By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Secret Miracle’ (1943) is a short story by a modern master of the form, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). It tells of a man living in Nazi-occupied Prague who is sentenced to be killed by firing squad. The man, a playwright, prays for a year’s stay of execution to be granted so he can complete the play he is working on.
You can read ‘The Secret Miracle’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘The Secret Miracle’: plot summary
Jaromir Hladik is a forty-year-old Czech man living in Prague when the Nazis march into the city. He is a playwright who has publicly signed a condemnation of the German Anschluss or annexation of Austria. He is also a Jew on his mother’s side. For these reasons, he is arrested by the Nazis and condemned to death by firing squad.
In the weeks leading up to his execution, Hladik imagines what his death will be like, over and over again. The night before he is due to be shot, he tries to finish his verse drama, The Enemies, but he knows he doesn’t have enough time to do so. He prays to God to be allowed to finish his play, which he believes will be his definitive work, before he dies.
His play, set in the nineteenth century in the library of Baron Roemerstadt, begins as a sort of pastiche of Ibsenesque naturalism, but as the action unfolds, it becomes more and more bizarre, until it turns out that the Baron doesn’t exist at all, but is the invention of a madman named Jaroslav Kubin, whose circular, psychotic imaginings or hallucinations form the ‘action’ of the play.
That night, Hladik dreams that he is in a library and he tells the librarian he is looking for God. The librarian tells him that God is found in one single letter on one of the pages of the four hundred thousand books in the library, and that he, the librarian, has made himself blind trying to locate it.
Then a man comes in and places an atlas into Hladik’s hands. Opening it at random, he touches a map of India and immediately a voice speaks to him, telling him that the time of his labour has been granted.
Then he wakes up, and is taken to the point where he will face the firing squad. But at the moment when the soldiers raise their guns to shoot, time appears to stand still. Hladik slowly realises that he has been granted his wish: a year in which to finish his play. But he cannot move: he, and the world around him, are physically frozen and suspended for a year.
He realises this is the ‘secret miracle’: God has granted him his wish, and he has a year to finish his masterpiece, but he can never write it down, since he is physically immobile and will die once the year is up and the world resumes its activity. Sure enough, he spends the next year ‘rewriting’ his play in his head, until the year is up and he is shot dead.
‘The Secret Miracle’: analysis
‘The Secret Miracle’ is, along with his masterly (and very funny) story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, probably Borges’ most consummate commentary on the life of the writer.
Whereas in that other story, Menard makes it his life’s mission to write Cervantes’ Don Quixote word for word as if Cervantes had never written a word of it, in ‘The Secret Miracle’ Hladik realises he has been granted a year before he dies to ‘write’ his original masterpiece, but that nobody else will ever read it.
This might have made for a tragic ending, but instead it is more a tragicomedy: the word which the narrator applies to Hladik’s own play in the story. Hladik is working on his play, it turns out, not for posterity’s sake, but for himself, and having a year to concentrate his mind entirely on his life’s work is exactly what he has desired all this time. He can die happy, in one sense, having achieved what he wanted to achieve as an artist.
We might compare ‘The Secret Miracle’ with a story by the American author Ambrose Bierce, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ (1890), in which a man is about to be hanged during the American Civil War.
Bierce gives us a lengthy description of the moment of the hanging, succeeded by an almost dreamlike sequence in which Farquhar appears to drop below the water, almost drown, and then emerge from the water and make his escape.
Everything in nature, from the leaves on the trees to the spiders crawling over them, seems to be alive in a new way, and Farquhar’s ears are attuned to sounds he had never heard before. He makes his way home and is reunited with his family.
But this was all nothing more than a fantasy on his part: the very last paragraph of the story informs us that the rope didn’t break, and Farquhar has, in fact, died.
Borges was one of the most literate writers of the twentieth century, and it’s infinitely possible that he was acquainted with Bierce’s oft-anthologised story. But what is striking about ‘The Secret Miracle’ is how, despite the superficial similarity in the story’s endings, they face in two opposite directions.
Bierce deliberately teases his readers with the possibility that Farquar has, in fact, cheated the hangman and escaped death; in Borges’ story, we know that Hladik hasn’t, and that he has been given a stay of execution, nothing more. Indeed, the suspension of time for him and him alone only makes his eventual death even more inevitable.
We are all living under a death sentence of some kind, since none of us can cheat death and no one can live forever. Eventually, one day, death will come to us all.
And although we might view God’s granting of Hladik’s wish as a variation on the ‘careful what you wish for’ trope, whereby a wish, when granted, always carries a ‘catch’ or a cost, or else turns out not to be all the wisher believed it would be, an alternative approach is to see this ‘secret miracle’ as the consummate opportunity for Hladik to complete his play the way it deserves to be completed: in complete isolation, stripped of any need to worry about what readers or audiences or critics will say about it.
Hladik has spent forty years hoping that people would ‘measure him by what he envisioned or planned’ rather than what he had actually written or published. It takes his imminent death to concentrate his mind enough to finish The Enemies. In the last analysis, ‘The Secret Miracle’ can be interpreted as a story which encourages us to question who the writer is really writing for (himself, his readers, posterity, God?) and whether, if a masterpiece is produced and there’s nobody but the author to read it, does that really matter?