguish that ‘Ādil is in fact not the cockroach as the Doctor’s psychiatric diagnosis proclaims (166-7). He warns of the dangers of creating a simple equation that the cockroach is the human. Instead, he maintains the cockroach-human distinction to preserve the parallax gap between them.

In light of the parallax view, the abrupt shift in the reader’s perspective between the first two acts of Maṣīr Ṣurṣār is not a shift in the private story of national allegory, but indeed an entirely different private story. Together, these two stories are linked parallactically to the external referent of the national story. Politically, al-Ḥakīm is demonstrating the importance of recognizing the existence of multiple perspectives: in this case, the state’s version of nationalism in an antagonistic relationship to the nationalist ethos of the people. Poetically, he provides an entirely different approach to writing the nation. Paul Starkey mistakenly understands al-Ḥakīm’s play as, “remarkable for little other than for being one of the most blatant examples of the tendency to a lack of unity in al-Ḥakīm’s plays” (215). But his writing off the play as a simple example of artistic preference reflects an unwillingness to interrogate this lack of unity in any kind of critical way. By doing so here, I have shown not only the artistic prowess of al-Ḥakīm to express the complexities of the Egyptian nation under Nasser in the year prior to the Naksa. but also the versatility and depth of reading through the lens of national allegory.

Arabic Appendix

(١) الملك: قومى استيقظى! … حان وقت العمل … (الحكيم ١)


العالم : نعم … رأيت مرة … منذ زمن طويل جدًا … في مطلع شبابى … بضعة صراصير اجتمعت ليلا في مطبخ حول قطعة من الطماطم …

الملكة : الطماطم؟ …

العالم : نعم …

الملك : فكرة مدهشة … مسألة الطماطم هذه! …

الوزير : من هنا نبدأ …

الملكة : وتقول إن العلم لا يستطيع حل المشكلة! …

العالم : وما دخل العلم هنا؟! … هذه ليست أكثر من مجرد ملاحظة عادية …

الملك : هذا من تواضع العلماء … ولكن الفكرة على كل حال مفيدة … إذا استطعنا أن نأني بقطعة طماطم فإنه سيجتمع حولها عدد من الصراصير …

العالم : المشكلة الحقيقية هى كيف نعثر على قطعة الطماطم؟ …

الملك : وكيف إذن نعثر عليها أحينًا؟ …

العالم : مالمصادفة …

الملكة : ومتى تأتى المصادفة؟ …

العالم : هذا شيء لا يمكن التنبؤ به …

الملك : أنت إذن جئت تحل لنا المشكلة بمشكلة …

الملكة : ابحث لنا عن شىء آخر غير الطماطم …

العالم : أى نوع آخر من الطعام يضعنا في نفس الوضع لأننا نجد الطعام … فلكننا لا نستطيع أن نوجده … (الحكيم ٢٣-٢٥)

(٣) الملك: . . . إن هذا على الاقل شيء أفيد من الكلام في موضوعات خرافية ومشروعات وهمية! . . . (الحكيم ٥٣)


سامية : »ملتفتة إلى زوجها« استيقظت يا عادل؟ …

عادل : طبعا …

سامية : هل رن جرس المنبه؟ …

عادل : لا طبعا … قمت من تلقاء نفسى كالعادة …  . . . (الحكيم ٦٥-٦٦)

(٥) سامية: رفعت راية العصيان؟! …

(٦) العالم: أصبح هذا مؤكدًا اليوم من الوجهة العلمية … إذا اجتمع عدد من الصراصير في مكان، وكان وهح الضوء ساطعًا، فسعان ما تتحرك جبال ليس لها قمم ولارءوس، فتدوس جماعتنا وتسحقها سحقا … وفى أحيان أخرى ينهمر علينا رشاش مطر خانق يبيدنا عن آخرنا … (الحكيم ٢٧)

(٧) معجزة من السماء (الحكيم ٦١)


الدكتور: »يشير إلى الصرصار في الحوض« هذا؟! …

عادل : نعم … هذا لابطل …

الدكتور: بطل؟! …

عادل : بالتأكيد بطل … تخيل نفسك في بئر عميقة … جدرانها من المرمر الأملس … وأستحال عليك الخروج معد محاولات مضنية … ماذا تفعل؟! …

الدكتور: أيأس طبعًا …

عادل : انه هو لم ييأس …

الدكتور: حقا … أراه يكرر المحاولة عشرات المرات …

عادل : بل مئات المرات … لقد جعلت همى منذ الصباح أن أحصى العدد …

الدكتور: أكنت مشغولا بذلك منذ الصباح؟! …

عادل : نعم … أردت أن أعرف منى ينهى كفاحه! …

الدكتور: »ناظرًا ياهتمام حقيقي« حتى الآن يبدو عليه أنه لن ينتهى قريبا …

عادل : فعلا … تعبنا نحن من المشادة، ولم يتعب هو من المحاولة …

الدكتور: »متابعا النظر« أى أمل له في النجاة؟! …

عادل : لا أمل طبعا …

الدكتور: إلا إذا تدخلت أنت وأنقذته …

عادل : وأنا لن أتدخل …

الدكتور: ولم لا؟! … ما دمت معجبا به …

عادل : يجب أن أتركه لمصيره … (الحكيم ١٧٢-١٧٣)

Works Cited

Al-Hakīm, Tawfīq. Fate of a Cockroach and Other Plays. Trans. Denys Johnson-Davies. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1980. Print.

