Now Dahlmann has been established as both a bibliophile (he was carrying a special edition of The Thousand and One Nights at the time of his accident) and an ostentatious Argentinian patriot. As Amateur Reader recently noted, Argentina and the United States share a common history: "the immigrants, the frontier, the cowboys, the wars with indigenous people." I'm assuming, then, that the gaucho occupies a cultural space similar to that of the American cowboy - as the rough-and-tumble hero of untamed lands. So basically what we have here is a coalescing of various elements.
The general store at one time had been painted a deep scarlet, but the years had tempered this violent color for its own good. Something in its poor architecture recalled a steel engraving, perhaps one from an old edition of Paul et Virginie. A number of horses were hitched up to the paling. Once inside, Dahlmann thought he recognized the shopkeeper. Then he realized that he had been deceived by the man's resemblance to one of the male nurses in the sanitarium.Given the dreamlike quality of "The South" as a whole, juxtaposed against the improbability of its climactic incident (a guy throws a couple of breadcrumbs and now we're having a knife fight?), I'm inclined to think that the whole episode actually ends with the sanitarium. The rest is all in Dahlmann's head, the whole episode a fever-vision of a remote, romanticized Argentina that only exists in Dahlmann's imagination. His death at the hands of a gaucho is active and idealized, as opposed to a passive succumbing to illness in a modern clinical setting. His fantasy gives him agency: this ending he chose.
In reading "The South" I was reminded of a Thomas Man story I covered awhile back called "Tristan." It's about an airheaded writer staying at a convalescent home even though there's really nothing wrong with him. He meets a sick woman and falls in love with her, imagining her as a wildly romanticized wilting flower and her son and husband as a pair of brutes undeserving of her ethereal presence. The ensuing narrative is a parody of those emo artist types who view real life through the lens of their own overwrought, fiction-fueled imaginations. Although "The South" is obviously a more serious work, we have essentially the same thing happening here, only to a much greater extent. It all goes back to a theme I often write about regarding chaos, the narrative, and human cognition. In essence, reality is how we perceive it.
"The South" may comes across as a very different Borges story, but his familiar topics of time, reality, and perception are all present if you look closely enough. Though less conceptual than "Pierre Menard" and "The Library of Babel," it is also more accessible to the general reader and may serve as a great launchpad for other Borges works.
"The South" also inspired a short story by the late, great Roberto Bolaño called "The Insufferable Gaucho."
The Non-Structured Book Club read three short pieces by Borges for the month of May. Our schedule went as follows:
May 7: "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"
May 14: "The Library of Babel"
May 21: "The South"
This week's participants were: