The Masterful Layering of Voices in Borges’ ‘The Shape of the Sword’

By Rali Chorbadzhiyska

The Role of an Individual Voice in Shaping Histories and the Reader’s Perception of them as explored in Jorge Luis Borges’ Short Story ‘The Shape of the Sword’

Jorge Luis Borges’ craft to fit a novel worth of meaning into a short story does not fail to excel in ‘The Shape of the Sword’. The reader encounters an elusive Englishman who tells a story about his experiences in the war for Irish independence where he meets a friend who later betrays him. There is intricate layering of narrative voice, use of pronouns and epithets for characterisation and shocking effect, all interplaying based on Borges’ authorial choices. These factors collaborate to illustrate the powers of language in shaping one’s understanding of a (hi)story, an individual story that is part of history as related from the perspective of the writer or the fictional narrators. The story is based on the subtle premise as mentioned by one of the storytellers, ‘I am all other men, any man is all men’.[1] Thus, this essay will consider the writer as the narrator or all the characters as interchangeable and explore their credibility as equally valid or questionable to assess their effect on shaping history.

As the writer of the short story, Borges is able to influence the reader’s perception with his craft, undermining the credibility of the narrators but simultaneously adding meaning to the various potential readings of a subjective story about an event in true history. The author’s presence is most evident in the paratext of the work. To begin with, the title, which was the author’s conscious choice, is significant to the story’s message with the presence of the two nouns ‘shape’ and ‘sword’. The word ‘shape’ implies malleability, whereas the word ‘sword’ opposes it with its violence. Thus, the expectations of the text would include both concepts of shaping something, potentially subjectively, and the reaction to the violent intervention. At the same time the text ends with a cryptic dedication to ‘E. H. M’, which is most probably his second wife since it coincides with the initials of her name – Elsa Helena Astete Millán.[2] The act of dedicating the story to someone adds a personal dimension to it by grounding it within the writer’s own life. Since it is later revealed that the initial narrator is Borges, there is a play in voices; is it Borges the narrator or Borges the writer who dedicates this piece to their wife? The presence of the remote addressee makes Borges’ own presence in the story questionably credible. It simultaneously validates his dual role of the writer and the narrator but also detaches the author from the story by showing him dedicating his craft to his beloved. So, through his own way of writing and complicating the plot, Borges moves in and out of the role of the narrator in the same story he authored and thus his voice has constant control over the the story in history it recounts and the reader’s perception of it.

Another factor which contributes to the confusion between the authority of the writer against his presence as a narrator is visible in the usage of time markers and various locations, and their implications. The dates in the story, which should act as anchors for the reader, rather complicate the credibility of each individual voice in it. There is layering of settings and numerous locations mentioned which contributes to the complication of its perception.  ‘The Shape of the Sword’ is initially situated in La Colorada, Uruguay where the first narrator meets the Englishman, but no specific date is given. The narrative of the second narrator takes place in 1922, so the only thing the reader knows about the initial setting is that it is any time after this year. The complication comes from Borges’ dual nature of the real figure of the author who died in 1986 and a fictional character who comes to live every time the story is being read.[3] The reader is unaware if the story should have happened for real between 1922 and 1986 or if it keeps happening in the realm of literature. Thus, the story is set in a perpetual present every time it is being read and since Borges has placed himself as the character of the initial narrator, it makes him immortal as a character but diminishes his credibility as the voice of the author since he has been dead since 1986.

 The second storyteller, the Englishman, is introduced upon meeting the initial narrator which moves the text through time and provides the historical backdrop to the events that take place in the short story. The Englishman places his story of being ‘one of the many who were conspiring for the independence of Ireland’ in Connaught, 1922. Historically, there was an army called the Connaught Rangers who fought in the Irish civil war in the 20th century, which makes the Englishman’s story fit within a larger historic narrative.[5] Thus, the reader expects the insightful perspective of an objective fact in history, the Irish fight for independence as told by one of its fighters. In the same time, the figure of the author and the nature of fiction exercise power over the reader’s perception. Borges is originally Argentinian, so in no way was Borges actually part of the Irish war to have personal experience for inspiration. It is the authority of his voice as an author of the story within literary and historical discourse, which allows for his commentary on the Irish war. The artificiality around the text contributes to the subjectivity in realistic depiction. The story is titled ‘The Shape of the Sword’ and is part of a short story collection (‘Artifices’), written by Jorge Luis Borges in 1944, which means it is rather fiction than any accurate historical account of any real life events.[6] Thus, the credibility of the Englishman narrator is undermined by default despite him mentioning real dates, places and events.