—. Masir Sorsar. Cairo: Maktabat al-Ādāb, 1966. Print.

Badawi, M. M. “A Passion for Experimentation: The Novels and Plays of Tawfiq al-Hakim.” Third World Quarterly 10.2 (1988): 949-60. Print.

Habib, M. A. R. A History of Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to the Present. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Print.

Hocberg, Gil. “National Allegories and the Emergence of the Female Voice in Moufida Tlali’s Les silences du palais.” Third Text 14.50 (Spring 2000): 33-44. Print.

Jameson, Frederic. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88. Print.

Starkey, Paul. From the Ivory Tower: A Critical Analysis of Tawfiq al-Hakim. Ithaca: Ithaca Press, 1988. Print.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006. Print.


[1] All English citations from Masir Sursar reference the published Denys Johnson-Davies English edition, however I have made some modifications to preserve certain nuances in the Arabic. Citatio indicate the Arabic edition, followed by the Johnson-Davies translation, and the appropriate reference to the Arabic original available in the Appendix. I have used the following editions: Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār. (Cairo: Maktabat al-Ādāb, 1966) and Fate of a Cockroach and other plays, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1980). Arabic transliterations are based on the IJMES guide to transliterating Arabic.

[2] Al-Ḥakīm, Masir Sursar, 1; Fate of a Cockroach, 2; Appendix, 1.

[3] M. M. Badawi says, “The Fate of a Cockroach is a strange work, consisting of two plays which are meant to be juxtaposed; the grotesque political world of the first play—a fable marked by the savagery of its political satire—provides the context for the absurd human relations of the second play” (Badawi 958). Paul Starkey says, “the work can almost be regarded as two plays stitched together” (Starkey 215).

[4] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 23-5; Fate of a Cockroach, 11-2 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 2. I opt for  “Scientist” and “Vizier” over Johnson-Davies’s “Savant” and “Minister,” respectively.

[5] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 53; Fate of a Cockroach, 22; Appendix, 3.

[6] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 66-7; Fate of a Cockroach, 27; Appendix, 4.

[7] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 68; Fate of a Cockroach, 28 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 5. I have replaced Johnson-Davies’s more natural “You’re rebelling?” with “Have you raised the flag of rebellion?” to accentuate the nationalist inclinations of ‘Ādil’s diction.

 [8] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 27; Fate of a Cockroach, 12-3; Appendix, 6.

 [9] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 61; Fate of a Cockroach, 25; Appendix, 7.

 [10] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 172-3; Fate of a Cockroach, 68; Appendix, 8.

Bifurcating Translations: Borges’s Theories of Ideas and Writing Through Translation Studies

Jorge Luis Borges has been embraced by postmodernity, as a result of his interrogation of originality. In an interview with Jacques Chancel, Borges explained:

I do not write, I rewrite. My memory produces my sentences. I have read so much and I have heard so much. I admit it: I repeat myself. I confirm it: I plagiarize. We are all heirs of millions of scribes who have already written down all that is essential a long time before us. We are all copyists, and all the stories we invent have already been told. There are no longer any original ideas. (Invisible Work 135)

This theoretical positioning influences his practice of writing as re-writing, writing as reading, and translating as both a creative and critical process. Throughout his essayistic and short fiction writings, Borges demonstrates his system of beliefs most effectively by putting it into practice in both his fictions and translations. Many critical studies focus on artistic creation theory in Borges, and the majority of such studies specifically focus on a small portion of the fictional texts. My study proposes to look at a group of translational texts, Borges’s translation of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” and his stories “Death and the Compass” and “Ibn-Hakam Al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth,” as representative of Borges’s general thoughts on writing—theory that is pervasive throughout his entire body of work.

Borges was visibly fascinated by the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, as evidenced by his discussions of and allusions to the writer, his translations of Poe, and his versions and re-workings of the detective genre. John T. Irwin’s The Mystery to a Solution is dedicated in its entirety to the exploration of the relationship between the two writers. Other Borgesian studies examine, in relation to Poe, Borges’s theory and practice of translation, which is inextricable from the Nietzschean idea of the impossibility of originality. Efraín Kristal’s Invisible Work: Borges and Translation looks at Borges as a translator, and also examines translation as it plays out in Borges’s creative fiction. In what follows, translation theory and the impossibility of originality will be set against one another to further examine a specific translational relationship: that of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” and Borges’s translation of Poe’s story, “La carta robada”; as well as Borges’ original stories “Death and the Compass” and “Ibn-Hakam Al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth.” I will delve into the major stylistic and semantic distances between the Poe story and its Borgesian translations, arguing that Borges’ translation of Poe extends beyond the literal translation to other translational practices that can be seen in “Death and the Compass” and “Ibn-Hakam Al-Bokhari.” After briefly synthesizing Borges’s background as a reader/writer/translator, it will be helpful to review Borges’s interest in Poe as an author and as the creator of a genre that fascinated Borges. This essay will revolve around Borges’s conception of translation, specifically in relation to “The Purloined Letter.” By examining this particular translational “problematic” (which I have yet to define) alongside Borges’s major essays on translation and through my discussion of Irwin’s and Kristal’s work, I hope to clarify some of the major tenets of his critical and translational theories and practices.

