Numbers in Jorge Luis Borges’ “Death and the Compass”


Nadine Bornholt

Yale University


Neither the first time it has been attempted, nor the last time it will fail, this defense is distinguished by two facts. One is my almost complete ignorance of the Hebrew language; the other, my desire to defend not the doctrine but rather the hermeneutical or cryptographic procedures that lead to it. (Borges, “A Defense of the Kabbalah”, Non-Fictions 83)


Jorge Luis Borges once claimed about his detective story “Death and the Compass” that it is the most kabbalistic narration he had ever written, and several scholars have pointed to the direct links to the Kabbalah in that fiction.(1) The kabbalistic way of reading texts focuses on deciphering of every single word contained in a text, as every single aspect of the text potentially bears an important meaning. If, as Borges asserted, “Death and the Compass” is indeed the most kabbalistic story he ever wrote, then it is worth looking into the often ignored but nevertheless meaningful details contained in it, namely the numbers. In this essay, I argue that numbers and the color red point towards an overall unity of “Death and the Compass”.(2)

My argument follows three steps. The first is a close reading of the numbers four, three and two in Borges’ story, including an analysis of the fluctuation between four and three; this fluctuation is one aspect of the unity created in the story. It will become clear that three is a part of four in different ways: first, three is the precursor of four, which means that four already includes three. Additionally, the four-sided geometrical forms in “Death and the Compass'' already consist of and include the three-sided triangle, and third, both three and four can be read as Biblical symbols of unity. My second step will be an investigation of the color red as an unifying symbol. Red is a constitutive part of the names Erik Lönnrot and Red Scharlach. Rot is red in German and Scharlach is scarlet. In a Biblical reading, red fluctuates between sin and atonement, being the color that includes both the love of God and the devil's attributes. I will also analyze the gods mentioned in “Death and the Compass'' to explore the relationship between Erik Lönnrot and Red Scharlach. And finally, I will connect the results of these investigations to the hypothesis that behind and beneath the numbers and the color red in the story lies the idea of a fundamental unity of the two protagonists, the detective and the criminal.

The numbers three and four deserve to be considered together because there is a constant oscillation between three and four in “Death and the Compass''. The number three first appears in the date of the first murder, December third. Dr. Marcelo Yarmolinsky, who “bear[s] three years of war in the Carpathians and three thousand years of pogroms and oppression'' (“Death and the Compass'', Fictions 148)(3), takes part in the “Third Talmudic Congress'' (Fictions 148). At 11:30 a.m. on the next morning a journalist tries to reach Yarmolinsky and discovers that Yarmolinsky has been killed. Erik Lönnrot and police commissioner Treviranus start to look into the case. With the names of Lönnrot and Treviranus the first hidden hints are given, the first of many hidden allusions. The name Treviranus can be split into three parts, all of them carrying a meaning in Latin, but only two of them are important for this essay. Tres is Latin and means three, and vir is the Latin word for man. It is also interesting to note that the first part of the name contains four letters, the second contains three letters, and the third and last part contains four letters again. The three parts hence contribute to the three and four oscillation. Therefore, Borges indicates right at the beginning of the story that there might only be three murders; the reader who reads the story for the first time starts to consider that there might only be three homicides. The reader of a detective story plays an important creative part with regard to the narrative, as Borges claimed in a lecture entitled “The detective story''. Borges stated that Edgar Allen Poe invented a new type of reader, the reader of a detective story, who doubts everything present in a literary work and whose basic attitude towards the text is one of suspicion (Non-Fictions 492). For this kind of reader Borges leaves hints and hidden allusions that go beyond Lönnrot's knowledge, as Jorge Hernández Martín has noted:

Borges' insistence a reader is created suggests the role that detective fiction played in helping him conceive of a «literature of skepticism», informed by a reader's suspicions of the veracity of relevance of the things presented in the text. In the readerly suspicion exercised by detective fiction one can sense an intensification of the normal process of reading... (Hernández 50)


