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« Bely, "Меланхолия" | Main | Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto (part 1) »

Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto (part 2)

The conclusion to the Borges story ("Abenjacán el Bojarí, Dead in his Labyrinth").  You can read the original in this collection.

The final periods, made more somber by oratory pauses, were supposed to be eloquent; Unwin guessed that Dunraven had tried them out many times with identical aplomb and identical inefficacy. In feigned interest he asked: “How did the lion and the slave die?” The incorrigible voice answered with somber satisfaction: “They too had their faces destroyed.” The noise of their steps was now joined by the noise of the rain. Unwin thought that they would have to sleep in the labyrinth, in the central chamber of the story, and that this great inconvenience would be an adventure in his memory. He kept silent; Dunraven couldn’t contain himself and, like someone who cannot forget a debt, asked him: “Isn’t this story inexplicable?” As if thinking aloud, Unwin answered: “I don’t know whether it is explicable or inexplicable. But I know it is a lie.”

Dunraven broke into a litany of filth, then invoked the testimony of the eldest son of the rector (who, it seems, had died) and of all the neighbors of Pentreath. No less astonished than Dunraven, Unwin apologized. In the darkness, time seemed to run on and on; the two men were afraid that they had strayed from the path and were very tired when a thin clearing above showed them the first steps of a narrow stairway. They went up and came upon a circular room in ruins. Two signs of the ill-fated king’s fear persisted: a constricted window ruling over the uplands and the sea, and in the ground a trap door that opened over the curve of the stairway. The room, however spacious, had much of a prison cell about it.

Urged on less by the rain than by an eagerness to live through memory and narrative, the friends spent the night in the labyrinth. The mathematician slept in tranquility, but not the poet, plagued by verses his mind deemed detestable:

Faceless the sultry and overpowering lion,
Faceless the stricken slave, faceless the king

Unwin believed that the story of Bojarí’s death had not interested him; nevertheless he awoke with the conviction of having deciphered it. That whole day he was preoccupied and unsociable, adjusting and readjusting the pieces. And two nights later, he summoned Dunraven to a London brewery and told him these words or words like these: “In Cornwall I said the story I heard from you was a lie. The facts were certain, or could be certain, but recounted as you recounted them they were very clearly lies. I will start with the greatest lie of them all, that of the incredible labyrinth. A fugitive does not hide in a labyrinth. Nor does he have one built on a high point on the coast, a crimson labyrinth which sailors could see from far off. If someone truly wished to hide, London would be a better labyrinth than a vantage point to which all the corridors of a building led. The wise reflection to which I now subject you came to me last night as we listened to the rain fall upon the labyrinth and waited for a dream to visit us; admonished and bettered, I chose to forget your absurdities and think about something sensible.”

“The theory of mathematical sets, let’s say, or the fourth dimension of space,” observed Dunraven. “No,” said Unwin in all seriousness, “I thought about the labyrinth of Crete. The labyrinth whose center was a man with the head of a bull.” Well versed in detective fiction, Dunraven thought that the solution to a mystery was always inferior to the mystery itself.  The mystery took part in the supernatural, if not in the divine, while the solution was the game of human hands. To postpone the inevitable, he said: “On medals and in sculpture it is the Minotaur who has the head of a bull. Yet Dante imagined him with the body of a bull and the head of a man.” “This version works for me, as well,” agreed Unwin. “What matters is the correspondence of the monstrous house to the monstrous inhabitant. The Minotaur wholly justified the existence of the labyrinth. No one would say the same thing about a threat perceived in a dream. Once the image of the Minotaur was evoked (a fatal evocation in the event there was a labyrinth), the problem was for all intents and purposes resolved. I confess, however, I did not understand that this ancient image was the key, and as such was necessary for your story to grant me an even more precise symbol: that of the spider’s web.”

“The spider’s web?” repeated Dunraven, perplexed.

“Yes. It would not astonish me in any way to learn that the spider’s web (the universal form of the web, we understand, the web of Plato) could have suggested to the assassin (for there is an assassin) his crime. You will recall that el Bojarí, in a tomb, dreamt of a web of serpents and that upon waking he discovered the dream had been prompted by the web of a spider. Let us return to that night when el Bojarí dreamt of this web. The vanquished king, the vizier, and the slave flee to the desert with their treasure. They seek refuge in a tomb. The vizier, whom we know to be a coward, sleeps; but sleep does not come to the king, whom we know to be valiant. So as not to share his treasure with the vizier, the king kills him with a dagger; the vizier’s shadow menaces him in his dreams for nights thereafter. All this is unbelievable. I understand the events to have happened another way. That night it was the king, the valiant king, who slept; and it was Zaid the coward who lay awake. To sleep is to be distracted from the universe, a distraction difficult for those who know they are being pursued by drawn swords. Greedy, Zaid leaned over the sleep of his king. He thought of killing him (perhaps even fumbled with his dagger), but did not dare. He called the slave, and they hid part of the treasure in the tomb and fled to Suakin and then England. Visible from the sea he built an old labyrinth with red walls, not to hide from el Bojarí but to lure him and kill him. He knew that ships at the ports of Nubia would bring rumors of the red-haired man, the slave, and the lion, and that sooner or later el Bojarí would come to look for him in his labyrinth. In the final corridor of the web awaited the trap. El Bojarí underestimated him severely; he did not stoop to take the least precaution. The coveted day arrived.  Abenjacán landed in England, made his way to the door of the labyrinth, considered the blind corridors, and had already set foot, perhaps, on the first steps when his vizier killed him, maybe with a bullet from the trap. The slave would then kill the lion and another bullet would kill the slave. Then Zaid disfigured their three faces with a stone. He had to do it this way; one body with a disfigured face would have hinted at a problem of identity, but here the beast, the black man and the king formed a series and, given the first two terms, the last would be assumed by everyone. It is not strange that he was seized by fear when talking to Allaby; he had just finished carrying out his horrible task and was preparing to flee England to recover his treasure.”

A thoughtful, or perhaps incredulous, silence followed the words of Unwin. Dunraven requested another tankard of stout before commenting.

“I accept,” he said, “that my Abenjacán is Zaid. Such a metamorphosis, you will say, is one of the genre’s classic artifices, a true convention whose detection makes demands on the reader. What I hesitate to admit is that a portion of the treasure remained in the Sudan. Remember that Zaid fled from the king and the enemies of the king; it is simpler to imagine him absconding with all the treasure than delaying himself by burying a part of it. Perhaps there no coins were found because there were no coins remaining. The bricklayers had exhausted a fortune that, in contrast to the red gold of the Nibelung Alberich, was not infinite. So we would have to see Abenjacán crossing the sea to reclaim a dilapidated treasure.”

“Not dilapidated,” said Unwin. “Invested in a land of infidels in the arming of a large circular trap of bricks designed to lure and annihilate him. If your conjecture is correct, Zaid was urged on by hate and fear and not by avarice. He stole the treasure and then understood that the treasure was for him not the essential part. The essential part was that Abenjacán would die. He imitated Abenjacán, killed Abenjacán, and in the end was Abenjacán."

“Yes,” confirmed Dunraven. “He was a vagabond who one day, before being nobody at death, would remember having been or having pretended to be a king.”

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