The South, J.L.Borges (short story)

borges “Εl sur”
ficiones (1944-1956)
translation by William Little free ebook/ english


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The South (original Spanish title: El Sur) is a short story by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, first published in La Nación in 1953, and which appeared in the second edition (1956) of Ficciones, part two (Artifices).

Plot summary

Johannes Dahlmann was a minister in an Evangelical Church. Juan Dahlmann, one of his grandchildren, is a secretary in an Argentine library. Although of German descent, he is proud of his Argentine maternal ancestors. He has a number of artifacts from his forefather: an old sword, a lithograph photo, and a ranch home in southern Argentina he has never found time to visit.

In February 1939, he obtains a copy of the Arabian Nights. He takes the book home, and—eager to examine it—rushes up the stairs and gashes his forehead against a recently painted beam. The wound Dahlmann suffers forces him to lie bedridden with a very high fever. After a few days, his doctors move him to the hospital. On his way there, Dahlmann feels that perhaps the move will do him good. At the hospital, however, Dahlmann’s treatment for his injury causes him great pain and discomfort, causing him to feel humiliation and self-hatred, almost as though he were in hell.

(It warrants noting at this point that, in the Prologue for Artifices, Borges explicitly acknowledged the possibility of an alternative interpretation of the narrative, while refraining from giving any details or hints with respect to its nature. He writes, “Of ‘The South,’ which is perhaps my best story, let it suffice for me to suggest that it can be read as a direct narrative of novelistic events, and also in another way.” With this in mind, one may well reinterpret the story such that all that follows Dahlmann’s darkest moments in the hospital is a narration of his idealized death—the one Juan Dahlmann fabricates and enacts in his feverish mind, whilst upon the verge of a pathetic death in the hospital he never left, in order to redeem him of his actual and pitiful death and regain a measure of honor and self-respect in his last moments of consciousness.)

After days in the hospital he is suddenly told that he is recovering, after almost having died of septicemia. Juan Dahlmann sets off to his ranch to convalesce. The story shifts locations to a train station, where Dahlmann is waiting for a train to travel to his ranch. He regards the city sights with great joy, and he decides to go to a restaurant for a bite to eat. In the restaurant he notices a cat, the mythical creature who, in many cultures (for example Egypt), is associated with eternity and the gods.

After his meal, Dahlmann boards the train, and rides out of the city into the countryside. He begins to read Arabian Nights, but then closes the book to enjoy the scenery. The train conductor enters his compartment and notifies him that the train will not be stopping at his destination, but at a previous station. Once the train reaches the deserted station, Dahlmann steps off into a small countryside town. He makes his way through the dusty streets and finds the only restaurant. He sits down, orders food, and begins to read Arabian Nights.

Three rowdy ranch workers sitting at a table nearby throw a bread crumb at him, which he ignores. However, after a short while, they begin again. This time, Dahlmann stands up in order to exit the establishment. The shopkeeper (calling him by name) anxiously asks Dahlmann to pay them no heed, saying they are drunk. This prompts Dahlmann to do the opposite, to face them. One of the ranch workers brandishes a knife. Seeing the situation getting out of hand, the shopkeeper calls out that Dahlmann does not even have a weapon. At this point, an old man in the corner, a gaucho (which to Dahlmann represents the essence of the South as well as the past) throws a knife to Dahlmann. It lands at his feet. As he picks up the knife, Dahlmann realizes that it will not be of any use to his defense. He knows he has never wielded a knife in his life and that if he fights he is going to die. However, he feels that his death in a knife fight is honorable, that it is the one he would have chosen when he was sick in the hospital, and he decides to go. The story ends with Dahlmann and the farmer exiting the bar and walking into the plain.

The events of the story are semi-autobiographical: Borges also worked in a library. At New Year’s 1939, Borges suffered a severe head wound and nearly died of blood poisoning.
Borges considered “The South” to be “acaso mi mejor cuento”, or “perhaps my best story”. (Artificios, Prólogo)
“The South” inspired and is referenced in the short story “The Insufferable Gaucho”[1] by Roberto Bolaño.
The short story is read by Mick Jagger’s character in the 1970 film Performance. The movie contains several other allusions to Borges.
Spanish film director Carlos Saura wrote and directed the TV movie, El Sur, which was adapted from Borges’ short story. Saura’s film takes place in more modern times (1990), and Saura also attempts to strengthen autobiographical themes found in the original story.[2]


In 1990, Carlos Saura wrote and directed a 55-minute television movie based on El Sur entitled Los Cuentos De Borges: El Sur (English: The Borges Tales: The South). Wikipedia