At the end of the story, Scharlach reveals that Yarmolinsky was killed by mistake because the drunken murderer mistook his room for the original target, the Tetrarch of Galilee. The Greek tetra of course means four and points to the ancient tetrarchy, a system of government where the power is divided among four individuals. The name Tetrarch of Galilee is a historical one as it refers to Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea as a tetrarch. Interestingly, Herodes, Herod Antipas' father, divided his legacy into four parts although he only had three sons. The eldest one, Herodes Archelaos, inherited two parts while his younger brothers respectively inherited one part each. However, this is not the only oscillation between three and four with regard to the Tetrarch of Galilee in “Death and the Compass”. Borges' Tetrarch of Galilee was supposed to be murdered on the fourth of December and not on the third of December. Azevedo, the murderer and also the second victim, wanted to double-cross Red Scharlach and escape with the sapphires and, as a consequence, wanted to rob the Tetrarch one day before the pre-decided date. As already mentioned, Azevedo mixed up the rooms and killed Yarmolinsky instead of the Tetrarch.

After having a discussion about the first murder and discarding Treviranus’ explanation for the case, Lönnrot starts to do research on Hebrew history and beliefs. He finds out that God is supposed to have a secret name, “which ... contains His ninth attribute, the eternity” (Fictions 149) and that “[t]radition reckons the name of God at ninety-nine” (Fictions 149). Both the 9 and the 99 can be divided by three which results in 3x3 and 3x33. While Lönnrot focuses on this aspect in order to find an exciting explanation for the first murder, the journalist, who was present at the first crime scene, writes a three column article about the case.

The second murder on January 3 appears “in the doorway of an old paint factory” (Fictions 149). The sentence “The second letter of the Name has been written” (Fictions 150), a sequel to the sentence Yarmolinsky wrote on his typewriter (4), appears on top of red and yellow rhombuses. A rhombus is an equilateral quadrilateral, or, to put it differently, it is a four-sided polygon in which every side has the same length. The rhombus is a figure that occurs time and again in “Death and the Compass”: in the costume of the harlequins, in the mathematical figure that helps Lönnrot to solve the case and makes himself the third victim, and in the windows of Villa Triste-le-Roy (5).

Lönnrot receives a map on which he finds a red triangle indicating that the three murders, which were symmetrical in time and space, form an equilateral triangle. But, Lönnrot is not satisfied with this solution to his case and instead figures out that if he adds one point in the south, the triangle emerges as a rhombus. In other words, Lönnrot creates a mirror image and adds it to the first triangle. As a result, Lönnrot sees two triangles which share the line from east to west. Again, the triangle is a part of the rhombus.

Another important feature of the rhombus is that it is a two-dimensional figure with four axes of symmetry, or, to rephrase it, that, if a perpendicular line is constructed, any two points lying on that line at equal distances from the axis of symmetry are identical. Another way to describe it is that if you divide the rhombus vertically, the right side and left side are mirror images of each other. The two diagonals of a rhombus are axes of symmetry which divide the rhombus into four triangles. The rectangle, the mathematical form used by Borges to describe Villa Triste-le-Roy, is also axially symmetric, meaning that the two sides divided by the axis are mirror images of each other.

To summarize, with the rhombus, Borges uses a mathematical figure that consists of four equilateral sides and that already includes four triangles. The rectangle again is an axially symmetric form in which each side reflects the other. Hence, the rhombus and the rectangle can be read as symbols for Lönnrot's and Scharlach's unity, or, to put it differently, Lönnrot is mirrored in Scharlach and Scharlach is mirrored in Lönnrot. This will be further discussed at the end of the essay.

On February 3, Scharlach calls police commissioner Treviranus from a hotel and fakes the third murder. The name he uses on the phone is Ginzberg, Ginsburg, or Gryphius. These three names remind the reader of three famous persons, all of them concerned with religion. Rabbi Louis Ginzberg is the first one; Ginzberg was one of the outstanding Talmudists of the twentieth century.

