The final installment of Historia universal de la infamia (1935;
revised 1974), "El tintorero enmascarado Hakim de Merv" prefigures the
analytical and verisimilar aspects of Ficciones (1944) and later
stories. Borges's fictions, to be sure, often operate like essays, and
his essays can--as this one certainly does--seem too marvelous to be
true*. But those qualities are an effect of the same cause--Borges's
enormously suggestive and elliptical manner of presentation, which shares
with surrealism the ability to create a dreamlike view of the world by a
sort of journalistic precision. Borges achieves this disjuncture in part
by selection--as he notes in the prologue to the first edition of
Historia, one of his methods is that of reducing an entire life to two
or three episodes. Such a procedure implies that both the flavor and the
essence of a person can be honestly captured by emblematic scenes, a
methodology the ancient Romans would have approved.
"El tintorero" begins scholastically, with an enumeration of sources,
one of which--the situation is analogous to that of many Christian
heresies--is an attack on Hakim the prophet's teachings, preserving
through quotation work which is otherwise lost. The final cited source
cannot seem more Borgesian, at least to a reader who comes to Historia
after reading the fiction, though I am assuming its veracity--a cache of
ancient coins accidentally discovered during the construction of a
railway. Next, in a brief survey of the prophet's early life, Borges
explicitly establishes the connection between dyeing, Hakim's
pre-prophetic career, and the falsification and counterfeiting presumably
involved in heresy. Borges enhances this foreshadowing of the climax and
end of the prophet's career by quoting one of Hakim's teachings--that
all color is abhorrent, a peculiar revelation for a dyer, perhaps.
Hakim's change of career is preceded by his death to ordinary life--he
vanishes from Merv, leaving behind the destruction of his dyer's vats and
pots, along with, more curiously, a scimitar and a bronze mirror.
When Hakim reappears, a dozen years later, he comes appropriately enough
out of the wilderness. Beggars, slaves, and butchers, awaiting nightfall
and the first sign of the holy month of Ramadan, catch the initial
glimpse--three figures walking toward the city gates. At they approach,
the townsmen see that the central figure has a bull's head. It was upon
reading this sentence that I first felt the exceptional nature of what
Borges has created. I was ready to accept that this otherwise human
figure was a sort of minotaur. (Having already read "La casa de
Asterion" might have predisposed me.) The following sentence cuts away
the momentary potential for an impossible reality, but does not lessen
the near-dread of it. When the trio comes nearer, the observers readily
see that the bull's head is a mask, but they can also now tell that the
two companions are blind. Why? they want to know. Because, says the
prophet, they have seen my face. If anything, this assertion, taken in
its antique and desert context, is more impelling than the possibility of
the mask's reality, and--wrapped up in Borges's retelling--I missed yet
another "clue" to the prophet's status. But Borges nimbly undercuts even
a more astute reader's need to decipher the clue, the foreshadowing
itself, by Hakim's explanation: his decapitated head, he says, has been
in the presence of God, carried there by the angel Michael, and it
received its prophetic commission directly from God. Now, returned to
its body, it is so dazzling that, like God's own countenance, that mortal
eyes cannot behold it. Not until all mankind accepts Hakim's teaching
will it be safe for him to reveal himself. As expected, the listeners
scoff, only to be convinced a short while later when a leopard appears.
The townsmen flee, leaving the prophet and his servants to whatever fate
awaits him. But when the men return, expecting carnage, instead they
find the expected dead quite alive and the leopard docile and blind.
They become Hakim's disciples, and the prophet, aware of his new status,
replaces the bull's head with the more tolerable white veil.
Soon his success includes the conquest of cities and a harem of 114
blind wives. Delegating the daily operations of his "kingdom," the
prophet devotes himself to meditation. One night, like Francis and
Christ, he meets with, kisses, and gives alms to importunate lepers. So
far Hakim's heterodoxy has not lead him to abandon or denounce Islam.
That moment comes as a result of both his success and the caliph's anger
at that success. Borges describes Hakim's heresy as a blend of Gnostic
strains and originality. The God of this world, for example, is the
lowest of gods, barely divine; the basic virtue, disgust, can be sought
either through abstinence or license; both procreation and mirrors are
abominable because they increase the numbers of this fallen world. Not
unlike other religious beliefs, Hakim's creed is better able to describe
and define Hell than Heaven.
The end, for which Borges has been preparing us, comes quickly. Only
five years into his "reign," Hakim is besieged by armies of the caliph.
While awaiting a legion of angels to rescue them, his followers are
rocked by an accusation from the harem. One of the women, blind but not
insensate, has claimed that the prophet's right hand is missing its ring
finger and that the other fingers are nailless. To most of us, this fact
is not particularly revelatory, but to the peoples of the ancient Middle
East, it is. While Hakim is in public view, praying for victory, two of
his captains abruptly remove his veil and uncover the face which is
virtually not a face, so eaten away and whitened by leprosy as to
resemble a fencing mask.
Now all of Borges's foreshadowing clicks into place: the emphasis on
white, masks and veils, the hatred of mirrors, the apparently saintly
reception of the lepers. The essay is as tightly woven, despite its
occasional appearance of discursiveness, as a locked room mystery. As
Hakim protests his captains' action, crying that the people cannot see
his glory because of their sins, his denunciation is cut short--the
soldiers kill him. The essay and the heresy end.
"El tintorero" is not simply the crown of Historia--it is the doorway
into what was to come only a few years later: the fiction which is one
of the most astringent, evocative, intellectual and awe-inspiring
achievements of twentieth-century literature.
* Note: Andrew Hurley, translator of the recent Collected Fictions,
considers Historia fiction because of Borges's admission that he has
"changed and distorted" the texts of others in writing the essays. But
Borges claims in the same sentence (in the prologue to the 1954 edition)
that the essays are the result of a timidity which did not dare to write
stories of its own. Whether one considers Historia a series of
historical fictions or fictionalized biographical essays, the achievement
remains equally remarkable.