Parable of the Palace


On that day the Yellow Emperor showed the poet his palace. Gradually they left behind the long procession of Western terraces: like the tiers of an almost boundless amphitheater they dropped down toward a paradise or garden whose metal mirrors and elaborate juniper borders hinted at the labyrinth. At first they let themselves get lost gleefully, as if in a game. Later they felt some concern, since the labyrinth's straight avenues were gently but inexorably curved: secretly, they formed circles. Around midnight, observation of the planets and the well-timed sacrifice of a tortoise enabled them to disengage themselves from this seemingly bewitched area though not from the feeling that they were lost, which clung to them till the end. Presently they passed through antechambers, patios, and libraries, and then through a hexagonal room with a water clock. One morning, from the top of a tower, they spotted a man made of stone, but he was soon lost to their sight forever. They crossed numerous sparkling rivers in sandalwood canoes, or one river numerous times. When the Imperial household passed by, people threw themselves to the ground. One day they docked at an island where a man failed to do so because he had never beheld the Son of the Sky, and the executioner was obliged to sever his head. Indifferently, their eyes saw black hair and black dances and complex masks of gold: reality and dreams became confused, or rather reality was one configuration of dreams. It seemed the world could not possibly be anything but gardens, ponds, and splendid shapes and buildings. Every hundred paces a tower pierced the air; in their eyes, they were all the same color, and yet the first one was yellow and the last one scarlet, so fine were the gradations and so long the sequence.
      At the foot of the next to last tower the poet, who had seemed removed from the extraordinary sights that so astounded the others, recited the short poem that we now link indissolubly to his name–the composition that, according to the most discriminating historians, brought him immortality and death. The text has been lost. Some say it consisted of a single line of verse; others, of a single word. What is certain, incredibly, is that within the poem was the entire, enormous palace, in every detail–every piece of fine porcelain and every design on every piece, all the shadows and lights of twilight, each and every moment–happy or unhappy–lived by each dynasty of mortals, gods, and dragons that had dwelt there since the farthest reaches of the past. Everyone fell silent, and the Emperor exclaimed: "You have taken away my palace!" The executioner's iron sword terminated the poet's life.
      Others tell the story differently. There cannot be two identical things in the world: as soon as the poet recited the poem (they tell us), the palace disappeared as if blasted and swept away by the final syllable. Of course, legends like this are mere fiction. The poet was the Emperor's slave and died accordingly. His poem fell into oblivion because that was what it deserved. His descendants are still searching for the word that is the world, but they will not find it.


                                                                  Spanish; trans. Kenneth Krabbenhoft


Jorge Luis Borges, Spanish, trans. Kenneth Krabbenhoft, Selected Poems, ed. Alexander Coleman, Viking Penguin, 1999..