Ginzberg studied the Talmud at several rabbinical schools, as well as philosophy, history, and Oriental languages at three universities, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg in 1898. He moved to the United States in 1899. From 1902 until his death, Ginzberg was professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. (Britannica online “Ginzberg”)


It is well known that Borges purchased the eleventh edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica and made frequent use of it. With regard to Ginzberg, Ginsburg, and Gryphius, Borges referred to real persons, two of them being Jewish scholars and the third one being a famous author as articles of the Britannica prove. First, the article about Christian David Ginsburg who was a prominent Bible scholar and student of the masoretic tradition in Judaism. And second, the article about Andreas Gryphius.

Beginning in 1867 with the publication of Jacob ben Chajim's Introduction to the Rabbinic Bible, Hebrew and English, with notices, and the Massoreth Ha-Massoreth of Elias Levita, in Hebrew, with translation and commentary, Dr Ginsburg took rank as an eminent Hebrew Scholar. (“Ginsburg”)


Andreas Gryphius (1616 - 1664), German lyric poet and dramatist...A short time previously he had been admitted under the title of “The Immortal” into the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, a literary society, founded in 1617 ...No German dramatic writer before him had risen so high a level, nor had he worthy successors until about the middle of the 18th century. (“Gryphius”)


Besides the three names of Ginzberg/ Ginsburg/ Gryphius, Treviranus and Lönnrot find the third message indicating that the sequence of murders is completed: “The last Letter of the Name has been written” (Fictions 151). It is also worth mentioning the three and four oscillation with regard to the harlequins. Three kidnappers allegedly abduct Ginzberg/ Ginsburg/ Gryphius. One of them stays in the car, and two of them enter the tavern. In allegedly abducting Gryphius, three men leave the tavern and unite with the fourth criminal in the car; after a week of separation, the four criminals are united again. As mentioned before, the four is also contained in the rhombuses on the harlequin's costumes. Moreover, the rhombuses on the harlequin's costumes are connected with a sequence of three colors: yellow, red and green (Fictions 151). Again, the reader is confronted with a fluctuation of three and four.

On the site of the third crime, Lönnrot finds an underlined sentence in Philologus, a journal on ancient literature: “The Jewish day begins at sundown and lasts until sundown of the following day” (Fictions 151). Scharlach set a false trail in order for Lönnrot to deduce that there is going to be a fourth murder. According to the Christian calendar, the murders occur on the third of every month; according to the Hebrew calendar, however, the murders appear on the fourth of every month as they were committed after sundown. Lönnrot draws the conclusion that the murderer will not stop after his third homicide but would commit a fourth murder in order to sacrifice the fourth and last person that stands for the last letter in the tetragrammaton. The tetragrammaton, deriving from the Greek tetra (four) and grammatos (letter) refers to the proper name of God in the Hebrew Bible Tanach. In this bible, the name of God is usually abbreviated to the four letters JHWH (6). Jews traditionally believe that the name of God is too sacred to be uttered and they therefore avoid saying this name aloud. Lönnrot got this notion from the first site of the crime where he found Yarmolinsky's works on the tetragrammaton, the Baal Shem and the paper left in the typewriter displaying the sentence “The first letter of the Name has been written” (Fictions 149).

I will first look into the meaning of Baal Shem and how it is connected to the number four before I turn to the sentence left in the typewriter. Baal Shem in Hebrew translates as “Master of the Name” and it refers to a person who knows how to use Gods’ name (Scholem 290). In Jewish tradition, this name was pronounced only by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. The paper found by Lönnrot in Yarmolinsky's typewriter obviously plays an important role in the whole story because it is the first thing that triggers Lönnrot's interest in the case. As mentioned previously, the piece of paper states that the first letter of the name has been written. Lönnrot connects this information to the tetragrammaton and he assumes that the murderer sacrifices one Jew for each letter in God's name. This assumption is first and foremost established by Yarmolinsky's work on the Hasidim. Scharlach explains the importance of the Hasidim as follows: “I read A History of the Hasidim; I learned that the reverent fear of speaking the name of God had been the origin of the doctrine that that Name is omnipotent and occult. I learned that some Hasidim, in the quest for that secret Name, had gone so far as to commit human sacrifice.” (Fictions 155)

