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El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (Collection)
Exame da obra de Herbert Quain (Portuguese)
An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain (English)
This six-page short story (which I've read in a German translation by Karl August Horst and Gisbert Haefs) is presented in a form Borges invented: the fictional essay. As such, it reads just like a literary essay, though perhaps more polished than most. The essayist describes the fictional works of a fictional writer by the name of Herbert Quain.
As gamebook enthusiasts, the second of Quain's increasingly "playful" works is what concerns us: a novel called April March consisting of 13 sections, with nine endings. Of course Borges does not use gamebook terminology. The essay rather speaks of one first chapter, but three variants of the second chapter, each followed by a further three variants of the third chapter.
What's peculiar is that, contrary to all gamebooks I am aware of, the narrative of April March is described as regressive rather than progressive. The subject matter of chapter one is said to be an ambiguous dialogue between strangers at a train station, with each chapter 2 detailing the events of the previous evening, each chapter 3 those of the day before. If April March existed, the reader would not choose his own adventure, he would get a choice between different previous events, different prehistories.
Thus, a novel that always begins with the same first chapter can end up being a supernatural or detective story, psychological, communist or anticommunist, the essayist explains. Borges' concern is not with interactivity at all, but with equivocation, his intent not to give the reader a choice, but to undermine the act of reading. To top it all off, there is an easily overlooked remark at the beginning of the essay which calls Quain's fictional work "the last (and only) third" of a novel, hinting at even more regression - or, indeed, progression.
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