The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim"
Author Jorge Luis Borges
Original title "El acercamiento a Almotásim"
Translator Anthony Bonner
Country Argentina
Language Spanish
Genre(s) Fantasy, short story
Published in Historia de la eternidad (1936)
Ficciones (1944)
Media type Print
Publication date 1936
Published in English 1962

"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" (original Spanish title: "El acercamiento a Almotásim") is a fantasy short story written in 1935 by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. In his autobiographical essay, Borges wrote about "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim", "it now seems to me to foreshadow and even to set the pattern for those tales that were somehow awaiting me, and upon which my reputation as a storyteller was to be based."[1]


"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" was written in 1935 and was first published as an essay in a Borges' 1936 philosophical essay collection, A History of Eternity (Historia de la eternidad) . It was reclassified as a short story when it was reprinted in 1942 in Borges' first short fiction collection, The Garden of Forking Paths (El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan), which became a subsection of Ficciones when it was published in 1944.[1]

The supposed publisher of the fake book described in the story was an actual publisher, Victor Gollancz, as was the supposed writer of the preface, Dorothy L. Sayers.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

Borges described his story as "both a hoax and a pseudo-essay."[1] The story is a review of the second edition of an imaginary work of the same name written by Mir Bahadur Ali, an Indian lawyer, and published in 1934. The second edition is claimed by the narrator to be inferior to the first edition, published in 1932. Borges borrowed from Kipling for some of the plot of the fake book.[1]

The story begins with the reviewer giving a history of the book, first describing the success of the first edition, the publishing of the second edition by a respected publisher in London, and the positive and negative reception given to it by critics. The narrator then gives a summary of the plot of the novel. The book is a detective story about a freethinking Bombay law student of Islamic background. He becomes involved in a sectarian riot in which he kills a Hindu. He flees to a tower where he meets a Parsee corpse-robber collecting gold teeth. He then begins a journey across the subcontinent (the geography of which Borges describes in detail), interacting with untouchables along the way. He meets a man that, though destitute, is happy and spiritual. The student encounters many such people radiating a small amount of this spiritual clarity. He decides that these people must be reflecting, through a number of intermediaries, the radiance of some higher spiritual being, the source and originator of this pure spiritual clarity called the Al-Mu'tasim. The student becomes obsessed with meeting Al-Mu'tasim and goes on a pilgrimage through Hindustan to find him. He eventually hears resounding from a hut the voice of the Al-Mu'tasim. He pulls back the curtain and goes in. The book ends at this point. The reviewer then gives his criticisms of the work.

A long footnote at the end of the review summarises The Conference of the Birds (1177), by Farid ud-Din Attar, in which a group of birds seek a feather dropped in the middle of China by Simurg, the bird king. Thirty birds reach the mountain of Simurg and there they find through contemplation that they themselves are the Simurg.[2]

Al-Mu'tasim means "he who goes in quest of aid."or "the seeker of shelter." "Simurg" means "thirty birds."[2]


The main story and the poem summarized in the footnote share a parallel theme. The clearer conclusion of The Conference of the Birds explains the ambiguous ending of "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim." Just as the birds find they are what they seek, the law student is Al-Mu'tasim.[2]


Borges' mixing of the fictional and the real, which Jaime Alazraki calls a "Borgesian device," both imparts a real feeling to the fictional, and an unreal feeling to the real.[2] Also, the use of a summary within a summary, and the taking of those summaries and stripping them down to expose the same principle "are a form of expressing in the structure of the story the pantheistic idea that anything is all things."[2]

Naomi Lindstrom describes the reviewer of the detective story as "a typical Borges narrator."[3] At times he demonstrates great knowledge of detailed information, but at other times he cannot grasp the most basic concepts. His narrative is uncertain and inconstant. His confusion serves to emphasize the incomprehension of the main character of the fake book as he goes on his pilgrimage.[3]

Borges' use of an allegory to shed light on a detective story shows his use of religious doctrines for aesthetic value.[2]


In his autobiographical essay, Borges writes that when "The Approach to al-Mu'tasim" was first published, the people who read it "took it at face value, and one of my friends even ordered a copy from London."[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Alazraki, Jaime (1987). Critical Essays on Jorge Luis Borges. G. K. Hall & Co. p. 43. ISBN 0-8161-8829-7. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Alazraki, Jaime (1971). Jorge Luis Borges. Columbia University Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 0-231-03283-8. 
  3. ^ a b Lindstrom, Naomi (1990). Jorge Luis Borges: A Study of the Short Fiction. G.K. Hall & Co. pp. 18–20, 22. ISBN 0-8057-8327-X. 


  • Rice, Thomas J. "Subtle Reflections of/upon Joyce in/by Borges." Journal of Modern Literature 24.1 (2000): 47. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.