Lönnrot's theory that the murders have a religious background is also strengthened by Yarmolinsky's other works, including texts on the Baal Shem, and on Robert Fludd, whose works are concerned with the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm and who stands in the tradition of hermetic-kabalistic Renaissance, and the Pentateuch. All of these works can be connected to the tetragrammaton and therefore sanctify Lönnrot's approach. In addition to the texts mentioned, the narrator alludes to one of Borges' own texts, “A Vindication of the Kabbalah”. With this text another aspect comes into play. “A Vindication of the Kabbalah”, which generally addresses the Kabbalah, is concerned with “my desire to defend not the doctrine but rather the hermeneutical or cryptographic procedures that lead to it” (Non-Fictions 83). This text does also refer to numbers in general as it lists the preoccupation with numbers as one of the cryptographic procedures. This is exactly what Lönnrot tries to do. The detective tries to find the system behind the murders, he tries to uncover the hidden procedures that lead to the homicides, and he uses a hermeneutical approach in order to perform this task. Numbers play one of the most important roles in his investigation, as he grounds his theory on the Hebrew date of the murders, the tetragrammaton, and the rhombus. It is due to the tetragrammaton that Lönnrot expects a fourth murder and, unwillingly, hands himself over to his murderers.

As my analysis so far has shown, Lönnrot's reading of the numerical hints is single-edged. I already mentioned that Borges provides the reader with additional information. By now, the reader knows that there is a fluctuation between three and four when it comes to the time of the murders. In addition, the rhombus includes, in fact consists of triangles. It is also worth mentioning that of course Lönnrot is right when he states that the tetragrammaton consists of four characters. However, the tetragrammaton only consists of three different characters, J, H, and W. This means, that even in the word tetragrammaton there is an oscillation between the numbers three and four.

The last crime, and the third murder, takes place on March 3, the third month of the year. Lönnrot faces Scharlach who tells the detective that three years ago, Lönnrot arrested his brother. After a shooting, Scharlach was shot and had to stay at the Villa for nine days and nine nights (again the 3x3).

Let us now turn to the number two and the color red in “Death and the Compass”. The first idea I should like to mention is the concept of imperfection that comes with the number two. Two refers to the separation of the wholeness represented by the one. Each of the parts is dependent on the other part, meaning that they are imperfect without their counterpart. Lönnrot and Scharlach can be read as two parts which in the end become one, an argument that I will pursue shortly. It is worth mentioning, that in “Death and the Compass,” the oscillation between three and four is established by the two hypotheses that run throughout the story. One hypothesis, mainly established by the reader of the story due to the narrator's hints, suggests that there are only going to be three murders. Lönnrot's hypothesis, on the other hand, focuses on four crimes. At the end of the story, the two suppositions are linked together as only Lönnrot's belief in his assumption enables Scharlach to kill him and commit the third homicide. This act also proves the hypothesis about the three to be right. Lönnrot, however, turns out to be right too, as he has read Scharlach's text woven by the hints in the right way. Lönnrot has solved the riddle only because he hands himself over to the criminal.

Besides this, the two is first and foremost connected to the relationship between Scharlach and Lönnrot. Lönnrot and Scharlach form the classic detective-story duo of detective and criminal. Both characters have the color red as a part of their name. Red Scharlach consists of the English word red and also the German word for red, Scharlach, as we saw. However, Scharlach also refers to scarlet fever, a disease that reminds the reader of the criminal's fever after being shot in a fight with the police. Lönnrot's first name Erik, on the other hand, might well refer to Erik the Red. The detective's last name includes two parts. The last part, rot, is German for red. Lönn, the first part of the name, derives from Swedish. It can be translated as maple, a tree that is famous for its gaudy red foliage, or secret, hidden and arcane (7). In this case, Lönnrot's name could be translated as the hidden or secret red.