When studying the work of Borges, one is never very far from his thoughts on reading, writing, and translation. While translation is the focus of this essay, Borges’s understanding of the three processes is too intimately linked to ignore his relationship to reading and how it shapes his writing process. It is common knowledge that Borges’s knowledge of literature was extensive. The fact that some scholars have made attempts to draw boundaries at the limits of his erudition seems to further demonstrate the unusual scope of his readings (in that few writers attract such critical attention to what they have and have not read). Not only was Borges widely read; he enjoyed writing about his favorite texts and incorporated many of their characteristics into his own writing. His “An Autobiographical Essay,” written at the behest of Norman Thomas Di Giovanni in 1970, shows that much of his literary and philosophical direction was inherited from his father (206). Because Borges was raised in a bilingual household, many of his favorite books were written in English and amongst his favorite writers were Chesterton, Stevenson, and of course, Poe. Emir Rodríguez Monegal’s two essays, “Borges, a Reader” and “Borges: the Reader as Writer,” best demonstrate the link between Borges’s practices of reading and creating, especially in relation to the English language:

Borges learned to read English before Spanish…From the very beginning the English language was inseparably related to the act of reading…it became a code giving him access to the world of books…Here one can find the origin of his personal myth and his well-known predilection for British—and, by extension, North American—letters. (“Borges, a Reader” 41)

The longer and earlier essay, “Borges: the Reader as Writer,” methodically uncovers a number of Borges’s ideas, while affirming that “Borges probably hasn’t added a single new idea, a single lasting intuition, to the vast corpus compiled by the West and the East…But his speculations…are essential to an understanding of the ultimate meaning of his work” (103). Rodríguez Monegal, as Suzanne Jill Levine’s essay “Borges and Emir: The Writer and His Reader” demonstrates, was able to find the biographical “drama/trauma in Borges’s rhetoric of reading” (123). Rodríguez Monegal’s essay dedicates significant time to exploring Borges’s relationship to his father and how his biography (specifically the overcoming of the biological and literary fathers) relates to his written work. More directly connected to my focus are two points Rodríguez Monegal elucidates, first: “[I]t would be impossible to quote all the places in Borges’s work in which he discusses personal identity only to deny it” (106). The distancing or impossibility of the self ties into the idea that the work is more important than the author, which allows Borges to translate and to think of translation in a specific way that is described in his essay “Two Ways to Translate.” Secondly, “[T]he identification of the universe with the Book has permitted Borges to introduce into his essay (somewhat laterally) a different and complementary theme: we ourselves are a kind of writing” (114). This quotation refers specifically to Borges’s “On the Cult of Books” essay, in which Rodríguez Monegal uncovers the metaphor of the book as the universe, which can also be seen in Borges’s story “The Library of Babel.” Essentially, in Borges’s writing, the entire world is a book, and all books are the world, and it is impossible to uncover any hidden meanings underneath the semiotic mess that is language. The re-writing and translating of past stories is simply a way of rearranging ideas, but it is important to keep in mind that, for Borges, the re-readings and re-writings had no more capacity to uncover metaphysical truths than did the so-called originals.

While he is best known for the short fictions written during the 1940’s, Borges wrote extensively as a poet and essayist as well. In a brief essay on Poe published in La Nación in 1949, Borges makes an interesting comment on Poe’s celebrity as a short fiction writer that illustrates one of the many parallels between the two writers: “Poe se creía poeta, sólo poeta, pero las circunstancias lo llevaron a escribir cuentos, y esos cuentos a cuya escritura se resignó y que debió encarar como tareas ocasionales, son su inmortalidad.”[1] While the biographical similarities between Poe and Borges will be addressed again briefly in my discussion of John T. Irwin’s book, I cite this essay here to foreshadow the distorted parallels between the two writers but more importantly to call attention to the wide variety of texts that make up both Poe’s and Borges’s oeuvre. Luckily for readers who focus on Borges’s renowned Ficciones, published in 1944, and El aleph, 1949, all of Borges’s theory is succinctly contained in explicit and implicit form within his short stories. “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” is given its due in important studies of translation, including Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe and George Steiner’s After Babel: “[H]ere Cervantes’s masterpiece becomes a tentative web of propositions that change with each new historical act of reading; each successive reading, rewriting, translating of a text enriches and ensures the original’s survival anew” (Levine 5). Within this story, Borges demonstrates two crucial aspects of his translation theory: the continuous cyclical process of reading and rewriting, and the unimportance of the author in relation to the “work,” which is now a “text.”

