The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim

Last updated
"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim"
Short story by Jorge Luis Borges
Original titleEl acercamiento a Almotásim
TranslatorAnthony Bonner
Country Argentina
Language Spanish
Genre(s) Metafictional short story
Published in Historia de la eternidad (1936)
Ficciones (1944)
Media typePrint
Publication date1936
Published in English1962

"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" (original Spanish title: "El acercamiento a Almotásim") is a fantasy short story written in 1935 by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. In his autobiographical essay, Borges wrote about "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim", "it now seems to me to foreshadow and even to set the pattern for those tales that were somehow awaiting me, and upon which my reputation as a storyteller was to be based." [1]



Borges in 1976 Jorge Luis Borges.jpg
Borges in 1976

Written in 1935, "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" was first published as an essay in Borges's 1936 philosophical essay collection, A History of Eternity (Historia de la eternidad). It was labeled a short story when it was reprinted in 1942 in Borges's first short fiction collection, The Garden of Forking Paths (El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan), which became a subsection of Ficciones when that was published in 1944. [1]

Borges described his story as "both a hoax and a pseudo-essay." [1] He borrowed from Kipling for some of the plot of the fake book. [1] The supposed publisher of the fictitious book described in the story was an actual publisher, Victor Gollancz, as was the supposed writer of the preface, Dorothy L. Sayers. [1]

Plot summary

The story is a review of The Conversation with the Man Called Al-Mu'tasim: A Game of Shifting Mirrors, the second edition of an earlier work, The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim. Written by Mir Bahadur Ali, an Indian lawyer, and published in 1934, the second edition is described by the narrator as inferior to the first edition, published in 1932.

The reviewer gives a history of the book, first describing the success of the first edition, the publishing of the second edition by a respected publisher in London, and the positive and negative reception given to it by critics. Borges states that though both books have been popular, the first had an original printing of 4,000 copies and was never reprinted, while the second is by far the better known, having been reprinted several times. The second has often been criticized for poor writing and for its obvious allegory to the quest of finding God.

The narrator then summarizes the plot of the novel. The book is a detective story about a freethinking Bombay law student of Islamic background. He becomes involved in a sectarian riot in which he impulsively kills a Hindu, after which he becomes an outcast among the lower classes of India. He flees to a tower where he meets a robber of Parsee corpses collecting gold teeth. He then begins a journey across the subcontinent (the geography of which Borges describes in detail), interacting with untouchables along the way. He meets a man who, though destitute, is happy and spiritual. The student encounters many such people radiating a small amount of this spiritual clarity. From these experiences, he infers the existence of a perfect man, whom he calls Al-Mu'tasim. (Al-Mu'tasim means "he who goes in quest of aid" or "the seeker of shelter".) [2] This perfect man is a higher spiritual being, the source and originator of this pure spiritual clarity. Obsessed with meeting Al-Mu'tasim, the student goes on a pilgrimage through Hindustan to find him. He eventually hears the voice of the Al-Mu'tasim resounding from a hut. He pulls back the curtain and goes in. The book ends at this point. The reviewer then gives his criticisms of the work.

A long footnote at the end of the review summarises The Conference of the Birds (1177) by Farid ud-Din Attar, in which a group of birds seek a feather dropped in the middle of China by Simurgh, the bird king. Thirty birds reach the mountain of Simurgh and there they find through contemplation that they themselves are the Simurgh. [2] (Si murgh means "thirty birds".) [2]


Borges's mixing of the fictional and the real, which Jaime Alazraki calls a "Borgesian device," both imparts a real feeling to the fictional, and an unreal feeling to the real. [2] Also, the use of a summary within a summary, and the taking of those summaries and stripping them down to expose the same principle "are a form of expressing in the structure of the story the pantheistic idea that anything is all things." [2]

Naomi Lindstrom describes the reviewer of the detective story as "a typical Borges narrator". [3] At times he demonstrates great knowledge of detailed information, but at other times he cannot grasp the most basic concepts. His narrative is uncertain and inconstant. His confusion serves to emphasize the incomprehension of the main character of the fictitious book as he goes on his pilgrimage. [3]

Borges's use of an allegory to shed light on a detective story shows his use of religious doctrines for aesthetic value. [2]


In his autobiographical essay, Borges writes that when "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" was first published, the people who read it "took it at face value, and one of my friends even ordered a copy from London." [1]


Psychedelic rock band Blaak Heat named their 2016 album, Shifting Mirrors, after the subtitle of Bahadur's fictional book mentioned in the short story. The album also contains a track named after The Approach To Al-Mu'Tasim.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jorge Luis Borges</span> Argentine writer, essayist, poet and translator (1899–1986)

Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator regarded as a key figure in Spanish-language and international literature. His best-known works, Ficciones and El Aleph, published in the 1940s, are collections of short stories exploring motifs such as dreams, labyrinths, chance, infinity, archives, mirrors, fictional writers and mythology. Borges's works have contributed to philosophical literature and the fantasy genre, and have had a major influence on the magic realist movement in 20th century Latin American literature.