The color red is not only a part of Lönnrot and Scharlach's name and therefore unifies the two characters, it is also a highly symbolic color in both Christianity and the Kabbalah. In Christianity, red is both the color for sin and Satan as well as the color indicating God's endless love. The red of sin can only be balanced with the red of atonement (Lurker Wörterbuch). Red is also the color of incarnation, a motif that determines the last lines of Borges' story: “The next time I kill you,' Scharlach replied,' I promise you the labyrinth that consists of a single straight line that is invisible and endless.' He stepped back a few steps. Then, very carefully, he fired.'' (Fictions 156) Gershom Scholem has pointed out that red and white are the two colors forming the fountainhead in Kabbalah (Ursprung und Anfänge 296). The color white is only used once in “Death and the Compass”, when the first murder and therefore the origin of the manhunt is described. This obviously connects to “Death and the Compass” on several levels. The two main characters are bound to each other in multiple ways. First and foremost, the story is ruled by two reasoning-machines, or to put it differently, two male characters who try to outplay each other by using their reasoning abilities. Moreover, Scharlach is tied to Lönnrot because the criminal seeks revenge for the death of his brother and his own injury caused by a policeman. This connection can only be cut by the death of one of the two parties. And Lönnrot is unwillingly and unwittingly bound to Scharlach, as Scharlach is the mastermind behind the crimes Lönnrot tries to solve. Both of them only work with their mental abilities in order to outplay each other. At the end of the story, Lönnrot and Scharlach switch places and the hunter becomes the prey. Due to Scharlach's ability to read Lönnrot's mind and to become one with his enemy, both characters melt into each other, they seem to be only one individual. As Maurice J. Bennet has said: “Borges once again makes explicit what Poe only suggests or leaves to critical interpretation: the poetic and mathematical interests shared by Dupin and D., their similar initials, and Dupin's theory that to understand anyone one must essentially become that person-all point to their shared identity” (272).

The connection between Lönnrot and Scharlach is also mirrored in the gods and goddesses that appear in “Death and the Compass”. The first goddess Lönnrot sees when he enters Villa Triste-le-Roy is Diana, a goddess that was, like Artemis, considered a huntress. Lönnrot is hunting the murder who committed three homicides; and his counterpart, Scharlach, is hunting the detective that arrested his brother. Both characters are hence reflected by Diana. The second god Lönnrot notices in the Villa is the Greek god Hermes (Roman Mercury), who “... was said to have invented such wonders as the lyre, the alphabet, numbers, and astronomy. With his traveler's hat, winged sandals, and caduceus, Hermes was clearly marked as his father's herald and messenger” (Leeming). As Lönnrot is just about to be killed, the function of Hermes as the god who accompanies souls from this world to the hereafter (Lurker Lexikon; Hunger) is obviously important. However, not only Lönnrot, but Scharlach also is reflected in Hermes as the god is said to be a god with excellent skills in interpretation, reasoning power, and that he used this skills to trick people. Both Lönnrot and Scharlach are tricky reasoning machines: Lönnrot who ``thought of himself as a reasoning machine, an Auguste Dupin'' (Fictions 147) tries to put himself in the position of the murderer in order to read his mind and foresee the criminal's next moves. As it turns out, Scharlach is the better trickster as he is able to foresee Lönnrot's way of thinking and successfully sets up a trap for the detective. The classic detective story is inverted here, as the detective usually is the one who penetrates the criminal's mind and who usually catches the murderer in the end. It is worth mentioning that Hermes in Borges' text is a gigantic statue with two faces (Fictions 153), just like Janus, the god who inspired Scharlach to seek revenge. ''A Roman god always depicted with two faces, Janus was the god of comings and goings, whose face appeared, like Greek herms, on most entrances. He was a highly popular deity of Etruscan origin who gave his name to our month of January'' (Leeming). In a more general way, Janus is a symbol for a new beginning, as he is on the cusp of the old year and the new year (Lurker Lexikon). Also, Janus is looking into the past and into the future at the same time.

In addition, the number two plays an important role in the shape of Villa Triste-le-Roy. This is the place where Scharlach and Lönnrot finally meet and where the detective dies. The Villa is described as follows:

Seen at closer quarters, the house belonging to the Villa Triste-le-Roy abounded in pointless symmetries and obsessive repetitions; a glacial Diana in a gloomy niche was echoed by a second Diana in a second niche; one balcony was reflected in another; double stairways opened into a double balustrade. (Fictions 152)


In short, the two is the unifying architectural shape that defines Villa Triste-le-Roy in which the statues of Hermes and Janus have two faces, and the two also is a Biblical and kabbalistic symbol for unity.

