Death and the Compass

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"Death and the Compass"
Author Jorge Luis Borges
Original title "La muerte y la brújula"
Country Argentina
Language Spanish
Genre(s) Fantasy, short story
Published in sur
Publisher Editorial Sur
Media type Print
Publication date May 1942
Published in English 1954

"Death and the Compass" (original Spanish title: "La muerte y la brújula") is a short story by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. Published in Sur in May 1942, it was included in the 1944 collection Ficciones. It was first translated into English in the New Mexico Quarterly (Autumn 1954).

A detective, Erik Lönnrot, attempts to solve a mysterious series of murders which seem to follow a kabbalistic pattern.

Plot summary[edit]

Lönnrot is a famous detective in an unnamed city based upon Buenos Aires. When a rabbi is killed in his hotel room on the third of December, Lönnrot is assigned to the case. Based on a cryptic message left on the rabbi's typewriter--"The first letter of the name has been uttered"—the detective determines that the murder was not accidental. He connects this with the Tetragrammaton, the unspeakable four-letter name of God. He further connects it with his criminal nemesis, Red Scharlach.

Exactly one month later, on the third of January, a second murder takes place with the message "The second letter of the name has been uttered" left at the crime site. Predictably, the same thing happens on the third of February, with the message this time reading "The last letter of the name has been uttered."

However, Lönnrot is not convinced that the spree is at an end, as the Tetragrammaton contains four letters, two of them being the same letter repeated. Furthermore, the murders actually took place on the fourth of December, January, and February, respectively, since according to the Jewish calendar, the day begins at sunset and the murders were all committed after sunset. He predicts that the next month will see one, final killing. In the meantime, the detective's office receives an anonymous tip to view the map locations of the murders, which coincide to the points of an equilateral triangle. Using these points he constructs a rhombus, recognizing that the southern end of the city has yet to be terrorized (the south appears frequently in Borges's writings as an allusion to the Argentine frontier, and by extension as a symbol of solitude, lawlessness, fate, and elemental human qualities). The location is the chateau Triste-le-Roi.

Lönnrot arrives at the site a day in advance, prepared to surprise the murderers. He is grabbed in the dark by two henchmen and Scharlach emerges from the shadows. Scharlach reveals that Lönnrot had arrested his brother, and he swore to avenge his death. Killing the rabbi was indeed accidental, but Scharlach used Lönnrot's over-intellectualizing (as well as the police report in the newspaper that he was following a kabbalistic pattern to track the criminals) to entice Lönnrot to this very spot. It was Scharlach who suggested that the police view the map locations to discover the spot of the final act. Lönnrot becomes calm in the face of death and responds that Scharlach made his maze too complex, instead of a four sided rhombus it should have been but a single line of murders, with each subsequent murder taking place on the halfway point (A 8 km from B, C 4 km from each, D 2 km from A and C). Lönnrot says that philosophers have been lost on this line, so a simple detective should feel no shame to do the same (a reference to Zeno's Paradox). Scharlach promises that he will trap Lönnrot in this simpler labyrinth in their next "incarnation."

Adaptations[edit]