Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘The Secret Miracle’ (1943)

And God made him die during the course of a hundred years and then He revived him and said:
“How long have you been here?” / “A day, or part of a day,” he replied
. The Koran, II 261

On the night of March 14, 1939, in an apartment on the Zelternergasse in Prague, Jaromir Hladik, author of the unfinished tragedy The Enemies, of a Vindication of Eternity, and of an inquiry into the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Boehme, dreamt a long drawn out chess game. The antagonists were not two individuals, but two illustrious families. The contest had begun many centuries before. No one could any longer describe the forgotten prize, but it was rumored that it was enormous and perhaps infinite. The pieces and the chessboard were set up in a secret tower. Jaromir (in his dream) was the first-born of one of the contending families. The hour for the next move, which could not be postponed, struck on all the clocks. The dreamer ran across the sands of a rainy desert – and he could not remember the chessmen or the rules of chess. At this point he awoke. The din of the rain and the clangor of the terrible clocks ceased. A measured unison, sundered by voices of command, arose from the Zelternergasse. Day had dawned, and the armored vanguards of the Third Reich were entering Prague.

On the 19th, the authorities received an accusation against Jaromir Hladik; on the same day, at dusk, he was arrested. He was taken to a barracks, aseptic and white, on the opposite bank of the Moldau. He was unable to refute a single one of the charges made by the Gestapo: his maternal surname was Jaroslavski, his blood was Jewish, his study of Boehme was Judaizing, his signature had helped to swell the final census of those protesting the Anschluss. In 1928, he had translated the Sepher Yezirah for the publishing house of Hermann Barsdorf; the effusive catalogue issued by this firm had exaggerated, for commercial reasons, the translator’s renown; this catalogue was leafed through by Julius Rothe, one of the officials in whose hands lay Hladik’s fate. The man does not exist who, outside his own specialty, is not credulous: two or three adjectives in Gothic script sufficed to convince Julius Rothe of Hladik’s pre-eminence, and of the need for the death penalty, pour encourager les autres. The execution was set for the 29th of March, at nine in the morning. This delay (whose importance the reader will appreciate later) was due to a desire on the part of the authorities to act slowly and impersonally, in the manner of planets or vegetables.

Hladik’s first reaction was simply one of horror. He was sure he would not have been terrified by the gallows, the block, or the knife; but to die before a firing squad was unbearable. In vain he repeated to himself that the pure and general act of dying, not the concrete circumstances, was the dreadful fact. He did not grow weary of imagining these circumstances: he absurdly tried to exhaust all the variations. He infinitely anticipated the process, from the sleepless dawn to the mysterious discharge of the rifles. Before the day set by Julius Rothe, he died hundreds of deaths, in courtyards whose shapes and angles defied geometry, shot down by changeable soldiers whose number varied and who sometimes put an end to him from close up and sometimes from far away. He faced these imaginary executions with true terror (perhaps with true courage). Each simulacrum lasted a few seconds. Once the circle was closed, Jaromir returned interminably to the tremulous eve of his death. Then he would reflect that reality does not tend to coincide with forecasts about it. With perverse logic he inferred that to foresee a circumstantial detail is to prevent its happening.

Faithful to this feeble magic, he would invent, so that they might not happen, the most atrocious particulars. Naturally, he finished by fearing that these particulars were prophetic. During his wretched nights he strove to hold fastsomehow to the fugitive substance oftime. He knew that time was precipitating itself toward the dawn of the 29th. He reasoned aloud: I am now in the night of the 22nd. While this night lasts (and for six more nights to come) I am invulnerable, immortal. His nights of sleep seemed to him deep dark pools into which he might submerge. Sometimes he yearned impatiently for the firing squad’s definitive volley, which would redeem him, for better or for worse, from the vain
compulsion of his imagination. On the 28th, as the final sunset reverberated across the high barred windows, he was distracted from all these abject considerations by thought of his drama, The Enemies….

See pages 33 to 37 in this PDF for the full text

A Summary and Analysis of Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘The Secret Miracle’

By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘The Secret Miracle’ (1943) is a short story by a modern master of the form, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). It tells of a man living in Nazi-occupied Prague who is sentenced to be killed by firing squad. The man, a playwright, prays for a year’s stay of execution to be granted so he can complete the play he is working on…


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