The oscillating numbers three and four are not only connected through the mentioned oscillation in Borges' story, and as the basis for Lönnrot and Scharlach's creation of the text, but also because the three is always already a part of the number four. Moreover, three and four are both Biblical symbols of unity. The three is an all-encompassing number as it symbolizes the tripartition of heaven, earth and the netherworld. In Judaism, three stands for the three parts of the Jewish temple, which itself is a symbol for the world; also, the three progenitors Sem, Ham, and Jafet represent the roots of mankind. According to the New Testament, the Holy Trinity refers to God and, in addition, every human is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The four on the other hand signifies a cosmic unity, as it stands for four quarters, four main winds or cardinal points, four seasons, and in ancient tradition, four elements. The river in Paradise splits into four channels, signifying the divine order on earth. Four Evangelists carry the water of epiphany into the world. And last, the tetragrammaton is a consonantal spelling of Gods name. Both, three and four fluctuate between the divine and evil. The devil attacks Jesus three times, Paul is blind for three days. God sends four punishments to the unfaithful mankind, and John sees four horsemen, whom God send to the earth (Lurker Wörterbuch).

The numbers mediate between the criminal, who uses the numbers in order to create a trap, and the detective, who interprets the numbers and makes a coherent story out of them. Only together, complementing each other, can they create the text. As Bennett puts it: “... the two men become one in precisely the same way that author and reader conflate in any text, which they mutually construct” (274). In other words, the creator Scharlach creates a text that leads the reader Lönnrot, who reads the texts with a kabbalistic system and in a kabbalistic way, to his fatal interpretation. Alazraki states with regard to Lönnrot's interest in the Kabbalah:

Borges could as well have said “Kabbalist”, since Lönnrot attemps to solve the mysteries of the seemingly ritualistic murders in the same manner that a Kabbalist deciphers the occult mysteries of the Scripture. The arithmetic value of the dates of the murders and their geometric location on the map become important and revealing. (16)


Bennett adds:

Scharlach and Lönnrot mutually compose the mini-text of the crime and its solution embedded in the encompassing narrative. The series of events that comprise this text is designed for Lönnrot alone; he is the encoded reader. As these events are meaningless without his particular intellectual passions and eccentricities, his reading of meaning into them duplicates Scharlach's act of creation. (Bennett 273)


This scheme is doubled by Borges, who creates a text for the reader of the detective fiction, a reader who “was invented by Edgar Allen Poe” (Non-Fictions 492). According to Borges, the “aesthetic event requires the conjunction of reader and text; only then does it exist. It is absurd to suppose that a book is much more than a book. It begins to exist when a reader opens it” (Non-Fictions 491 - 492). Besides the text that is spun by Scharlach and analyzed by Lönnrot, Borges offers another text, spun by himself and read by the reader of the detective story who can use hints and hidden allusions that go beyond Lönnrot's knowledge.

In the readerly suspicion exercised by detective fiction one can sense an intensification of the normal process of reading, which is leer in Spanish, from Latin legere, “to bring together”, but also “to select” and “to choose”. In this etymology one can also see the reader as an active principle of composition and as a counterpoint to writing. (Hernandez 50)


In this sense, we have a trilogy of creator (Scharlach), reader (Lönnrot), and their creation: the text. This trilogy is mirrored by Borges, the reader and their text. Knowing that Borges used his text “A Vindication of the Kabbalah” as reference in “Death and the Compass,” one has to consider the possibility that Borges points to the Holy Trinity. Borges claims:

Imagined all at once, its concept [the Holy Trinity] of a father, a son, and a ghost, joined in a single organism, seems like a case of intellectual teratology, a monster which only the horror of a nightmare could spawn...Hell is merely physical violence, but the three inextricable persons import an intellectual horror, a strangled, specious infinity like facing mirrors. (Non-Fictions 84)


To read the connection between author, reader and text in “Death and the Compass” with regard to the Holy Trinity might seem like a stretch at first glance. However, the connection of “Death and the Compass” and religion (both Judaism and Christianity) is established by the discussion of religion in the text itself;

“I'm a poor Christian fellow,” he replied. “You can take those things home with you, if you want them; I can't be wasting my time on Jewish superstitions.”

