Perfidy as a Strategy in Jorge Luis Borges’ “A Universal History of Infamy”

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was one of the most important representatives of the Spanish literature of the 20th century. The given paper discusses the structure and characters of his early work "A universal history of infamy". Moreover, the main emphasis is put on the perfidy - a strategy used in the process of achieving a desired goal.

In contrast to the English, French or German prose and poetry, the Spanish literature is less known to the Georgian readers. Only a small number of Jorge Luis Borges' stories are translated and available to the public.

Borges wrote "A universal history of infamy" at the dawn of his creative activity. At that time, he had already decided to elaborate a magic or a fantastic style of the narrative language.  "A universal history of infamy" appeared in 1935. It was followed by "Fictions", "The Aleph" and other works. The word "infamia" ("infamy") was deliberately chosen by the author "to deafen a reader at the beginning. However, nothing is beyond it. It's only the combination of external images. The man who intended to write it was unlucky, but he dared to write it" [Borges, 2004:10-11].

The title of "A universal history of infamy" was differently translated into various languages. The word "infamia" is semantically overloaded. Therefore, it is difficult to say which definition is more or less correct. It would be expedient to translate this word into Georgian as „მზაკვრობა"(mzakvroba) - "infamy" (comp. this work was translated into French as  "Histoire universelle de l'infamie" [Borges,1994:3], into Italian - "Storia universale dell'infamia" [Borges,1997:3] into German - "Universalgeschichte der Niedertracht und andere Prosastücke" [Borges,1976:5], into the Russian language -  "Всеобщая история бесчестья" [Борхес,1989:3], "Всеобщая история подлогов" [Борхес,2004:3]  or  "Всеобщая история низосты" [Борхес,2006:3]).

The Explanatory Dictionary of the Spanish language and the Royal Academy of Language suggest the following definitions of this word:

Infamia - 1.Acción infame de palabra u obra; 2. Cualidad de infame

Infame - Que es vil o detestible [Valdeiglesias, 1995:501]

Infamia -1. descredito, deshonra; 2. Maldad, vileza en cualquier forma [RAE, Internet resource].

The above mentioned word expresses all the foreseeable evil and wickedness of the human mind. Therefore, its exact equivalent in the Georgian language is the word „მზაკვრობა". According to the Explanatory Dictionary of the Georgian Language, which was published under the editorship of Arnold Chikobava, the word „მზაკვრობა" means simulation, petrify, hypocrisy and treachery. A person doing infamy is a traitor [Chikobava, 1958: 238].

In the Georgian language the words „მზაკვარი" - mzakvari ("sly") and „ვერაგი" - veragi ("perfidious") have more negative connotations than „გაიძვერა" - gaidzvera ("dodger") or „უსირცხვილო" - usirtskhvilo ("shameless"). Therefore, we preferred to translate the title of Jorge Luis Borges' work as „მზაკვრობის მსოფლიო ისტორია".

"A universal history of infamy" consists of 16 stories. The first seven stories have the same structure and follow the principle of the division into subsections. Each of them consists of short subsections. The titles of the stories are classified according to the time, place and circumstances. There is no place for the virtuous people in this work. It is an uninterrupted chain of jokers, pirates, bandits, murderers and imposters. Borges wants to include everything and everyone, beginning from the South American trader of slaves or gangsters from New York and ended by the Chinese pirate woman or the Arabian dyer of the 18th century.

In each story, the paradox and irony are easily combined with contradictory, which is based on several factors. On the one hand, it is built on the theme of appropriation of another person's name and identity (in cases of Tom Castro and the masked dyer). On the other hand, it deals with the contradiction of a person or an identity (in the cases of Ching's widow, Monk Eastman, Bill Harrigan and Kotsuke-no-Suke). Ching's widow is a courageous woman, who has her own code. Monk Eastman strongly opposes human captivity and fights bravely on the battlefield during his military service. While describing these persons, Borges uses oxymoron [Serra, 2009: 659] and paradoxical opposition "terrible benefactors" (terribles bienechores) [Borges, 2004: 18]. An oxymoron - one of the types of paradox - is used for achieving an effect of unexpectedness.

The general plot of these stories includes the lie. For example, the cruel liberator Lazarus Morell, Tom Castro and Hakim from Merv achieve their aims via appropriation of names. Lazarus plays a new role. He "liberates" slaves and reads "holy letters" in tears. Tom Castro names himself as young Teachborne and impertinently appears in front of the broken-hearted mother. Hakim pretends to be the Apostle of the Lord.

It should be noted, that the usurpation of identity gives a desirable result only in the beginning. The protagonist (paradoxically, antagonist) receives a cherished glory, which is necessarily followed by failure, expulsion and appropriate punishment.

In his first story ("The cruel redeemer Lazarus Morell" - "El atroz redentor Lazarus Morell"), Borges uses such word-combinations as "the guilty and magnificent existence of the cruel redeemer Lazarus Morell" (la culpable y magnífica existencia del atroz redentor Lazarus Morell) [Borges, 2004:18], "incomparable rabble" (incomparable canalla) [Borges, 2004:18], "venerable rubbish" (basura venerable) [Borges, 2004:18]. Borges often refers to the ironical ending, for instance, Lazarus Morell did not become a victim of revenge. He merely died of pneumonia.

