By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Immortal’ is one of Jorge Luis Borges’ best-known and most widely studied short stories. Published in his collection The Aleph in 1949, ‘The Immortal’ takes the form of a ‘found’ manuscript purporting to be written by a Roman soldier who, nearly two thousand years ago, discovered a river which bestowed immortality upon any who drank from it.
Before we offer an analysis of this intriguing story, it might be worth recapping the plot. The story is divided into five sections.
‘The Immortal’: plot summary
The story begins in London in 1929, with a rare book dealer named Joseph Cartaphilus selling a princess an edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad (published 1715-20). In the last of the volumes, the princess discovered the manuscript which forms the main part of ‘The Immortal’.
A Roman soldier named Marcus Flaminius Rufus, alive during the reign of the emperor Diocletian, tells his story. One night, while in a garden in Thebes, Egypt, Rufus is approached by a dying man who tells him of a river which can bestow immortality on anyone who drinks from its waters. On the far shore of the river, he tells Rufus, is the City of the Immortals. Rufus is given two hundred soldiers and allowed to go in search of this river.
The journey is a harsh and challenging one, and many soldiers desert; hearing rumours that some of the remaining soldiers plan to mutiny, Rufus makes his escape. He wanders for several days in the desert, seeking water, before falling unconscious.
Rufus wakes from a nightmare to find his hands bound behind his back. Someone has placed him in a small stone niche on the side of a mountain. He is beset by thirst, and can see an impure stream at the bottom of the mountain. He jumps down to it and drinks from it before losing consciousness. Some days pass, and he manages to sever his bonds with a sharp stone.
The Troglodytes, cave-dwelling people who inhabit the Persian Gulf, were presumably responsible for tying him up, but appear indifferent to whether he lives or dies. He makes his escape at sunset, without realising, until he arrives at the City of the Immortals, that one of the Troglodytes has followed him.
The City of the Immortals turns out to be a vast labyrinth of cellars and forking subterranean corridors. It takes Rufus some time to climb up and out of this underground maze and into the City above. He finds himself in a beautiful palace which he is convinced the gods must have built. However, when he realises the building has no purpose and makes no sense, he becomes horrified and appalled by it, preferring the underground maze. He flees from the City, making his way back through the labyrinth.
He finds the Troglodyte who followed him to the City waiting outside, and observes him writing strange symbols. The man puts him in mind of a dog following its master, so he names him Argos, after Odysseus’ dog in Homer’s Odyssey. and decides to teach him to speak, but it proves difficult. Argos soon reveals that he is actually Homer, and he cannot remember the Odyssey well because it is over eleven hundred years since he wrote the poem.
Rufus then learns everything: that the Troglodytes are the Immortals and that they had destroyed the original City of the Immortals. Homer had suggested they build an incoherent labyrinthine structure where the City had once stood; Rufus recalls that, after he had written his Iliad, Homer was said to have written a parody of the Trojan War story, featuring a battle between frogs and mice (you can read this poem here). He had created the Cosmos and then, Chaos. The new City represents Chaos.
Rufus spends the next few centuries of his immortal life with the Immortals, who devote their time to thinking. Rufus himself engages philosophically with the question of immortality and the new meaning it gives to existence. But when, in the tenth century, the Immortals learn of a river with the powers to remove immortality, they all go their separate ways in search of this river.
Rufus wanders through new countries, fighting at Stamford Bridge in England in 1066 (though he can no longer remember which side he fought on) and, in Aberdeen in 1714, subscribing to Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad, completed in 1720. In 1921, the ship he is travelling on runs aground on the coast of Eritrea, and, spotting a spring, Rufus drinks from it. Shortly after this, he grazes his arm on a thorn, and realises he has found the spring of which the Immortals heard tell, and he is no longer immortal.
As he reads back over his account of his experiences, Rufus realises that he has introduced a certain ‘falseness’ into his narrative, because he has been influenced by the poets he has known, including Homer. He has borrowed details from Homer’s work and incorporated them into his own story.
The story concludes with a postscript which reflects on Rufus’ manuscript, referring to (fictional) commentary on the text which identifies allusions to other works of literature, ancient and modern, in Rufus’ narrative. It is then revealed that Cartaphilus, the book dealer mentioned at the start of ‘The Immortal’, was Rufus, under the name he adopted in the twentieth century before he died.
‘The Immortal’: analysis
‘The Immortal’ is a richly layered story which explores the theme of immortality on a number of different levels. And it is literally ‘layered’ in that it has a series of different yet related narrators. Rufus is the main narrator, except we would do well to remember that Borges (or the ‘editor’ figure who begins the story, contextualising the manuscript which follows and is reproduced ‘verbatim’) begins the story, before this editorial note gives way to Rufus’ narrative.
But Rufus’ narrative is itself, as he admits towards the end of his manuscript, a composite of his own voice and Homer’s, while ‘Rufus’ at some point during his long life becomes Joseph Cartaphilus, his twentieth-century incarnation, before the narrative baton is passed back to Borges/the editor, who concludes the narrative. ‘The Immortal’ seems concerned, among other things, with the immortality of narrative voices, of writers, of the voices of the dead.
But at a textual level, too, ‘The Immortal’ suggests that fundamental plot structures repeat themselves in very different narratives: so Homer’s story of Odysseus’ wanderings are similar to Sindbad’s voyages, and both share some qualities with Rufus/Cartaphilus’ own narrative. Indeed, Rufus himself notes the similarity between Sindbad and Odysseus (or ‘Ulysses’) at the end of ‘The Immortal’.
As is the case in other Jorge Luis Borges stories, the literary works referred to in ‘The Immortal’ possess significance for Borges’ story, and this includes his allusions to the One Thousand and One Nights. So when Rufus tells us that he transcribed the stories of Sindbad the Sailor and the City of Brass, from the Arabian Nights cycle of stories, he is pointing to two notable precursors to ‘The Immortal’ itself, much as Homer’s Odyssey foreshadows Rufus’ wanderings and adventures.
The story of the City of Brass is especially interesting when analysed in relation to ‘The Immortal’, since it’s a tale about a ghost town, a city that is no more, much as the City of the Immortals in Borges’ story has been destroyed and replaced by a deserted labyrinthine structure. As with Odysseus becoming Sindbad and both being avatars of Rufus himself, so the City of Brass is another version of the City of the Immortals.
The idea of immortality, not necessarily at the level of the individual but at the level of the idea or the collective, is something Borges explores in a number of other stories. In ‘The Sect of the Phoenix’, the ‘secret’ which the sect keeps alive from one generation to the next is not named, but given the properties of regeneration encoded in the myth of the phoenix, the answer may be life itself: the gift of creating new life and siring the next generation.
Similarly, in ‘The Circular Ruins’, one of Borges’ most satisfyingly symbolic stories, the protagonist, a magician, dreams the next man into life, much as he, in turn, was dreamed into life by a previous magician. Both physical life and artistic or literary life is a process of regeneration, with things being made different and yet remaining fundamentally the same.