“This crime may, however, belong to the history of Jewish superstitions,” Lönnrot muttered.

“As Christianity does,'' the writer from the Yiddische Zeitung added, scathingly. He was nearsighted, quite shy, and an atheist. (Fictions 148 - 149)


I do not believe that Borges wants to establish the connection between author, reader and text as a Holy Trinity, but I think that he used “A Vindication of the Kabbalah” in order to point to the unifying moment in the Holy Trinity. Three elements become one and they are inextricably entangled with each other. In addition, the numbers in “Death and the Compass” all point to a unity. Moreover, Borges' “A Vindication of the Kabbalah” refers to the Bible as “an absolute text, where the collaboration of chance is calculated at zero” (Non-Fictions 86). The detective story is the literary genre in which chance has no place (Sturrock 128), or, as Borges assumed in a lecture, the detective story “is safeguarding order in an era of disorder” (Non-Fictions 499). A detective story hence is a highly structured and coherent text, following a linear order of events, and all of them point towards one solution. And this is of course true for Borges' “Death and the Compass.” Two hypothesis which in the end both become true and two persons who are inextricable joined into one person, a “specious infinity like facing mirrors” that is going to be repeated over and over again: “The next time I kill you,' Scharlach replied, 'I promise you the labyrinth that consists of a single straight line that is invisible and endless.’” (Fictions 156) Lönnrot is both, victor and victim, and he proposes to Scharlach to transform the quatrilateral form into a single line. In other words, he asks Scharlach to reduce four to one while marking four points on the line, four points which now resemble unity and infinity at the same time. The infinity evolves out of Zenon's paradox that the line undergoes infinite segmentations into halves without ever reaching the middle. In this labyrinth, Scharlach would not be able to hunt down Lönnrot.


(1). For example Jaime Alazraki: Borges and the Kabbalah. And other essays on his fiction and poetry.


(2). Antonio Fama also pointed to an overall unity in “Death and the Compass”. In his analysis "Analisis de 'La muerte y la brujula' de Jorge Luis Borges", Fama points to the Kabbalah, the numbers three and four, and the triangle and the rombusses. However, Fama comes to a completely different interpretation than this essay will propose. Fama argues that Scharlach and Lönnrot are two versions of only one archetype.


(3). I will refer to ``Death and the Compass'' in the abbreviated form Fictions ## from now on.


(4). ``The first letter of the Name has been written'' (Fictions 149).


(5). Both the rhombus and the rectangle are forms of the parallelogram. The rectangle can either be a quadrilateral where all four of its angles are right angles (parallelogram), or, like the rhombus in ``Death and the Compass'', a square, where all four sides have equal length; that is, a square is both a rectangle and a rhombus. However, Villa Triste-le-Roy is described as a rectangle (parallelogram): ``A rusty fence defined the irregular perimeter of the villa's grounds'' (Fictions 153).


(6). Also: YHWH, YHVH, or JHVH.


(7). From Swedish: lönnlig. 


Alazraki, Jaime. Borges and the Kabbalah. And other essays on his fiction and poetry. Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.


Bennett, Maurice J. "The Detective Fiction of Poe and Borges". Comparative Literature 35.3 (1983): 262-275.


Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin, 1998.


Borges, Jorge Luis. Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. Trans. Esther Allen et al. New York: Penguin, 2000.


Fama,  Antonio. “Analisis de 'La muerte y la brujula' de Jorge Luis Borges”.  Bulletin Hispanique.  LXXXV. 1-2. (1983).


"Ginsburg, Christian David". The Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th ed 1911.


"Ginzberg, Louis". Encyclopaedia Britannica Online 2001. 12 May 2008


"Gryphius, Andreas". The Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th ed 1911.


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