In "A universal history of infamy" the violation of the law or crime is always followed by a temporary victory. Hence, afterwards, the author emphasizes the supremacy of law and imposes  fair punishments on swindlers and murderers.

If we take into consideration Vladimir Propp's theory, which states that different works have common unaltered elements and every work is characterized by more than thirty uniting elements [Propp, 2003:25], we will find out, that some of them are interesting in case of "A universal history of infamy". For example:

  • Prohibition, as the genesis of an intrigue;
  • The desire of the improvement of one's personal well-being by means of lying;
  • Malfeasance, the violation of law for achieving desired goals;
  • A protagonist's departure from his/her native places;
  • A sudden gift of the fate;
  • Investigation, which  leads the protagonist to the journey;
  • Life-and-death struggle;
  • Oppression of the main character by public;
  • Hypocrisy (a protagonist frequently adjusts to other persons' names and lifestyles);
  • Punishment (a character is punished for his/her actions).

The stories present three permanent phases:

Desire (whim) - The main character wants the fame, the glory, the money, the power, the priority, which is always reached by the immoral behavior and insidious methods. This is a driving force of Lazarus Morell, Tom Castro, the widow (a pirate), Monk Eastman (a master of iniquities), the disinterested killer Bill Harrigan and a masked dyer.

Satisfaction (temporary satisfaction) - the main characters satisfy their indecent intentions by unjust means.

The final failure and a fair punishment - it is a final stage and the last phase of the stories. The protagonist experiences failure and is punished appropriately (the death or a mental disorder). The exception is Ching's widow, who decides to beg pardon to the imperator. This is the case, when the exception proves the rule.

All these stories deal with the double polarity. Perfidy coexists with the punishment for an unethical behavior, while an unlawful action deals with the supremacy of law. The injustice is always followed by justice.

Borges begins his work with the history of Lazarus Morell and makes us familiar with the beginning of the 19th century - the black pages of the history of America: selling slaves and their exploitation. The author presents Lazarus Morell, one of the white and proud slaves exhausted with working throughout the day. He is a heartless murderer, who promises slaves the liberation, but "grants" them to the new masters via deceiving. As a result Morell and his accomplices sell a lot of slaves. Hence, one of his "adopted brothers" peaches against him. Morell is under search. In 1835 he is hospitalized at Natchez hospital under Silas Buckly's name. Afterwards, Morell dies from pneumonia.

The author step by step and logically leads the reader to the end. It is important for him to explain the groundwork of different events. Lazarus Morell is the symbol of immorality. He is the person masked by "meltingly reading holy letters". The miserable and swampy fields are as terrible and hellish as the people, who come from this earth. Nothing pure exists for Lazarus. The man, who is ready to read the holy letters with an alarmed voice, cold-bloodedly kills another person, whose last wish is reading a prayer. The author does not use metaphors and figurative expressions. He tells the stories with a simple language, which deeply touches the reader.

If betrayal prevents Lazarus from doing dark deeds, Tom Castro, the character of the story "The improbable imposter Tom Castro" is saved by the loyalty and devotion of his servant. Arthur Orton (the same Tom Castro) was the son of an ordinary butcher. He escaped from his parents and in Sydney made friends with Negro named Bogle. In 1865 they read the newspaper information about Roger Tichborne's death, which seemed unbelievable to his broken-hearted mother. Suddenly, Bogle was struck by a brilliant idea. He persuaded Castro to write the letter to Lady Tichborne and inform her that her son was alive.

Despite the fact, that an uneducated Castro had nothing in common with the sophisticated French youngster, the Tichbornes' accepted him. However, after the death of Lady Tichborne, her relatives rose against him and sued him in the court. Orton was supported only by a numerous number of creditors, who hoped to receive their debts. Bogle died during the trial. This fact seriously influenced Castro. On 27 February of 1874 Arthur Orton was sentenced to fourteen years' penal servitude. Afterwards, the sentence was reduced to four years as a result of his good behavior. After leaving prison, Castro delivered public speeches about his innocence and ended them with self-criticism. At the end of the story Tom Castro died.

It's worth mentioning, that most of the characters of Borges' work are the representatives of poor families. They are obsessed by an invincible whim to take vengeance on the whole world.  Tom Castro and Lazarus are unlucky. The only difference between them is that Lazarus is a shrewd man, whereas Tom Castro is a marionette manipulated by Bogle. The latter is a calm and a humble puppy, which is always ready to serve his master. When Bogle dies, Castro disappears as a person. This fact is confirmed by his public speeches delivered after leaving prison. Castro is confused and lacks his "ego". Therefore, the mysticism is more obvious in this work than in the story of the cruel redeemer.

The fear and apparitions in Bogle's childhood are the mystical hints of his possible death. The same can be said about his conversations with God. Moreover, the carriages are the symbol of Bogle's death, which will inevitably overtake him.

