Norman Thomas di Giovanni

The Garden of Branching Paths

To Victoria Ocampo

In his History of the World War (page 252), Liddell Hart writes that an assault on the Serre-Montauban line intended for the twenty-fourth of July, 1916, and consisting of thirteen British divisions supported by fourteen hundred guns, had to be postponed until the morning of the twenty-ninth. The cause of this otherwise inconsequential delay, he goes on, was torrential rain. The following statement, dictated, checked, and signed by Dr Yu Tsun, one-time head of English at the Tsingtao Hochschule, throws new light on the event. The first two pages are missing.


... and replaced the receiver. Immediately afterwards, I realized I knew the voice, which had answered in German. It was that of Captain Richard Madden. Madden speaking from Viktor Runeberg's flat meant the end of all our efforts and - but this seemed, or should have seemed, quite secondary - of our lives as well. It meant that Runeberg had been arrested, or killed.* Before the sun set that day, I would suffer the same fate. Madden was implacable. Or, rather, he felt bound to be implacable. An Irishman in the service of England, a man accused of half-heartedness and even treason, how could he fail to welcome and seize upon such a miraculous gift - the discovery, capture, and perhaps death as well, of two agents of the German Empire?

I went up to my room; absurdly, I locked the door and threw myself down on the narrow iron bedstead. Outside the window were the usual slate roofs and an overcast six o'clock evening sky. It was hard to believe that this unremarkable day, without an omen, without a warning, was to be the day of my inescapable death. Despite my dead father, despite having been a child in one of Hai Feng's symmetrical gardens, was I about to die? I then reflected that everything that happens does so only to oneself and only now. Centuries of centuries pass, but events take place only in the present; countless men are battling in the air, on land, and at sea, yet all that really happens is happening to me.

The almost unbearable memory of Madden's horse-like face put and end to these ramblings. In the depths of my hatred and fear (now that I have outwitted Richard Madden, now that my neck yearns for the noose, I can admit my fear), I realized that this troublesome and doubtless happy warrior had no idea that I possessed the secret - the name of the place on the Ancre where the new British artillery depot was located. A bird streaked across the grey sky, and automatically I converted it into an aeroplane and that aeroplane into many - over France - demolishing the depot with a rain of bombs. If only, before a bullet silenced my mouth, I could shout out the name of that place so that it could be heard in Germany! But a human voice is feeble. How could I make mine reach my commander's ears? The ears of that warped, loathsome man, who knew nothing of Runeberg or me except that we were in Staffordshire but who, in his drab Berlin office, was poring over endless newspapers, vainly awaiting information from us.

'I must get out of here,' I said aloud. Without making a sound, I stood up. It was a pointless perfection of silence, as if Madden were about to pounce. Something - perhaps the simple need to confirm that my resources were nil - made me go through my pockets. I found what I knew would be there. My American watch; a nickel-plated chain and square coin; a key-ring with the useless but compromising keys to Runeberg's flat; my notebook; a letter I decided to destroy at once (and didn't); a crown, two shillings, and a few pence; my blue-and-red pencil; a handkerchief; my revolver with a single bullet. Foolishly, I picked it up and, to bolster my courage, weighed it in my hand. A gunshot can be heard from some distance, I vaguely judged. Ten minutes later, my plan was ripe. The telephone directory gave me the name of the one person who could transmit my message. He lived out in the suburbs, in Fenton, less than half an hour away by train.

I am a coward. I now confess it, now that I have carried out a plan which was nothing if not risky. I know it was a terrible thing to do. I certainly did not do it for Germany. I care nothing for a barbaric country that forced me into the ignominy of spying. What is more, I now know of an Englishman - a modest man - who in my view is Goethe's equal. I only spoke to him for an hour, but for that hour he was Goethe. I did the deed because I felt my commander had little regard for men of my race - for my numerous ancestors, who unite in me. I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies. Meanwhile, I had to get away from Captain Madden. At any moment his hand and his voice could sound at my door. I dressed quietly, bade myself farewell in the mirror, went downstairs, peered along the empty street, and slipped out. The station was only a short distance away, but I thought it best to take a taxi. That way, I told myself, I would run less risk of being spotted. As it was, in the deserted street I felt utterly visible and defenceless. I remember telling the driver to stop just before he reached the entrance. I alighted with deliberate, almost painful, slowness. My destination was the village of Ashgrove, but I bought a ticket for a station farther along the line.

