Image from Wolfram Mathword.
I’m teaching a new course on modernism and post-modernism this semester, and I’m very happy to be diving back into a few old favorites, such as Kafka and Borges. Both of these writers have a gift for frustrating the reader — they present gloriously odd situations or twisty metaphorical setups that end up confusing, delighting, and provoking. I’ll spoil just one story for you in my post today to demonstrate how you can try your hand at a mind-bending tale.
The tale I’ll look at is Borges’ “The Secret Miracle.” Like the best Borges stories, it mixes a little political intrigue with a fascinating touch of magic and myth, and also leaves the reader with profound questions. Set during the German takeover of Prague in World War II, the story follows Hladik, a Jewish writer obsessed with finishing his masterwork. He is quickly captured and sentenced to die by firing squad in the first paragraph of the story, immediately establishing a highly tense scene of waiting for death.
In the days leading up to his execution, Hladik tries to imagine his death a thousand different ways, torturing himself with the thought of it. His greatest regret is that he will not be able to finish his play. He prays to God, begging for a reprieve of just one year so that he can write it.
The morning of the scheduled execution, Hladik is taken to the appointed place. The soldiers aim and the command is given; but at just that moment, time stops. Only Hladik’s thoughts are allowed to continue, but everything else is frozen. In time he realizes he has been granted his prayer; he will have a year to create his masterwork, but it will only be in his own mind. Hladik spends the year working over the piece purely in his own thoughts. The moment he perfects it, time resumes, and he is executed.
It’s an astonishing story that manages to captivate and also to aggravate. The story stays with you, tugging on your sleeve, demanding things. Is a work of art truly complete if it only exists in the mind of its creator? Was Hladik’s “secret miracle” a blessing or a curse? That, I think, is the true nature of what is so effective in this Borges story (and in other Borges stories). The magical premise is an ambiguous one, interpretable as either blessing or curse. It makes you wonder whether the character has received a gift or is being tortured, knowing that his work will never be known.
Find a blessing/curse
That’s something that we can all learn from this story, and something we can use in our own stories. In many classic myths, the lesson is “be careful what you wish for”; you can think of something that could be a gift or a curse as well. Instead of giving your character a clear gift or curse, give them something more complex.
The other magnetic aspect of this story is how it plays with perception and reality. In the beginning, Hladik is able to make his own death real just by imagining it; he actually endures his own death hundreds of times because of his creative imaginings. Later, he is satisfied by the power of his own imagination; it is enough to create the work in his own mind. (I wonder, though, if I would be satisfied if I could only create my stories in my mind; would you?) The thin line between dreams and reality is always a fruitful metaphor. Think about how you can play with dreams making things real or reality informing our dreams.
Hopefully, this mind-bending Borges story will get you thinking about your own role as a creator and thinker — and hopefully you’ll be writing some mind-bending work of your own.