Bogle, Tom and Lazarus are disgusting and heartless people. Bogle and Tom count on a desperate woman. Lazarus bargains with the hopes of enslaved and wrecked people - buys, sells and eventually, throws them into the troubled waters of Mississippi.

Borges slowly broadens the horizon of the fantastic universe. He tells the story of the pirate woman who owns a large fleet and raids along the shores of China. She plunders the shores so enthusiastically that the population gives up fishing and undertakes agricultural activities. This fact damages the empire and greatly hinders the development of trade. The raids of Ching's widow continue for thirteen years. Her armada consists of six fleets decorated with colorful flags (red, yellow, green, black, mauve and dark green). Ching's widow establishes strict, laconic and concrete regulations, which are not subject to corrections. Hence, finally, she begs pardon to the emperor in return for the concession and gets freedom from him. It's not accidental, that the pirate changes her name and begins a new life. This fact does not require the reassessment of moral values. Ching's widow sells opium and prefers to live in peace, which is nothing, but a farce.

In the story "Monk Eastman, purveyor of iniquities" Borges gets us acquainted with "other America". He shows the life of New York, which is full of dead bodies with dirty souls. If in the other stories the author describes neutral persons living without plundering and killing anyone (Roger Tichborne and his mother, Warrior King-Qveio), in "Monk Eastman, purveyor of iniquities" everything is vice versa. Everyone lies, quarrels, shoots, kills and struggles for power. In this series of stories of infamy, Monk Eastman occupies an honorary place. The author paints the picture of dark streets of modern Megalopolis and "double faces" of politicians. As usual, the story is imbued with the sense of the destruction of all the humane of this world.

The author remains silent about Monk Eastman's childhood. We get acquainted with Eastman as an active person, when he opens the pet shop at the age of 19. The author invokes sarcasm and irony. Eastman - a worthless ragtag, for whom nothing pure exists on the earth, except money and power - treats animals as a gentle creature. He loves his cats and doves (if he is gifted with this ability). Eastman shares warmth with them. Hence, these animals are more valuable for him than the mankind. Eastman kills an uncountable number of victims, but he knows how many cats and doves are there in his shop. He does not have any mourners (as lots of other characters of Borges) and it is not surprising. These mercenary murderers are the most miserable and lonely creatures of this world.

 "A universal history of infamy" does not lack swindler persons. Hence, in the story "The insulting master of etiquette Kotsuke no Suke" Borges maintains the balance between good and evil. The master's warrior and the boy from Satsuma bring dissonance to the gallery of insidious faces.

The story "The masked dyer, Hakim of Merv" is also interesting. It tells about a young man, who proclaimed himself as the Apostle of the Lord. Every secret was "uncovered" for him. Hence, one day a woman from the harem spread the information among the believers. She said, that Hakim did not have a thumb and nails on one hand. This information stipulated a great bustle. Afterwards, Hakim was captured and stoned.

The religious theme is familiar to Borges. In the story "A theologian in the next world", the author describes the dead Melanchthon, who cannot realize, that his worldly life is over. The theologian continues his literary activity, but the text written in the evening is deleted in the morning. This character is a pale reflection of the old Melanchthon. Angels and his praising friends leave him alone. In the end, Melanchthon becomes the victim of faceless demons and his further life remains vague for the readers.

The characters of this plot are immoral people. The majority of these stories end with the scenes of death. The logical ending of the  imposter Tom Castro, double-faced Monk Eastman, unlucky cowboy Bill Harrigan, negligent master Kotsuke no Suke and hypocrite Hakim is as shameful as their lifestyles. None of them dies "at home". They do not have families. They die in the streets, bars, deserts, guillotines, etc. They are traitorously murdered by a gun, a knife or a stone.

The origin of these characters is as vague as their types. They were not born in noble families. They were not brought up as moral persons with an academic education. Therefore, none of them lived humanely.

No one is born as a thief or a murderer. For this reason, the author divides the lives of his characters into different stages and depicts the way walked by them.

It's worth mentioning, that neither of the above-mentioned characters has children. The author believes, that the evil must not be multiplied in this magic world. It must not have a continuation.

One of the most important aspects of this work is the weather, which is as gloomy and overcast as the characters themselves. Lazarus Morell is the son of a clouded and a swampy region of Mississippi. Tom Castro is an unexpected guest of misty Albion. Monk Eastman dies in the abandoned street on a frosty winter day. Bill Harrigan finds a shelter in a dry desert. Apostle Hakim is not the son of an oasis too.

Borges presents various geographical areas. His work is the world history about infamy. Therefore, the author does not leave any place of the world. He zealously describes jungles of Mississippi and Amazon, the heart of Europe, the Asian waters, South and North America with its westerns, the land of the rising sun and a dessert. These pictures replace one another quite naturally.

Undoubtedly, all the details are calculated. The nature is in harmony with the dark world of the main characters and the reader is only capable of showing compassion, solidarity and sometimes, even contempt towards the characters.


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