In order to fully appreciate Borges’s various readings and writings on Poe, one must understand certain aspects of Borgesian translation. First, his translations and writings on translation generally celebrate the creative aspect of the act of translating, what Ana Gargatagli and Juan Gabriel López Guix label as “infidelidad creadora” or creative infidelity (5). However, the second essential facet of the theory further complicates our path: with Borges, it is dangerous to assume that one theory is universal or that he follows one straight path in any sense of the phrase. Levine affirms in “Borges and Translation” that “Borges is also a pragmatist in that he does not trust general theories, but rather evaluates ‘particular’ translations and originals alike, case by case: hence the work itself matters more than its author” (3). Thus, while it is helpful to have a general overview of how Borges seems to address translation and writing in general, there are exceptions to every statement that could be made. His rewritings of “The Purloined Letter” in fact adhere to certain ideas that Borges embraced but do not seem to fit perfectly into sync with everything he wrote on translation.

The role of the author for Borges is crucial to understanding how Borges felt about creativity, originality, and how translations/reproductions function in relation to their original sources. In The Subversive Scribe, Suzanne Jill Levine proposes some of the questions that surface in Borges’s writings:

Borges prefigured here Michel Foucault’s challenge to the concept of authorship: What is an author? How can we determine intentionality? The only real difference between original and translation—Borges playfully specified—is that the translator’s referent is a visible text against which the translation can be judged. (5)

While the referent of a visible text sets the translator apart from the writer of an original work, the quotation at the beginning of this essay demonstrates that even the allegedly original text is drawing from a previous work according to Borges. These three characteristics of Borgesian translation all link back to the more general worldview found in so many of Borges’s texts: it is futile to try to create something completely new or original, because all stories are retellings of older stories. Borges does seem to think that innovation and creation can be generated in the combining of and tension between the new and the old, an idea that can be seen in his understanding of translation and also in how he crafts his stories by reworking texts he had previously read. “Creation in Borges emerged organically, systemically and simultaneously along with his elaborations as a translator, and the notion of what a writer is, indeed, emerged out of Borges’ version of what a translator is, or can do, especially when that translator is Borges” (“Borges and Translation” 5). This understanding of Borgesian theory of artistic creation will serve as the foundation of my discussion of two works by Borges that directly draw from Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” and my attempt to further explain Borgesian translation using these specific translations as a point of departure.

Borges’s interest in Poe is inarguable. Emron Esplin notes in “Reading and Re-Reading: Jorge Luis Borges’ Literary Criticism on Edgar Allan Poe” that Borges references Poe or a text of Poe’s in over one hundred and twenty written works (this number excludes speeches). Esplin consulted Borges’s personal copies of many of Poe’s texts that belong to Borges’s widow, Maria Kodama. An interesting aspect of Esplin’s analysis of Borges’s notations is that the marginalia appears to be from a number of different periods of his life, meaning that Borges continually returned to Poe throughout his career:

Borges offers his most lengthy analyses of Poe’s texts and Poe’s life in a limited number of articles…However, the vast majority of his references to Poe appear in articles on subjects other than Poe…Reviews and prologues might not carry the scholarly weight (or length) of an academic article, interview, or lecture, but their close connection to the texts they review or precede make them at least as influential on the reading public…Borges’ references to Poe in articles not focused on Poe, reviews, and prologues demonstrate that Borges not only re-read Poe either literally or through memory every time he alludes to Poe’s work. (Esplin 249)

Poe’s influence on Borges, as evidenced by the continual notation in his personal texts as well as by his consistent references to the author, was one of the more prominent influences that can be clearly traced within the Borgesian oeuvre. In John T. Irwin’s book The Mystery to a Solution, Irwin makes a convincing case that in part Borges’s interest in Poe was biographical. Irwin’s masterful and appropriately labyrinthine text addresses the biographical parallels in a chapter entitled “Poe and Borges as Southerners; A Military/Literary Heritage; Heroic Grandfathers; Pierre Menard; Faulkner as Mediating Influence; The Journey to the South” (164), and the title offers a completely reasonable (and for our purposes sufficient) condensation of the content. Aside from this listing of bridges that can be built between the biographies of the two writers, it is necessary to note that Poe, like Borges, wrote extensively on a similarly wide variety of topics, and was considered one of the first great American literary critics and theoreticians. Irwin’s book focuses on the mirroring of Poe’s Dupin stories with three Borgesian detective stories that Borges intentionally began to publish one hundred years after the publication of the first Dupin story.

