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« Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto (part 2) | Main | The Vane Sisters »

Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto (part 1)

A translation of the first half of the Borges story ("Abenjacán el Bojarí, Dead in his Labyrinth").  You can read the original in this collection.

... They are comparable to the spider who builds a house.  

                                                                                    — The Koran, XXIX,  40

“This,” said Dunraven with a great gesture that did not refuse the cloudy stars but covered the black upland, the sea, and a majestic and decrepit structure that seemed to be a rundown stable, “is the land of my elders.”  Unwin his companion removed a pipe from his mouth and emitted some modest and approving sounds. It was the first evening of the summer of 1914; tired of a world without the dignity of danger, the friends appreciated the solitude of this corner of Cornwall. Cultivating a dark beard, Dunraven was the author of a considerable epic which his contemporaries almost could not scan and whose motif had not yet been revealed. Unwin had published a study of the theory that Fermat had not written in the margin of one of Diophantus’s pages. Both of them — could what I say be true? — were young, absentminded and impassioned.

“It will be a quarter of a century,” said Dunraven, “since Abenjacán el Bojarí, the leader or king of some or other Nilotic tribe, died in the central chamber of that house at the hands of his cousin Zaid. Now years later, the circumstances of his death continue to be murky."

Unwin tamely asked why.

“For many reasons,” was the answer. “In the first place, that house is a labyrinth. In the second place, the house was under the watchful eyes of a slave and a lion. In the third place, a secret treasure vanished. In the fourth place, the assassin was already dead when the murder took place. In the fifth place …”

Tired, Unwin stopped him.

“Don’t multiply the mysteries,” he said to him. “They ought to be simple. Recall Poe’s purloined letter and the locked room of Zangwill.”

“Or the universe remembers complicated things,” replied Dunraven.

Sloping over sandy hills, they had arrived at the labyrinth. As they approached, there appeared a straight and almost interminable wall, bricks without end, almost as high as a man. Dunraven said that it had the form of a circle, but its area was so dissipated that you could not perceive its curves. Unwin mentioned Nicholas of Cusa, for whom all straight lines were the arc of an infinite circle … Towards midnight they discovered a door in ruins which gave onto a blind and perilous hallway. Dunraven said that inside the house there were numerous crossroads, but that if they kept left, they would arrive in a little more than an hour in the center of the web. Unwin agreed. Their cautious steps resonated in the stone floor; the corridor forked into other, narrower corridors. The house seemed as if it wanted to drown them, the ceiling was very low. They had to advance one after the other through the complications of darkness. Unwin went along slowly. Dulled by the roughness and angles, his hand flowed endlessly along the invisible wall. Slowed in the somberness, Unwin heard the story of the murder of Abenjacán from the mouth of his friend.

“Perhaps the oldest of my memories,” related Dunraven, “is that of Abenjacán el Bojarí in the cove of Pentreath. He was followed by a black man with a lion; they were doubtless the first black man and the first lion my eyes had ever seen, apart from the engravings in the Scriptures. So I was a boy, but the beast the color of the sun and the man the color of night impressed me less than Abenjacán. To me he seemed very tall; he was olive-skinned with black, half-closed eyes, an insolent nose, fleshy lips, a saffron beard, and proud chest, sure and silent in his gait. At home I said: ‘A king and a vessel have arrived.’ Later, when the bricklayers were working, I enhanced this title and made him the King of Babel.

“The news that the stranger had installed himself in Pentreath was received with pleasure; the extension and form of his house with astonishment, if not with scandal. Few seemed to accept that a residence of one person might have leagues and leagues of corridors. ‘Moors might have such houses, but not Christians,’ said the people. Our rector, Mr. Allaby, a man of strange learning, exhumed the history of a king whom the Divinity castigated for having erected a labyrinth and spouted such information from the pulpit. That Monday, Abenjacán visited the rectory; the circumstances of the brief interview were not known at that time, but no more sermons ever alluded to its grandeur, and the moor was able to hire the bricklayers. Years later, when Abenjacán was killed, Allaby made known to the authorities the substance of their dialogue.

