Fact v Fiction: The Zahir by Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges’ The Zahir plays with fact and fiction in very interesting ways. First of all, the story is written from the first person, and the narrator identifies himself as Borges. Herein lies the first question of fact and fiction in the story. Is the story supposed to be read as the narrator actually being Borges, or is the narrator merely a fictionalization of him? The narrator provides an enigmatic answer with “I am still, albeit only partially, Borges.” This could be read as Borges acknowledging the fictionalization of himself but asserting that this fictionalization in the piece still adequately refers to actual aspects of himself.


The next question that this story might raise then, is how fictional exactly is the story supposed to be? Borges already implied that fiction and nonfiction lie on a spectrum with his own insertion into the piece. The answer to this question might be found in a transition the piece makes. The piece begins with describing Teodolina Villar and her recent death. She is placed in the story with allusions to reality such as the occupation of Paris by Germany, among others. The narrator goes as far as to say, “I was in love with her, and that her death actually brought tears to my eyes? Perhaps the reader has already suspected that”. This address to the reader implies a factual element to this character and her impact on Borges, however, shortly afterwards the story picks up a far more mystical tone.


The titular “zahir” is described in the text as “beings or things which have the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad”. This description, along with many references in Borges’ work is questionable in its authenticity. Borges lists many actual works but among them also references ones that do not exist, and despite Zahir’s description being based in truth about it being one of 99 names of God, it is most likely this is a fictional creation of Borges. For the narrator of the story, his zahir is a coin which he finds almost immediately after the funeral, and from then on the story becomes clearly fictional (with the inclusion of magical elements).
However, it is most likely the case that the narrator’s obsession is supposed to be connected to his love of Teodolina. A meta reading of “Until the end of June I distracted myself by composing a tale of fantasy. The tale contains two or three enigmatic circumlocutions: “water of the sword”, it says, instead of blood, and “bed of the serpent”, for gold, and is written in the first person. “ lends some credence to this view since his obsession with the coin is paralleled with the gold in the story. This suggests that the coin being the object of the narrator’s obsession is merely sublimation of his obsession of the late Teodolina. However, if Teodolina’s existence is put into question, the narrator also asserts that the zahir is interchangeable with anything and everything in the world. In this way The Zahir sugests that there is fact in all fiction, since it is always connected to our reality in some way, even if not entirely sublimation.

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