From here, the question shifts from “why Poe?” to “why the three Dupin stories?” Throughout Borges’s oeuvre, one continuously finds references to the narrative relevance of plot, artifice, and the detective story/novel as a genre. In essays dedicated to specific writers of the genre, including Wilkie Collins, Ellery Queen, and Chesterton, Borges demonstrates his breadth of knowledge of detective fiction and, based on his observations of the genre, establishes “a code” that detective short stories should follow in “The Labyrinths of the Detective Story and Chesterton.” Although his code is extreme and never perfectly followed (neither by Borges nor by his collaborator Bioy Casares), it is significant that he was intrigued enough by the genre to undertake such a task. Moreover, the first paragraph of his 1978 essay “The Detective Story” illustrates his debt to Poe: “[T]o speak of the detective story is to speak of Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the genre” (125). Within this essay, Borges speculates about Poe’s desire in writing the Dupin stories, saying that:

Poe did not want the detective genre to be a realist genre; he wanted it to be an intellectual genre, a fantastic genre, if you wish, but a fantastic genre of the intellect and not only of the imagination; a genre of both things, no doubt, but primarily the intellect. (130)

Borges then spends a large portion of the essay examining the plots of Poe’s stories, including “The Purloined Letter” and “ The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” Nowhere in this essay is the quality of Poe’s writing discussed, only the brilliance and efficacy of his plots. It is significant that the list of “excellent writers” near the end of the essay does not include Poe’s name. In the concluding paragraph of the essay, Borges characterizes most modern writing as tending “toward free verse…It tends to eliminate character, plot; everything is very vague” (134). This assessment mirrors what Borges says about “los rusos” in his prologue to Bioy Casares’s La invención de Morel, especially because in both essays he directly contrasts the vague and disorganized writing with another type of writing that “has humbly maintained the classic virtues” (134): the detective story or the similar adventure novel (the subject of the prologue). Efraín Kristal notes in Invisible Work that:

Borges venerated Poe’s imagination but disparaged his writing skills. He often said that Poe is a writer that one enjoys when remembering his tales, not while reading them in English…he energetically enacted stylistic alterations in his translations of “The Purloined Letter.” (61)

In the following analysis of the translation of “The Purloined Letter,” it will be necessary to remember “The Detective Story” essay, in which Borges demonstrates that his interest in Poe is entirely based on the plots and structure of his detective stories. The three Dupin stories all feature a detective who is described by Borges as “a very intelligent man named Dupin, who will later be named Sherlock Holmes, who will later be named Father Brown…” (128). Both Irwin and Kristal delve into Borges’s reading and rewriting of the three Dupin stories.

It is clear that Borges had a strong interest in Poe’s mastery of plot and the consequent invention of the detective genre. There is more tenuous evidence that Borges was inspired by Poe the author, and little to no evidence that Poe’s style of writing was held in high regard by Borges. By looking specifically at what Borges did with and to “The Purloined Letter,” I hope to illuminate certain aspects of Borges’s understanding of translation, while also exposing some of the problems with the word “translation” when used in this type of study.

As evidenced by my extensive reference to John T. Irwin and Efraín Kristal, it should be no surprise that their respective analyses of Borges’s interaction with “The Purloined Letter” provide the basis for my interpretation of the translations. In their divergent analyses of Borges and Poe, an interesting problematic arises. Irwin’s entire book focuses on the link between Borges and Poe, and he speaks at length about Borges’s project to reinterpret Poe’s three stories in three stories of his own. According to Irwin, “The Purloined Letter” is Borges’s point of departure for “Death and the Compass,” which Irwin convincingly argues in a number of ways that will be enumerated below. Nowhere does Irwin refer to this work directly as a translation. My combination of the two approaches utilized by the aforementioned scholars in a way mirrors Borges’s own bricolage in his writing practices. While Irwin and Kristal undoubtedly approach Poe and Borges from different angles, and while their definitions of translation may not be entirely compatible, the tension between the two analyses when combined is what I want to emphasize. In this tension, I see a productive and creative way to examine Borges’s expansive and inclusive definition of translation.

Kristal’s project hopes to “demonstrate that translation, not as a loose metaphor for influence or intertextuality, but as a process whereby a writer remodels one sequence of words into another, is central to Borges’s reflections on writing” (xiii). Because of his specific definition of translation, Kristal avoids examining Borges’s rewritings of the Dupin stories into his own ficciones, and focuses specifically on his “La carta robada,” which Borges translated with Bioy Casares for inclusion in their anthology Los mejores cuentos policiales, published in 1943.

Irwin links “The Purloined Letter” to “Death and the Compass” and “Ibn Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth.” Irwin’s analysis of the numerical/geometrical structures of “The Purloined Letter” and Borges’s stories is extensive. Irwin sees this geometry as the most important structural element Borges derives from Poe. Irwin also demonstrates that Borges intended to publish his own three stories (“La muerte y la brújula,” “Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto,” and “El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”) around the hundred-year anniversary of the publication of Poe’s trilogy (37). The embedded elements of Poe within the two Borgesian detectivesque stories become obvious (though Irwin’s analysis exposes them most clearly): the oscillation between the numbers three and four is a major element of “Death and the Compass,” and within this story, the theme of revenge and the intellectual dual is reconfigured through Lönnrot and Scharlach. Irwin points out that Borges explicitly makes the connection between Lönnrot and Dupin within the first paragraph of the story (30), but also notes that for all of the appropriation that is evident within Borges’s story, there is a critical and parodic difference:

Where Poe’s detective solves the mystery and outwits the culprit, Borges’s detectives, at least in the first two stories, are outwitted by the people they pursue, trapped in a labyrinth fashioned from the pursuer’s ability to follow a trail until he arrives at the chosen spot at the expected moment. We should note, however, that Borges consistently undercuts the notion that the culprit’s triumph, his being one up on his opponent, ultimately makes the real difference. “And one to me are shame and fame” might almost be the motto of these encounters. (37)

This difference is significant in that it hearkens back to the idea of Borges as a translator of “creative infidelity,” to translate and borrow Gargatagli’s and Guix’s terminology. As with many other terms, plot structures, and ideas, Borges borrows the aspects of “The Purloined Letter” that work for him, and then rewrites from a critical distance. The distance between the “original” and its translations is the space of creativity, and the shift between the outcome in Poe and the outcome in Borges exemplifies how Borges furthered the genre while constantly referring back to his predecessor.

