This short story is certainly captivating, although for the most part of the first 3 pages I was really trying my best to get a bearing over the situation as it unfolded.
The very first paragraph is a short preamble to kind of straighten things out where I understand that Dr. Yu Tsun is writing the statement that is to follow. And then I am told that the first two pages of this are missing. Thrown into the deep blue. I encounter with much intrigue a multitude of facts and clues to find out gradually what this story is about. I learn that it is about espionage, about Dr. Yu trying to evade the capture of Capt. Richard Madden until he could accomplish the mission of informing Germany of an eminent attack on the city of Albert. We are also told that Dr. Yu already knows that he will die at the end of this story. So there is already these sort of framework and foretelling where the narrative has set expectations for the reader or even rules for itself.
Yet there are many sort of ‘dualities’ in the story. So all these events, characters are both this and that at the same time and there are then these many possibilities that the story could have gone. Yu Tsun appreciates Albert’s respect for his ancestor’s literature and yet he has to kill Albert. Yu Tsun and Albert are both friends and non-friends.Capt. Madden has won the battle because he manages to apprehend Yu Tsun. However Yu Tsun has won the battle too, as he manages to alert Germany with Albert’s death published in the British Newspapers. Yu Tsun was both a spy working for Germany and determined to carry out the mission yet he is not truly loyal.
Yu Tsun mentioned that he took ten minutes to plan this elaborate scheme. Yet how much of this story could he have foretold at that point in time? There is a lot of descriptive detail going on and for the most part rather mundane and unimportant to the events of the story. Like what was in Yu Tsun’s inventory, how much cash he had left or the people he happened to see at the train station. So I really get the feeling like all these thoughts are still rather floaty and Dr. Yu is really trying to recall the events transpired here. Coupled with that are his imaginative spells. I am both following along and getting lost in his stream of consciousness. This is the charming thing about the story that kind of intriguing haziness yet there is still a logic to it.
Also parallel to that story is the myth of Dr. Yu’s great grandfather Ts’ui Pen. Dr. Yu and Albert discuss about the conceptualization and interpretation of Ts’ui Pen’s literary labyrinth. Center to the narrative is this ideal maze of character, events, concepts and narratives that are explained to be a writing about time not space. This is contrasted with two non-fictitious great works of literature – 红楼梦 and 1001 Arabian Nights. These 2 works although vast in their amassing of narrative are not infinite and all-encompassing. However Ts’ui Pen’s work is a true work of the labyrinth of narrative and time – “various future times but not to all”. Simultaneous outcomes, solutions, points of departure for the continuation and discontinuation of the narrative, a network of dominoes if you will. And I found that that was the true mystery of the short story. Can something like that even be written?
The Garden of Forking Paths (1941) by Jorge Louis Borges is a great read and it kind of attempts to write with much efficiency a taste of that sort of complex, conflated narrative like the ideal literary labyrinth of Ts’ui Pen’s. This is a great challenge to the traditional linear literary structures and I would say that The Garden of Forking Paths is a very conceptual piece that has and will continue to inspire many to the possibilities it has open and invites.