The train was due to leave in a minute or two - at eight fifty. I quickened my step; the next train would arrive at nine-thirty. There was hardly anyone on the platform. Boarding, I made my way along the corridor. I remember some farmworkers, a woman in mourning, a youth engrossed in Tacitus's Annals, a wounded but happy soldier. Finally, we moved off. A man I recognized came dashing, too late, onto the platform. It was Captain Richard Madden. Devastated, trembling, I shrank down in my seat, pulling away from the fearful window.

My devastation changed to a state of almost abject bliss. I told myself that I had already crossed swords and had scored the first hit by eluding, if only for forty minutes, if only by a stroke of luck, my adversary's attack. This small triumph, I argued, foreshadowed total victory. Nor was it such a small triumph, since without the precious advantage afforded me by the train timetable I would be in prison or dead. I argued (no less falsely) that my cowardly joy proved I was a man who could bring the assignment to a successful end. Out of my weakness, I drew a strength that did not let me down. I foresee that man will daily give in to ever more hideous deeds, and that soon there will be no one but warriors and bandits. I give them this advice: To perform a hideous deed, a man must tell himself that he has already done it; he must force upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past. This I did, as my eyes - those of a man already dead - took in the passing of that day and the gathering of the night. The train ran smoothly past a copse of ash trees, coming to a halt in what seemed open countryside. No one called out the name of the station.

'Ashgrove?' I asked some boys outside the window.

'Ashgrove,' they replied.

'I got down. A street lamp lit up the platform, but the boys' faces remained in shadow.

'Are you going to Dr Albert's house?' one of them asked.

Before I could reply, another said, 'It's a good distance from here, but if you take the first road on the left and then left again at each turning, you can't go wrong.'

I tossed them a coin (my last), made my way down some stone steps, and set off along the lonely road. It descended slowly, its surface unmade. Branches met overhead, and a low full moon seemed to keep company with me.

For a moment, I thought that Richard Madden had somehow fathomed my desperate plan, but soon I realized this was impossible. It occurred to me that the advice to keep taking a left turn was the normal way to reach the central point of certain mazes. I know something about labyrinths. Not for nothing am I the great-grandson of the famous Ts'ui Pên, who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced office in order to write a novel that teemed with more characters than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a maze in which all mankind might lose its way. Thirteen years he dedicated to these diverse labours, but a stranger's hand struck him down, and his novel proved meaningless and no one ever found the maze.

Under English trees I contemplated that lost labyrinth, imagining it pristine and inviolate in a mountain fastness. I imagined it obliterated by paddies or under water; I pictured it endless, no longer consisting of octagonal pavilions and of paths that turn back on themselves but of rivers and provinces and kingdoms. I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of a meandering, ever-growing labyrinth that would encompass the past and future and would somehow take in the heavenly bodies. Absorbed in these imaginings, I forgot my predicament as a hunted man. For untold moments, I felt I was a detached observer of the world. The living, twilit fields, the moon, the remains of the evening were playing on me; as was the easy slope of the road, which removed any chance of tiring. The evening was intimate, infinite. The road descended and branched across now shadowy pastures. A high-pitched, almost syllabic music drifted in, blurred by leaves and distance, and then moved off on wafting breezes. I reflected that a man can be an enemy of other men, of other moments of other men, but not of a country - not of fireflies, words, gardens, waterways, sunsets.

I came to a high, rusty gate. Through its bars I made out an avenue and a sort of pavilion. At once, I grasped two things. The first was trivial, the second almost beyond belief. The music came from the pavilion, and the music was Chinese. This was why I had accepted it, without paying it any special heed. I do not remember whether there was a bellpull or a button or whether I called by clapping my hands. The scratchy music went on.

From the inner depths of the house came a light, whose beam the trees intersected and sometimes blotted out. Shaped like a drum, the paper lantern was the colour of the moon. It was carried by a tall man, whose face I could not see, because the light blinded me. Opening the gate, he said slowly, in my language, 'I see that the pious Hsi P'êng feels bound to correct my solitude. You have no doubt come to inspect the garden?'

I recognized the name of one of our consuls and echoed, baffled, 'The garden?'

'The garden of branching paths.'

Something stirred in my memory, and with utter conviction I said, 'The garden of my ancestor Ts'ui Pên.'

'Your ancestor? Your illustrious ancestor? Step inside.'

The damp path zigzagged as in my childhood. We entered a library of Eastern and Western books. I recognized, bound in yellow silk, some manuscript volumes of the Lost Encyclopedia compiled for the Third Emperor of the Luminous Dynasty but never printed. A gramophone record still revolved beside a bronze phoenix. I also remember a famille rose vase and another, many centuries older, in that shade of blue copied by our potters from Persian craftsmen.