One component in this intentionally confusing progression of the story is the usage of pronouns in the introductory paragraph as well as throughout. The first paragraph in the text is from the viewpoint of a first person narrator whose phrase ‘I understand’ indicates that the interaction with the main character, which he is transcribing, is a personal experience. He introduces a protagonist by also dismissing his identity with ‘His name is of no importance’ but the reader learns he is addressed as the Englishman. The initial speaker characterizes himself through speech and reflection on his actions like: ‘Within a few moments, I seemed to sense that my appearance was inopportune, I tried to ingratiate myself with the Englishman; I resorted to the least discerning of passions: patriotism’. The usage of first person pronoun evokes sympathy and the reader can relate to the narrator’s awkwardness and understand his choices. The initial narrative perspective is a mixture between subjective first person and omniscient point of view. Sentences like ‘The fields were overgrown with grass’ give an overlook of the situation but there are personal details about the protagonist like the ‘spiteful scar’ across his face as seen and described by the narrator. Later on, the first speaker confesses to being drunk and prompts his interlocutor (the Englishman) to tell him the story of the scar on his face, which appears word for word on the page.

The first person pronoun shifts subjects and the protagonist becomes the second narrator in the story. He introduces a new protagonist, John Vincent Moon, and recalls their encounter during the war for Irish independence. The second person pronoun ‘he’ in the story then serves for Moon’s reference: ‘He was scarcely twenty years old’. The Englishman’s story is rather told from his own perspective and Moon is characterised only through the narrator’s account. Moon has an occasional line of speech and thus the reader relies on the Englishman’s choice of what is of importance. This technique immediately signals the strong subjectivity of the history being retold and its questionable truthfulness. The narrative as well as Moon’s character are controlled by the storyteller whose voice is shaping the initial narrator’ perception and the reader’s, against which both are powerless except for questioning. After sharing with the first narrator Moon’s betrayal, the Englishman reminds of the artifice of the story by bringing his speech back to the short story’s present: ‘Here my story is confused and becomes lost. I know that I pursued the informer…’. As if this is not enough of a reminder of the story’s contrived nature, the Englishman refers to his immediate listener and first narrator with the address ‘Borges, to you, a stranger I have made this confession. Your contempt does not grieve me so much’. The presence of the name of the actual author simultaneously makes the story a pretence and a truth; pretence because it points out its factious character by the narrator admitting he himself is not the author and truth because by using the name of the author it gains credibility with regard to real people and a potentially real encounter.

The ‘confession’ has not been made so privately, there has been an additional spectator throughout in the face of the reader. Thus, with the second person pronoun ‘your’ in the phrase ‘your contempt’ is characterised not only Borges’ contempt but also the reader’s. The pronoun could be both second person singular and plural without specification in the intention by the narrator. And building upon this mirroring of identities, the short story finishes with the Englishman’s confession: ‘I am Vincent Moon. Now despise me’. The first pronoun in this case merges the narrator of the secondary story within the text and its protagonist. To despise him ‘now’ is an appeal to the initial narrator Borges but also to the reader as an extension from the previous usage of the second person pronoun ‘your’. The reader is experiencing the story as the initial protagonist is but with the difference that the initial narrator is also the writer and is in control. Borges’ dual role enables him to exercise control over the reader’s surprise by concealing the workings of the story beneath a layer of narrative voices in the production of a subjective narrative.

The choice of epithets proves important to the story’s foreshadowing and the credibility of narrative voice by giving away the characters. The initial protagonist is the Englishman from La Colorada, Tacuarembo in Uruguay[13] who ‘came from the border, from Rio Grande del Sur’ in Brazil and speaks in a mixture of English, Spanish and Brazilian. His introduction creates a parallel between the narrator and the reader for they both encounter the character by his countenance before anything. The Englishman is first characterised by his scar rather than his name: ‘A spiteful scar crossed his face: an ash-coloured and nearly perfect arc that creased his temple at one tip and his cheek at the other’. The description forms an image in the mind to attach to this elusive figure. It is worth noting that he does not have a name but is addressed only with a definitive epithet (The Englishman). This detail makes the character even more distant and less accessible. He is unknowable since upon a patriotic British confrontation from the narrator the Englishman turns out to be Irish indeed, ‘he was not English. He was Irish from Hungarian’. The confusion speaks of the authoritative voice in shaping history. The mistake is great for the English were, in fact, the oppressors and their victim is addressed in the story as an ally to the enemy. A few lines after he is still referred to by the narrator as the Englishman which proves the name has stuck despite its untruthfulness. It is a hint at the lowered importance of truth and the power of a constructed narrative which foreshadows the Englishman’s dual nature. The protagonist is described as hard-working, ‘severe to the point of cruelty, but scrupulously just’ as well as ‘authoritarian’ and aloof, ‘he had no dealings with anyone’. All these details from the first paragraph of the story create an image of the Englishman’s particular character from a subjective viewpoint that is the only source of information to the reader. Therefore, the reader’s perception is shaped by the voice of the writer and narrator who chooses how to refer to and describe the protagonist who will later become a secondary narrator and do the same injustice to the protagonist in his own story.