“Ibn Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth,” is technically, according to Irwin, the story Borges means to parallel with “The Purloined Letter.” Both are the third in the series, and “Ibn Hakam al-Bokhari” contains equally explicit references to “The Purloined Letter,” including the geometric structure that Irwin traces throughout his exploration of the two sets of stories. Also explicit are the links between the two Borgesian protagonists of “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari” and Poe’s Dupin. Although Irwin does not make this connection in his discussion, both Dunraven and Dunwin are somewhat linguistically close to Dupin, and the fact that both names start with the letter “d” reminds the reader of the intellectual battle between Dupin and Monsieur D—. The letters of substitution, the “nw” in Dunwin and “nrave” in Dunraven could potentially foreshadow the changes to the plot that Borges incorporates. Obviously, “raven” is another clue to the reader that Poe is lurking in the shadows of the story. Irwin correctly demonstrates how Dunwin and Dunraven are also the personification of the two sides of the detective, the criminal, and the structure of the detective story: poetry and mathematics. In Poe, both sides are always present, and within “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin’s monologues go to great lengths to demonstrate the importance of creativity in conjunction with the more structured knowledge of mathematics. By doubling or splitting this combination into multiple characters, Borges furthers the intellectual dialogue between the two sides that is already present in Poe.

Although Efraín Kristal’s book does address the Borgesian Poe in an entirely different manner, parts of his book support the case made by Irwin. Kristal points out that Borges was preparing his anthology of detective fiction with Bioy Casares while simultaneously writing “Death and the Compass,” which he also included within the anthology. In showcasing the two stories together, Borges intended for the alert audience to detect the parallels between his appropriation of Poe in “La muerte y la brújula” and his direct translation of Poe in “La carta robada.” Kristal does not deny that Borges used Poe when writing “Death and the Compass,” going as far as to outline the metamorphosis of Dupin and Monsieur D— into Lönnrot and Scharlach (105). However, he also demonstrates the other influences of stories by London and Hawthorne, showing Borges’s story to be an amalgamation of many sources. Kristal is not, then, writing directly in opposition to Irwin, but he does note that

Certainly, we have seen in this study instances in which the line between a Borges translation and a Borges original can become somewhat blurred, but in general the differences are clear-cut. It would be a mistake, therefore, to think of translation in Borges merely as a loose metaphor for intertextuality. (138)

Kristal’s argument here makes sense in terms of his goals for his book and his definition of translation. However, it seems to limit Borges’s own conflation of the processes of reading, writing, and translating. After closely examining Kristal’s thoughts on the translation “La carta robada,” perhaps it is possible to combine his work with Irwin’s in a way that more successfully demonstrates Borges’s ideology.

Both Kristal and Emron Esplin make similar statements in regards to what Poe’s limitations are according to Borges: “Chesterton’s and Queen’s detective fiction, at least according to Borges’ interpretations, does not reject Poe but “out-Poes” Poe by successfully developing the effects of the supernatural tale and the detective story in one piece without letting either effect destroy the other—something that Poe never attempted” (Esplin 251). In examining both “Death and the Compass” and “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari,” one can see that Borges also fuses the fantastic and the analytic. One question is, does his “creatively unfaithful” translation “La carta robada” do so as well?

Kristal’s reading of Borges’s translation is succinct and generally describes the numerous omissions, deletions, and changes within the story. While he does not address the minutiae of the linguistic shifts, Kristal places emphasis on the shift in meaning, which is subtle but essential:

The implications of Borges’s modifications are hardly trivial. They reorient the focus of the story from the circumstances of the victim to the relationship between the detective and the thief. What matters in Borges’s story is the interplay between two minds trying to outwit each other in their attempts to anticipate the other’s thought process, while aware that the other is doing the same. (66)

In Poe’s story, the gender of the recipient of the stolen letter is definitive. While her name is omitted, all readings of the story point to the character as being the Queen of France. However, “Borges deliberately obfuscates the character’s gender” (63) by using words that are grammatically feminine (“persona,” “víctima”) but do not necessarily refer to the gender of the character described (65). By displacing the royal intrigue to an ambiguous and more mysterious status, the emphasis of the story rests directly on the intellectual struggle between the two minds.

