A short story
by Jorge Luis Borges
, and the title story of a 1970 collection. They are late stories: one dates from 1966, and the others all from 1969-1970. He had turned away from the more fantastic or metaphysical
style he is best known for, and was now writing more or less "straight" stories, almost all set in Buenos Aires
, whether high society or the seamy side, or among the farmhand
s and gaucho
s in the pampas
round about. A number of them follow recurring themes of rivalry
s of one or another kind, violent or subtle.
The Gospel According to Mark (El evangelio según Marcos) has an educated city fellow staying at a ranch, where he is isolated by floodwaters with only the company of the ignorant family of farmhands, and a few books. One of these is an old Bible in English, a language the farmhands' ancestors once knew. He reads them the tale of the crucifixion and they marvel at him and his erudition and his story, and at what Hell is, and at how the killers of the hero were forgiven for killing him...
The Unworthy Friend (El indigno) uses a another couple of themes Borges likes, a hero-worshipping young boy and a petty criminal just glamorous enough to be a hero to him; and a betrayal for reasons mysterious even to the fatal betrayer.
The Duel (El duelo) tells of a rivalry and lifelong duel between friends, as often; but these are not gauchos or slum hoodlums but ladies of good society, and painters. They stay friends through subtle alterations of fortune on each side, and only at the end is the scale of the duel partly understood.
The End of the Duel (El otro duelo) is based (if we can believe Borges's afterword) on a real incident when two petty enemies were drafted into the same side in a Uruguayan civil war of long ago. Their ragtag army defeated, they were brought before the cruel enemy commander, who knew about their rivalry, and who determined to make their execution a public spectacle and a duel of a very strange kind.
Rosendo's Tale (Historia de Rosendo Juárez) mixes familiar elements: a boy, a group of toughs he hangs out with, a killing, trouble because of a woman, an accusation of cowardice, and walking away from an old life.
The Intruder (La intrusa) is a woman treated no better than a slave by two brothers who are close friends, but who gradually without anyone's wanting it becomes an obstacle between them; and rivalry as so often leads to death.
The Meeting (El encuentro) is again a long-ago rivalry, a fight to the death, and witnesses sworn to secrecy; but it has the strange property that the very knives themselves that the fighters chose seem to have been in rivalry. This will be echoed in the next story.
Juan Muraña has a little boy and a hoodlum, but this time it is the boy's uncle, and he is gone, no-one knows where, dead or flown. The family are to be dispossessed by a callous landlord. The mad old aunt still possesses Juan's knife...
The Elder Lady (La señora mayor) is the story of a hundred-year-old woman who is the last surviving daughter of a (rather obscure) hero of the Argentine War of Independence. Her memory is failing and questionable, and she doesn't really get any of the modestly lavish celebrations that are put on by the republic to honour her, and which therefore they have to exaggerate about.
Guayaquil picks up the theme of two old rivals being echoed or relived by two modern ones. Letters of the Liberator Simón Bolívar have turned up, throwing light on his meeting at Guayaquil with the other independence hero José de San Martín. In the past it was the Venezuelan Bolívar who was acknowledged as the greatest, and San Martín stood aside or was persuaded or overawed... In the present day two historians subtly compete in politeness for who is to have the honour of flying out to represent their country in the editing of these letters.
The title story Doctor Brodie's Report (El informe de Brodie) however is classic Borges. Doctor Brodie was a Scottish Presbyterian minister somewhere in darkest Africa, and his report is some incomplete manuscript pages found in an early nineteenth-century history. He is describing a bizarre, barely-human tribe he calls Yahoos, deliberately recalling those humans in Gulliver's Travels. They honour their kings by gelding and blinding them, and smearing them with dung. They know no letters, or housing, or artefacts, and even though they see Brodie building his hut they still regard it as a natural thing like a tree. Only the wizards are permitted to gaze up at the stars. Sometimes a Yahoo is possessed to utter a few strange words of their harsh language in an unusual way: he is then regarded as a poet, and can be killed by anyone, so has to flee. Like many a Borgesian speculation on language, the one of these people orders concepts totally differently.