With the shift in narrator and the Englishman becoming the storyteller, there is a new protagonist – John Vincent Moon; a closer look at the epithets used to describe Moon is no less important to decipher the complication of voices and credibility within the story. Moon’s descriptions are in the voice of the Englishman who recalls their encounter, ‘He was slender and flaccid at the same time; he gave the uncomfortable impression of being invertebrate’. The category of an ‘invertebrate’ is far from flattering, suggesting cowardice by lacking a backbone which is used to metaphorically signify bravery otherwise. Moon’s character builds up in being dislikeable in the Englishman’s eyes (and subsequently in the reader as he is experiencing everything from a limited point of view): ‘he dictated opinions with scorn and with a certain anger’. The emphasis on Moon’s negative traits makes him an anti-hero. It is striking and suspicious that his characteristics of being opinionated and violent are so honestly transcribed by his friend who helped him despite their differences. During the attack, the Englishmen recounts Moon’s actions ‘as if energized by fear’ before he ‘broke out in a weak sobbing’. The Englishman’s descriptions of Moon’s motivations are uncanny, as if he knows what is inside Moon’s head: ‘In order to show he was indifferent to being a physical coward, he magnified his mental arrogance’. This phrase is particularly honest but also suspiciously insightful to Moon’s thought process and almost justifying his strong opinions from the perspective of someone who knows their origin. To emphasize the young man’s cowardice, the Englishman recounts Moon’s overreaction to his superficial wound which confirmed to the Englishman that ‘his cowardice was irreparable’. And the ultimate proof of Moon’s cowardice is him selling his protector secretly out.

The build-up for the story’s great reveal at the end is dependent on a few parallels between the secondary narrator, the Englishman, and his protagonist, Moon. As a result of his friend’s betrayal, the Englishman chased Moon and once he caught up with him, he ‘carved into his face forever a half moon of blood’. The description of this episode reminds the reader of their initial encounter with the Englishman – ‘a spiteful scar’ across his countenance. If that is not enough of a hint, there are two more character links between him and Moon that disturb the credibility of the secondary narrator and anticipate the reveal of his true identity. First off, when Borges (revealed as the initial narrator) asks about Moon’s fate, the Englishman confesses ‘He collected his Judas money and fled to Brazil’. The location of Brazil is also the place where the Englishman came from to Uruguay, according to the locals. This pointer in the text creates a circularity of facts and connects the beginning of the story to its end. The allusion to Judas highlights Moon’s betrayal by linking it to the Biblical story but also linking the two’s fates and suggesting Moon is experiencing a crushing guilt since Judas committed suicide because of his consciousness after his crime against Jesus.  The allusion implies that Moon is liable to self-condemnation which ties into the Englishman’s brutal honesty about Moon’s character, almost aligning the two. To confirm this, the reader is given an account of the events in the text’s present where ‘a sob’ went through the Englishman’s body, ‘and with a weak gentleness he pointed to the whitish curved scar’. The reader is thus reminded of Moon’s unmanly habit to sob in times of distress before the ultimate confession that the Englishman and Moon are the same person.

There is violence in shaping history by manufacturing a personal narrative and claiming its credibility despite other facts. The opposition of the reader to the violence of this text is influenced by Borges’ persuasive techniques as a writer. The author layers narration voices, places and times, and characters’ identities so masterfully that the individual account of an objective time in history becomes realistic despite its strong subjectivity. The artificial credibility is questionable due to character parallels and Borges’ own participation in the story. Nevertheless, the reader remains in between knowing and not until the very end of ‘The Shape of the Sword’ and the reveal becomes a trick, played on the audience by the omniscient role of the author. Thus, Borges’ emphasis on the power of an individual voice in shaping a believable story, despite the injustice this does to truth, proves efficient.

[2] Emir Rodriguez Monegal, Jorge Luis Borges (8-24-2015) <https://www.britannica.com/&gt; [accessed 10 April 2017].

[3] Monegal

[5] Anon., The Connaught Rangers () <https://www.nam.ac.uk/&gt; [accessed 12 April 2017].

[6] Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges, trans. by Andrew Hurley ([n.p.]: The Penguin Group), p.293

[13] Anon., Tacuarembó Location Guide () <http://www.weather-forecast.com/locations/&gt; [accessed 13 April 2017].

Bibliography

Anon., Tacuarembó Location Guide <http://www.weather-forecast.com/locations/&gt;  [accessed 13 April 2017]

Anon., The Connaught Rangers <https://www.nam.ac.uk/&gt; [accessed 12 April 2017]

Borges, Jorge Luis, Collected Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges, trans. by Andrew Hurley    ([n.p.]: The Penguin Group)

Monegal, Emir Rodriguez, Jorge Luis Borges (8-24-2015) <https://www.britannica.com/&gt;      [accessed 10 April 2017]

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