by Anthony Perconti
Jose Luis Borges was a writer of myriad interests. Literature, poetry, the criminal underworld and the nature of the Infinite were all fair game for his writing. These topics were all grist for the mill to him. In addition to exploring many expansive cosmological conundrums, Borges was also apt to delve into the inner self, the world(s) of human consciousness and dreams. One of the recurring questions that is often explored in his works is the concept of differentiation between the dreamer and the dream. Or to state it another way, how is a person who is dreaming, know if they are in this altered state, versus a state of wakefulness. His short story “The South”, explores this topic, yet does not go so far as to give a definitive answer either way. Borges’ conclusion is quite opaque; he is a master at conveying implications rather than definitive statements.
Juan Dahlmann is a bookish man (a librarian in fact) living in Buenos Aires. Unlike himself, his ancestors were men of noble deeds and heroic actions in the service of the nation. Juan is quite proud of his heritage and somewhat wistful at his (non-heroic) shortcomings. When he acquires a copy of Weil’s translation of The Arabian Nights, in his excitement, he rushes the stairs and receives a cut on his forehead, contracting septicemia. He is initially hospitalized for eight days, where he is plagued by horrible nightmares borne from the images found in The 1001 Nights, and then transferred to a sanatorium for further testing and treatment. This transfer plunges poor Juan further into the depths. “But the moment they arrived, his clothes were stripped from him, his head was shaved, he was strapped with metal bands to a table, he was blinded and dizzied with bright lights, his heart and lungs were listened to, and a man in a surgical mask stuck a needle in his arm. He awoke nauseated, bandaged, in a cell much like the bottom of a well, and in the days and nights that followed, he realized that until then he had been only somewhere on the outskirts of hell.” Eventually, Juan is released and is travelling (by train) to a family estate to the south of the city for an extended convalescence. When the train makes a final (inexplicable) stop at the station prior to his, he decides to get a meal at the local establishment before hiring transportation to his hacienda.
It is at this point that fate turns against Dahlmann. During his meal, some local youths pick a fight with him and upon the point of leaving, the proprietor calls out to him “Sr. Dahlmann, ignore those boys over there—they’re just feeling their oats.” Feeling shame at being addressed by name (and not wanting to sully the memory of his heroic ancestors), Juan picks up the dagger proffered to him by an ancient gaucho and walks outside to fight his duel. It is insinuated by the author, that the mild-mannered librarian is going to meet his doom. Or is it?
There are some suggestive hints that insinuate Dahlmann is dreaming (or perhaps hallucinating) the entire trip south and in reality, is trapped in a limbo state (between life and death) in the sanatorium.
Prior to boarding his train, while having a cup of coffee in a café, he pets the café owner’s cat. Borges states; “while he stroked the cat’s black fur, that this contact was illusory, that he and the cat were separated as though by a pane of glass”, and while on the train heading towards his hacienda, Dahlmann feels as though, “he were two men at once: the man gliding along through the autumn day and the geography of his native land, and the other man, imprisoned in a sanatorium and subjected to methodical attentions.” The other sign that Borges alludes to concerns the proprietor of the local establishment. How did this stranger come to know his name? “Dahlmann thought he recognized the owner; then he realized that he’d been fooled by the man’s resemblance to one of the employees at the sanatorium.” Perhaps Dahlmann is on the verge of expiring, trapped in a lucid dream of his own devising, of a romantic end like his forbearers rather than the slow lingering demise from septicemia. A ‘good’ death as it were.
In my view, “The South” is highly reminiscent of two other works that share similar themes and concerns. Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, in which doomed spy, Peyton Farquhar (lucidly) daydreams of escape from the hangman’s noose during the American Civil War. While David Lynch’s 2017 offering, the eighteen hour-long feature, Twin Peaks: the Return finds FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, after a decade’s long imprisonment in the extra-dimensional Black Lodge, upon his return to Earth in a fugue, for the vast majority of the narrative, eventually states; “We live inside a dream.” Like Borges, Bierce and Lynch blur the border separating the waking world from that of a dream. The boundary line is flexible and porous. With these fictions, the reader (and viewer) should take nothing for granted-accept no statement at face value. What seems like solid ground is in actuality quicksand; caveat emptor.