Dr Albert watched me, smiling. He was, as I have said, tall, with sharp features, grey eyes, and grey whiskers. There was something of the priest and also the sailor about him. He told me he had been a missionary in Tientsin 'before aspiring to become a Sinologist'.

We sat down - I on a long, low divan, he with his back to the window and to a grandfather clock. I worked out that my pursuer, Richard Madden, would not appear for at least an hour. My irrevocable plan could wait.

'A strange fate, Ts'ui Pên's,' said Stephen Albert. 'Governor of his native province, a learned astronomer and astrologer, a tireless interpreter of the canonical books, a chess player, a famous poet and calligrapher - he gave up everything to write a book and build a maze. He renounced the pleasures of oppression, justice, the plural bed, banquets, and even learning to cloister himself for thirteen years in the Pavilion of Limpid Solitude. Upon his death, his heirs found nothing but a chaos of manuscripts. The family, as you must know, wanted to consign them to the flames, but his executor - a Taoist or Buddhist monk - insisted on their publication.'

'Ts'ui Pên's blood kin still curse that monk,' I replied. 'The publication was pointless. The book is an indecisive pile of contradictory drafts. I have examined it on a couple of occasions. In the third chapter the hero dies, in the fourth he is alive. As for Ts'ui Pên's other enterprise, his labyrinth - '

'Here it is,' Dr Albert said, pointing to a high, lacquered writing cabinet.

'An ivory labyrinth!' I exclaimed. 'A miniature labyrinth.'

'A labyrinth of symbols,' he corrected. 'An invisible labyrinth of time. It has been granted to me, a barbarous Englishman, to unravel this delicate mystery. After more than a hundred years, the details are irrecoverable, but it is not difficult to surmise what took place. Ts'ui Pên may once have said, “I am retiring to write a book.” And on another occasion, “I am retiring to build a maze.” Everyone imagined these to be two works; nobody thought that book and labyrinth were one and the same. The Pavilion of Limpid Solitude stood in the centre of what was perhaps an elaborately laid-out garden. This may have suggested a physical labyrinth. Ts'ui Pên died, and no one in his vast domains ever found the labyrinth. The confusion of the novel suggested to me that it was the labyrinth. Two facts corroborated this. One, the curious story that the maze Ts'ui Pên had planned was specifically infinite. The second, my discovery of a fragment of a letter.'

Albert got up. For several moments he stood with his back to me, opening a drawer of the black-and-gold writing cabinet. He turned and held out a squarish piece of paper that had once been crimson and was now pink and brittle. The script was the renowned calligraphy of Ts'ui Pên himself. Uncomprehending but with deep emotion, I read these words written with a tiny brush by a man of my own blood: 'I leave to various futures (but not all) my garden of branching paths.' In silence, I handed back the page.

'Before unearthing this letter,' Albert went on, 'I wondered how a book could be infinite. I came up with no other conclusion than that it would have to be a cyclical, or circular, volume - one whose last page was the same as its first, and with the potential to go round and round for ever. I recalled the night in the middle of the Thousand and One Nights, in which Queen Scheherazade - having distracted the scribe by a trick of magic - starts to recount the history of the Thousand and One Nights, thereby running the risk of coming back full circle to this same night and continuing forever more. I also imagined an archetypal, hereditary work handed down from father to son, wherein each new heir would add a chapter or, piously, rewrite a page of his forebears. These speculations engaged my mind, but none seemed even remotely relevant to Ts'ui Pên's contradictory chapters. In my perplexity, I received from Oxford the manuscript you have just seen. One sentence caught my attention: “I leave to various futures (but not all) my garden of branching paths.” Almost at once, light dawned. The garden of branching paths was the chaotic novel; the phrase 'to various futures (but not all)' conjured up an image of a branching in time, not in space. A re-reading of the book confirmed this theory. In all works of fiction, each time the writer is confronted with choices, he opts for one and discards the rest. In the inextricable Ts'ui Pên, he opts - at one and the same time - for all the alternatives. By so doing, he creates several futures, several times over, and in turn these proliferate and branch off. Hence, his novel's contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret. A stranger calls at his door; Fang decides to kill him. Naturally, there are several possible outcomes. Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, both can be spared, both can die, and so forth. In Ts'ui Pên's novel, all of these happen, and each is a point of departure for other branchings off. Now and again, the paths of this labyrinth converge. For example, in one possible past you come to this house as an enemy, in another as a friend. If you can bear my incurable pronunciation, we shall read some pages.'

