I initially wanted to recommend this on the strength of Borges’ thoughts on immortality. I often find immortals dissatisfying in fiction, rarely coming across as having lived over a hundred years, let alone thousands or more. Borges, with his fascination with infinity, comes to quite a different conclusion on how the genuinely immortal might think:
“Taught by centuries of living, the republic of immortal men had achieved a perfection of tolerance, almost of disdain. They knew that over an infinitely long span of time, all things happen to all men. As reward for his past and future virtues, every man merited every kindness—yet also every betrayal, as reward for his past and future iniquities. Much as the way in games of chance, heads and tails tend to even out, so cleverness and dullness cancel and correct each other […]. Viewed in that way, all our acts are just, though also unimportant. There are no spiritual or intellectual merits.Homer composed the Odyssey; given infinite time, with infinite circumstances and changes, it is impossible that the Odysseyshould notbe composed at least once. No one is someone; a single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world—which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not.”
But what really surprised me when I reread this story was that, unlike some of his other idea-heavy stories, there’s a genuine plot. It stars a Roman who is sent out to find the City of the Immortals, and leads an army through Egypt and beyond. While this part of the story isn’t as gripping, I find it perversely amusing to think of this entire story as H. Rider Haggard’s She filtered through Borges. There’s the quest through Africa, the whittling down of the exploring party, the subhuman race they encounter (here called the Troglodytes), finding an eerie, far-too-old ruined city, even before you get to Borges’ reimagining of the immortal Ayesha concept.
I may be drawing false conclusions here, given the many references and comparisons to the Odyssey in the text itself. But the plot serves to make this one of the most conventional narratives Borges produced, and the build-up of the questing Roman finding the immortals produces a stronger ending than mere musings on immortality might have provided.
The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurle
Availability: print only
Word count: 5,700
First published: Feb 1947
Where to find it: The Aleph and other stories, collection, 2004, Penguin Classics
Collected Fictions, collection, 1999, Penguin Books
Audio book available from Audible.com