In the comparison of “The Purloined Letter” and “La carta robada,” it is inarguable that the most significant shift in meaning is the one described above by Kristal. However, this change does not introduce the supernatural into the story, which one might anticipate as the intent of the translator who clearly makes this his goal in his personal re-writings of the stories of Poe. In fact, while the translation makes significant cuts and modifications that address Poe’s florid and indirect prose, Borges does not seem to attempt a radical translation here. Of course, this opinion depends on what is meant by radical translation, and the definition of translation is what irrevocably separates Kristal’s work from Irwin’s in terms of “The Purloined Letter” and what separates my interpretation from them both. It is worth briefly examining a group of Borges’s essays on translation to help us in what has become an analysis of the extensive chain of other analyses of “The Purloined Letter.”

In “Two Ways to Translate” (1926), Borges begins to theorize on a practice he had begun to learn long before his literary career. It is well known that his first publication was a translation at age nine of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince.” In his 1926 essay, we have Borges’s first articulated thoughts on the difference between literal and paraphrastic translations. By equating the former with romanticism and the latter with classicism, Borges briefly discusses each, which he later will also link to the famous Arnold-Newman debate. In his explanation of classical translation, he explains: “[t]he classical way of thinking is interested only in the work of art, never the artist. The classics believe in absolute perfection and seek it out. They despise localisms, oddities, contingencies” (55). The interest in the work of art over the artist is pervasive in Borges’s writings, but a specific aspect of this quotation that relates to “La carta robada” is Borges’s elimination of the concept of “meerschaum,” from Poe’s story. The word refers to a specific type of pipe carved of a mineral found in the Black Sea known as meerschaum. Perhaps it is because this reference would have been outside of the bounds of knowledge of his contemporary reader and upset the fluidity of the reading that Borges decided to omit this aspect of the text. Borges contrasts the “perfection” of the classical translation with the romantic translation, which he equates with: “reverence for the I, for the irreplaceable human difference that is any I, justifies literal translations” (56). The final paragraph of the essay helps us to close in on a general understanding of Borgesian translation, as it opens up the definition to include same language translations, rewritings, and versions: “[T]his play could also occur within the same literature—why pass from one language to another?” (56).

While translation is prevalent throughout Borges’s writings, “Two Ways of Translating” is the only essay that focuses on general translation. His two other seminal essays on translation (keeping in mind that his story “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” can be read within this category as well) deal with two groups of translations that are quite dissimilar to his translations of Poe. “The Homeric Versions” (1932) and “The Translators of 1001 Nights” (1936) both deal with works that Borges did not read in the original. By discussing various translations in terms of their value but not necessarily in direct correlation with the “original,” Borges further defies the hierarchy of “translation” and “original works.” In “The Homeric Versions,” Borges says that “[T]ranslations are a partial and precious documentation of the changes the text suffers” (57), and that “[T]he concept of the “definitive text” corresponds only to religion or exhaustion” (57). Additionally, Borges is thankful for his ignorance of Greek, in that it makes Homer’s Odyssey “an international bookstore of works in prose and verse” (58) after which he enumerates some of the many translations that make Homer’s epic their own. In noting the huge variety within the Homeric translations, Borges claims the multiplicity is created by “the difficult category of knowing what pertains to the poet and what pertains to the language. To that fortunate difficulty we owe the possibility of so many versions, all of them sincere, genuine, and divergent” (58).

While this statement directly influences Borges’s discussion of both Homer and the translations of 1001 Nights, it cannot be applied to Borges’s translations of Poe. Writing only one hundred years later and with a strong grasp of the English language, Borges has a textual relationship with Poe that is more constrained and literal in terms of translation. While both of the later essays thoroughly examine what works and what does not work in the numerous translations with which Borges was familiar, the creativity of those translations praised by Borges could not be employed while translating “La carta robada.”

Having looked at “Death and the Compass,” “Ibn-Hakam Al-Bokhari” and “La carta robada” in terms of Irwin’s and Kristal’s readings of the stories as translations and appropriations of “The Purloined Letter,” the initial quotation cited in this study can be understood in its full richness and condensation of Borges’s ideology. When keeping in mind that both his translation of and stories inspired by “The Purloined Letter” occurred around the same time, we can see both kinds of projects together as an encapsulation of Borges’s inclusive understanding of reading, writing, and translating as different facets of the same process. This conflation of the three acts relates to his belief that all written work is a copy, plagiarism, or reiteration of something that has already been written. With this attitude, Borges willfully and consciously cobbled his work together, using plots and philosophies taken from his vast mental library. Having accepted that his conception of translation can be expanded to include all of his iterations of “The Purloined Letter,” we must now ask whether Borges’s translations and appropriations of Poe are significant within a more global or postcolonial context.