In the bright circle of lamplight, his face was clearly that of an old man, yet with something unconquerable and even immortal about it. Slowly, precisely, he read two forms of the same epic chapter. In the first, an army marches into battle across a bare mountain; dread of the rocks and the darkness makes the troops hold life cheap, and they easily win a victory. In the second, the same army storms a palace, which is in the midst of festivities; the resplendent battle seems to them an extension of the revelry, and they are victorious. I listened with seemly veneration to these old tales, which were perhaps less of a marvel than the fact that my blood had contrived them and that a man from a distant empire had restored them to me while I was engaged in a desperate assignment on an island in the West. I remember the concluding words, repeated at the end of each version like a secret watchword: 'So battled the heroes, their stout hearts calm, their swords violent, each man resigned to kill and to die.'

From that moment, I felt around me and within my dark body an invisible, intangible swarming. Not that of diverging, parallel, and finally converging armies but a more inaccessible, more intimate turmoil, which these armies somehow foreshadowed.

'I do not think your illustrious ancestor toyed idly with different versions,' Stephen Albert went on. 'I do not consider it likely that he would sacrifice thirteen years to the endless compilation of a rhetorical experiment. In your country, the novel is a lesser genre; at that time, it was a genre that was not respected. Ts'ui Pên was a novelist of genius, but he was also a man of letters who certainly did not look on himself as a mere novelist. The testimony of his contemporaries proclaims - and his life confirms - his metaphysical and mystical leanings. Philosophical argument usurps a good part of his novel. I know that of all quandaries, none so troubled or exercised him as the fathomless quandary of time. But, then, time is the only problem that does not appear in the pages of his Garden. He does not even use the word that means “time”. How do you explain this deliberate omission?'

I put forward several suggestions, all inadequate. We discussed them.

'In a riddle about chess,' Stephen Albert concluded, 'what is the one forbidden word?'

I thought for a moment and replied, 'The word “chess”.'

'Exactly,' said Albert. 'The Garden of Branching Paths is a vast riddle, or parable, about time. This is the hidden reason that prevents Ts'ui Pên from using the word. To omit a particular word in all instances, to resort to clumsy metaphors and obvious circumlocutions, is probably the surest way of calling attention to it. This was the convoluted method that the oblique Ts'ui Pên chose in each meandering of his unrelenting novel. I have studied hundreds of manuscripts, I have corrected the mistakes introduced by careless copyists, I have deduced the plan behind that chaos, I have reestablished - I believe I have re-established - its original order, and I have translated the whole work. I can guarantee that he does not use the word “time” even once. The explanation is plain - The Garden of Branching Paths is an incomplete but not false picture of the world as Ts'ui Pên perceived it. Unlike Newton or Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing and dizzying web of diverging and converging and parallel times. This mesh of times that merge, split apart, break, and for centuries are unaware of each other, embraces all possibilities. In most of these times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but not I; in others, I but not you; in still others, both of us. In our present time, granted me by a lucky chance, you have come to my house; in another, on making your way across the garden, you find me dead; in still another, I speak these same words, but I am a delusion, a ghost.'

'In all,' I said, not without a shudder, 'I thank you and honour you for your re-creation of Ts'ui Pên's garden.'

'Not in all,' he murmured, smiling. 'Time keeps branching into countless futures. In one of them, I am your enemy.'

I felt again that swarming of which I have spoken. It seemed to me that the dank garden around the house was utterly saturated with invisible beings. These were Albert and myself, secret and busy and in numberless guises, in other dimensions of time. I lifted my gaze, and the tenuous nightmare fled. In the yellow and black garden, stood one man alone. But the man was strong as a statue, and he was coming towards me down the path. He was Captain Richard Madden.

'The future is already here,' I replied, 'but I'm your friend. May I see the letter again?'

Albert got up. Tall, he opened the drawer of the writing cabinet, and for a moment his back was to me. I had drawn my revolver. I fired with great care; Albert collapsed instantly, without a groan. I swear his death was immediate, a thunderbolt.

The rest is unreal, meaningless. Madden burst in and seized me. I have been condemned to hang. Horrible to say, I won. I passed on to Berlin the secret name of the city to be attacked. Yesterday the Germans shelled it; I read this in the same newspapers that reported to all England the curious case of the learned Sinologist Stephen Albert, who had been murdered by a perfect stranger, one Yu Tsun. My commander solved the riddle. He knew that my dilemma was how - in the noise and confusion of war - to signal the name of the place to be targeted and that the only way I could find was to kill someone named Albert. My superior knows nothing - nor can anyone - of my unceasing remorse and weariness.

* An outrageous and despicable suggestion. The Prussian spy Hans Rabener, alias Viktor Runeberg, drew an automatic pistol on Captain Richard Madden, the bearer of an arrest warrant. In self-defence, Madden inflicted wounds from which Runeberg later died. [Editor's Note.]

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