“Abenjacán told him, standing, these words or words like these: ‘No longer can anyone censure what I do. The sins that damn me to infamy are such that were I to repeat for centuries the Ultimate Name of God, it would not be sufficient to mitigate even one of my torments; the sins that damn me to infamy are such that were I to kill you with these hands, it would not worsen the torments of Infinite Justice to which I am destined. My name is unknown in all lands; I am Abenjacán el Bojarí and I have ruled the tribes of the desert with an iron scepter. For many years and with the assistance of my cousin Zaid, I despoiled them; but God heard their clamor and allowed them to rebel. My peoples were worn out and riddled with stab wounds; I managed to flee with the treasure collected in my years of exploitation. Zaid guided me to the tomb of a saint at the foot of a mountain of stone. I ordered my slave to watch over the face of the desert; then Zaid and I were overcome by sleep. That night I dreamt I was imprisoned by a web of serpents. Waking in horror, I found Zaid sleeping at my side as dawn appeared. The friction of a spider’s web on my flesh had made me dream such a dream. It pained me to see that Zaid, who was a coward, was sleeping so restfully. I came to think that the treasure was not infinite and that he might claim a share. In my belt was a dagger with a silver hilt; I unsheathed it and cut his throat. In his agony he gurgled forth some words I could not hear. I looked at him; he was dead, but I feared he would rise so I ordered the slave to smash his face with a rock. Then we wandered underneath the sky and one day we came across a sea. On it sailed very tall ships; I thought that a dead man would not be able to walk through water and decided to look for other lands. The first night we sailed I dreamt that I killed Zaid. Everything repeated itself, but this time I heard his words. He said: I will blot out your dregs, wherever you may be. I swore I would thwart this threat; I would hide in the center of a labyrinth until his ghost was gone.'

"That said he went on his way. Allaby tried to convince himself that the moor was crazy and that this absurd labyrinth was a symbol of and clear testimony to his madness. Then he thought that this explanation coincided with the extravagant construction and extravagant story, but not with the energetic impression with which Abenjacán left the man. Perhaps such stories were common in the sandy regions of Egypt, perhaps such rarities corresponded (like Pliny’s dragons) less to a person than to a culture … In London Allaby reexamined back issues of the Times; he checked the truthfulness of the rebellion and the subsequent defeat of el Bojarí and his vizier, who was rumored to be a coward.

"Hardly had the bricklayers concluded their work when he installed himself at the center of the labyrinth. He was no longer seen in the village; sometimes Allaby feared that Zaid had managed to reach him and annihilate him. At night the wind brought us the lion’s roar, and the sheep of the fold squeezed together with old fear.

"Then ships from oriental ports were said to have dropped anchor at the small bay, direction either Cardiff or Bristol. The slave came down from the labyrinth (which then, I recall, was not pink but crimson in color), exchanged some African words with the crews, and appeared to be looking among the faces of the men for the ghost of the vizier. It was rumored that these ships carried contraband, and if alcohol and ivory, why not then shadows of the dead?

"Three years after the house was erected, the Rose of Sharon dropped anchor at the foot of the hills. I was not one of those who saw this ship, and maybe in the image I have of it lurk lithographs of Abu Qir and Trafalgar. But, in any case, I understand it to be one of those elaborate ships that do not appear to be the work of seamen but of carpenters, and more of cabinetmakers than of carpenters. It was (if not actually, then in my dreams) burnished, dark, silent, and stealthy, and manned by Arabs and Malays.

"It dropped anchor at dawn on an October day. Towards dusk, Abenjacán burst into Allaby’s house. He was seized by the passion of terror; hardly could he articulate that Zaid had entered the labyrinth and that his slave and his lion had been killed. He then asked in all seriousness whether the authorities would be able to protect him. He left before Allaby could answer, as if plagued by the same terror which had driven him to this house for the second and last time. Allaby, alone in his library, thought in astonishment that this frightened creature had oppressed tribes in the Sudan and knew that fighting and dying were two different matters. The next day he noticed that the ship had already set sail (direction Suakin in the Red Sea, it was later learned). He thought it over and decided that it was his duty to verify the slave’s murder, so he set off to the labyrinth. El Bojarí’s breathless tale seemed fantastic, but at a bend of the galleries he came upon the lion, and the lion was dead; at another bend he found the slave, who was also dead; and at the central chamber he came upon el Bojarí, whose face had been destroyed. At the man’s feet was a chest inlaid with mother-of-pearl; someone had forced the lock and not a single coin remained."

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