If we examine Borges’s multiple reinterpretations of Poe’s story as complementary facets of the same critical process, we see both stylistic and thematic modifications. Like Borges, I have taken aspects of both Irwin’s and Kristal’s exemplary works and refashioned them together in a way that best serves my own purpose. If my own effort within this essay models the same appropriation that I see within Borges’s translations of “The Purloined Letter,” it certainly does so while remaining within the confines of academic style and requirements. Like Irwin’s attempt to demonstrate certain aspects of Borges through vast references, short sections, and fairly simple language, my work here has also made an attempt to use other critical readings to support my own, in a way attempting to “one up” the readings I discuss. By placing myself within the intellectual back and forth of “The Purloined Letter,” I have hoped to draw attention to how similar contemporary academic writing is to the endless progression of analysis within and outside of Poe’s story. Borges’s own awareness of this cyclical process of reassessment of the same old ideas is pervasive throughout his writings. I believe that Irwin successfully demonstrates that it is Borges’s own awareness of this mise-en-abîme structure that encourages the chain of readings of the story that were discussed above. The inclusion of the reader within the text also highlights the reception theory that plays out in Borges’s work, years before Hans-Robert Jauss’s work became influential.

While it is edifying to examine the many aspects of Borges’s work on Poe as it foreshadows many of the other critical readings to follow, both Sergio Waisman and Walter Carlos Costa place Borges’s translation within a postcolonial context that further illustrates the importance of the Borges-Poe relationship. Borges is considered a universal or global writer in many contexts, primarily because of his extremely diverse allusions and references within his fiction, and also because his most renowned stories do not foreground local concerns of Argentines, not to mention his wide and diverse readership and influence. However, Gene H. Bell-Villada points out in “Borges as Argentine Author, and other Self-Evident (if Often Ignored) Truths,” “[critics] overlook entire blocks of elementary fact, such as Borges’s youthful years as a fervent literary nationalist…and the substantial amount of Argentine material still present in his later work as storyteller and as cosmopolitan” (306). As Bell-Villada notes, Borges is in fact profoundly Argentine, and his national identity may not be overt or explicit in all of his fiction, but what is most important with Borges is rarely easy to see at first glance. Aside from his early poetry and early essays—many of which were published in Inquisiciones (1925)—there are many parts of Borges’s work that can be considered extremely focused on his nation, especially his translations.

Walter Carlos Costa in his essay “Borges, the Original of the Translation” (published in Voice-Overs, 2002) sees Borges as one of a number of great thinkers who also made certain ideas and literatures available in the Spanish language:

In Hispanic letters the great renovators were always tied to foreign literatures: Cervantes, who “translated” the literature of Renaissance Italy, Huidobro, who “translated” the poetry of the French avant-garde, Lezama Lima, who incorporated a vast and heterogeneous foreign library. (182)

Carlos Costa’s use of the term translation here is in line with the way this essay has addressed the works of Borges engendered by “The Purloined Letter” as having reworked or refashioned certain aspects of the generative work while not literally translating word for word. At first glance, this list of “great renovators” seems a bit reductive, in that one imagines that these four (including Borges) writers did far more for literature than to simply “translate” other literatures. However, Carlos Costa finds this incorporation of what he calls “dominant” literature into Argentine literature to be a complex political gesture:

This gesture of exploration of dominant culture, which might have been viewed as a proof of subordination, is instead transformed into an affirmative gesture of autonomy. At the same time that he learns from foreign models he teaches a lesson to those foreign literary systems, giving them a new and original version of their own unexplored riches. (184)

If explored within the context of Carlos Costa’s argument, Borges’s translation and appropriation of Poe becomes not only self-aware and metaliterary, but also politically subversive and powerful. Because of Borges’s upbringing, his literary affinities often tended toward British and American literature. Like Carlos Costa, Sergio Waisman’s book Borges and Translation also places Borges’s use of dominant literatures within a political and postcolonial discussion. In a discussion of the translations that were published in Victoria Ocampo’s publication Sur, Waisman says that “[B]y displacing texts from the Metropolis to the margins, by appropriating them through translation, by recontextualizing them within a framework of the South—literally and figuratively—Sur demonstrates that a politics of cultural importation can contribute to (re)creating a center in the circumference” (35). Both Carlos Costa and Waisman examine Borgesian translation from a postcolonial stance, and because of this lens, they both suggest political intent where it seems possible that it is present.

While the possibility exists, this postcolonial interpretation seems to overstep its bounds much in the same way that some of the psychoanalytical interpretations do. That being said, Borges’s aversion to psychoanalytic hermeneutics not only relates to his discomfort with psychology and psychoanalysis in general but perhaps also to the jarring truths these interpretations uncover within his writings. I have not found any negative reaction against postcolonial interpretations from Borges, most likely because few (if any) were written before Borges’s death. If we see Borges’s use of Poe as a cultural appropriation of the dominant center or colonizer, his personal modifications of the style and plot transcend his theory of writing and become a cultural commentary as well as an aesthetic commentary. It seems pointless to discount the validity of this reading of Borgesian translation, especially because part of analyzing the analysis that has been the focus of this essay is allowing certain aspects of all of the readings to come together to allow for a more nuanced and profound understanding of the texts at hand. If every reading of “The Purloined Letter” is considered a draft of the same general ideas of analysis, perhaps the most complete reading is the one that welcomes all of the different languages, contexts, and analytic preferences together.


Works Cited

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[1]“Poe thought of himself as a poet, and only a poet, but circumstances compelled him to write stories, and he resigned himself to writing and facing these stories occasionally, and they are his destiny.” Translation mine.

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