What Jorge Luis Borges’s “Undr” tells us about Life and Art
In visiting Barcelona for the first time, my wife, my daughter and I went to the parade for the Día de los Reyes Magos. I used to find parades rather boring, but things change when you go with a three-year-old. To see her joy at the bright lights and loud music and spectacle was, in a word, una maravilla, a marvel. Her excitement spilled into my heart, as if I could feel what she felt. Never had a parade been filled with so much life and meaning, and all because of her.
After the parade, we walked through the night back to our hotel and I reflected on the magic I’d experienced. These moments are increasingly rare; what’s more common is a world of mediation, simulation, and detachment from the maravilla. We no longer go to concerts for the concert itself but to film it, or post about it behind layers of simulated reality. We pass anonymous strangers in the street with our heads down, scrolling through statements of other strangers, burning in anonymous rage. We no longer look out the window of a train and listen to the rhythm of the tracks or watch the impressionist blur of browns and greens — we close our eyes and plug in our earphones to listen to Joe Rogan or Professor Lex.
Like many things in our contemporary world, Jorge Luis Borges anticipated this problem, in particular in his short story Undr. While most authors invite readers to escape the world, Borges forces the reader to become more aware of it, beginning with awareness of their separation from the story’s, and ultimately the world’s, fictionality. The story begins with the narrator-translator declaring that the original story, which he has set out to translate, cannot be found, and his translation is not quite a translation: “I must inform the reader that the pages I translate and publish here will be sought in vain.” The reader has to “judge these pages as he may. My translation is not literal but is worthy of faith.”
From the beginning the reader is separated from both the original text and the translation to act as an objective judge, distanced from fiction. These distancing layers then multiply within the translation as the original author of the (vainly sought) original text, Adam of Bremen (a real person), records his encounter with Ulf Sigurdarson, a fictional character. The two meet due to their common interest in the mysterious (fictional) Urno people of Scandinavia and their strange metaphysical poetry “which consisted of only one Word.” One is dealing with a mysterious Word, in a foreign language and a foreign land, as described by a fictional character to a real person, now presented by an Argentinian writer. These series of layers serve as a reminder to readers that the stories we take for granted are much more constructed than they seem.
The layers then recede back into the fiction as Ulf begins his quest in search of the one poetic Word. A poet himself, Ulf performs an original epic poem detailing “victories, fame and mercy” before the Urno king. When he finishes, a court artist takes up a harp and begins to perform, singing “very softly the Word.” But Ulf cannot hear, let alone understand, the Word. The Word escapes him because, as we later discover, he has yet to pay the price of understanding. Though Ulf had read stories or heard poetry that spoke of the Word, he still couldn’t understand it when heard in reality.
We learn that the law of the Urno demands the death of any foreigner who hears the Word. Ulf’s execution is set beyond his awareness as a secondary character, Bjarni Thorkelsson, also a poet, intercedes to save him. Bjarni warns Ulf of the danger and tells him the beauty of the poem that he heard Ulf perform for the king has moved him to save his life. “I remember hearing those figures from the father of my father. You and I are poets; I will save you. Now we don’t define every thing or event that lights fire to our song; we encode it in a single Word which is the Word.’” Ulf asks Bjarni to tell him the Word. “[Bjarni] went back and forth for a moment and answered: ‘I have sworn to never reveal it. Besides, no one can teach anyone anything. You must find it on your own.’”
Bjarni stands to Ulf as Borges to the reader: understanding is only available if one embarks on one’s own quest. Neither Bjarni nor Borges can reveal the Word to the reader, because (as we later discover) the Word cannot be transmitted — it must be earned. And if there is nothing to you but digital layers then there is nothing to say. Only those who take risks and make proper sacrifices are capable of hearing the Word; the essence of the Word is in discovery. The Urno law that a foreigner hearing the Word must be executed means that one cannot live by a second-hand Word. This is death; the death that so many of us are living behind our phones, books, and podcasts, from which I was rescued by my daughter.
Bjarni shelters the fugitive Ulf at his own risk and helps him escape the next morning: so begins many difficult years of Ulf’s quest for the Word, contained within one Borgesian paragraph: his experience as a slave, of owning slaves, of fighting wars, of writing epitaphs for buried friends on the shores of the Black Sea, of loving and being loved by a woman who left him, or whom he left, which he says is one and the same thing.
The story concludes when Ulf returns to the land of the Urno looking for Bjarni. After he finds him and recounts his adventures, Bjarni asks, “‘What did the first woman you ever loved give you?’… ‘Everything,’ [Ulf] replied. ‘As for me,’ [Bjarni said] ‘life gave me everything. Life gives everyone everything, but most ignore it. My voice is tired, and my hands are weak, but listen to me.’ He said the Word Undr, which means maravilla.” As Bjarni says it, Ulf recalls and relives the entirety of his life: the men he killed, the cold and the hot, the women he loved, “the aurora on the water.” He’s moved to take the harp and sing for himself, now with a Word of his own. The story ends with Bjarni saying softly: “‘It is well… You have understood me.’”
Only after his quest does Ulf hear and understand the Word, communicated through Bjarni’s Word. The Word was never only a word, but a voice, encapsulating the sum of his life; this is poetry — irreplaceable and accessible only through discovery. Finding his own Word connected him to The Word, and linked him to the entirety of lived experience. For Borges, the journey always leads back to the beginning, back to the reader; in “Undr,” in order to find yourself, you first have to lose yourself. Literature is useful insofar as it leads you to discover the Truth in your own life. But the literary journey is not the journey itself, it is only the beginning of a map. The truth found in living, in loving, and suffering is the maravilla.
I, like Ulf and Bjarni, have experienced a fragment of the everything given by the woman they love. My wife gave me my daughter, who showed me the marvelous in a mundane parade. This personal joy is nowhere to be found in books, blogs, or TikToks, but only in search of the Word. Today we live among, or even are, the dead — people who can’t hear the Word. We must return to the real world and the people in it to hear the Word for ourselves. The further we plunge into fictions, whether digital or literary, the quicker we dissolve into nothing.
But we are much more than nothing. Philosopher and physician Paracelsus wrote that “the world is a book, and we turn its pages with our feet as we walk pilgrimly.” That book is open to any and all, and if one spends enough time wondering in its pages, one might just begin to find the maravilla.