"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is a short story by the 20th-century Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. The story was first published in the Argentinian journal Sur, May 1940. The "postscript" dated 1947 is intended to be anachronistic, set seven years in the future. The first English-language translation of the story was published in 1961.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">The Library of Babel</span> Short story by Jorge Luis Borges

"The Library of Babel" is a short story by Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), conceiving of a universe in the form of a vast library containing all possible 410-page books of a certain format and character set.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Attar of Nishapur</span> Persian Sufi poet

Abū Ḥāmid bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm, better known by his pen-names Farīd ud-Dīn (فریدالدین) and ʿAṭṭār of Nishapur, was an Iranian poet, theoretician of Sufism, and hagiographer from Nishapur who had an immense and lasting influence on Persian poetry and Sufism. He wrote a collection of lyrical poems and number of long poems in the philosophical tradition of Islamic mysticism, as well as a prose work with biographies and sayings of famous Muslim mystics. The Conference of the Birds, The Book of Divine, and Memorial of the Saints are among his best known works.

"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is a short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.

<i>Martín Fierro</i> Argentine epic poem by José Hernández

Martín Fierro, also known as El Gaucho Martín Fierro, is a 2,316-line epic poem by the Argentine writer José Hernández. The poem was originally published in two parts, El Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) and La Vuelta de Martín Fierro (1879). The poem supplied a historical link to the gauchos' contribution to the national development of Argentina, for the gaucho had played a major role in Argentina's independence from Spain.

A fictional book is a text created specifically for a work in an imaginary narrative that is referred to, depicted, or excerpted in a story, book, film, or other fictional work, and which exists only in one or more fictional works. A fictional book may be created to add realism or depth to a larger fictional work. For example, George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four has excerpts from a book by Emmanuel Goldstein entitled The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism which provides background on concepts explored in the novel.

<i>Ficciones</i> Book by Jorge Luis Borges

Ficciones is a collection of short stories by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges, originally written and published in Spanish between 1941 and 1956. Thirteen stories from Ficciones were first published by New Directions in the English-language anthology Labyrinths (1962). In the same year, Grove Press published the entirety of the book in English using the same title as in the original language. "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" originally appeared published in A History of Eternity (1936). Ficciones became Borges's most famous book and made him known worldwide.

<i>Labyrinths</i> (short story collection) 1962 book by Jorge Luis Borges

Labyrinths is a collection of short stories and essays by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. It was translated into English, published soon after Borges won the International Publishers' Prize with Samuel Beckett.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jorge Luis Borges bibliography</span>

This is a bibliography of works by Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet, and translator Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986).

"The Aleph" is a short story by the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. First published in September 1945, it was reprinted in the short story collection, The Aleph and Other Stories, in 1949, and revised by the author in 1974.

"The Secret Miracle" is a short story by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. The story focuses on an author condemned to death. At the moment of his execution, time freezes, allowing him to finish his masterpiece, though only within his own mind.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Philosophy and literature</span> Academic discipline

Philosophy and literature involves the literary treatment of philosophers and philosophical themes, and the philosophical treatment of issues raised by literature.

"The House of Asterion" is a short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The story was first published in 1947 in the literary magazine Los Anales de Buenos Aires and republished in Borges's short story collection The Aleph in 1949. It is based on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur and is told from the perspective of Asterion, the Minotaur.

"An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain" is a 1941 short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. It was included in the anthology Ficciones, part one. The title has also been translated as A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.

"The Congress" is a 1971 short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The story is on an utopic universal congress and is seen by critics as a political essay.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jorge Luis Borges and mathematics</span> Motifs in the works of Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges and mathematics concerns several modern mathematical concepts found in certain essays and short stories of Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), including concepts such as set theory, recursion, chaos theory, and infinite sequences, although Borges' strongest links to mathematics are through Georg Cantor's theory of infinite sets, outlined in "The Doctrine of Cycles". Some of Borges' most popular works such as "The Library of Babel", "The Garden of Forking Paths", "The Aleph", an allusion to Cantor's use of the Hebrew letter aleph to denote cardinality of transfinite sets, and "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" illustrate his use of mathematics.

<i>Both Flesh and Not</i>

Both Flesh and Not: Essays is a collection of fifteen essays by American author David Foster Wallace published posthumously in 2012. It is Wallace's third essay collection.

<i>Historia de la eternidad</i> Book by Jorge Luis Borges

Historia de la eternidad is a book of essays published by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, in 1936.

"Man on Pink Corner" is a short story by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. It is the first of several stories he wrote concerning duels between knife-fighters, which Borges recognized as one of his archetypal themes. "The story is one I have been retelling, with small variations, ever since. It is the tale of the motiveless, or disinterested, duel—of courage for its own sake."


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Alazraki, Jaime (1987). Critical Essays on Jorge Luis Borges. G. K. Hall & Co. p.  43. ISBN   0-8161-8829-7.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Alazraki, Jaime (1971). Jorge Luis Borges. Columbia University Press. pp.  22–23. ISBN   0-231-03283-8.
  3. 1 2 Lindstrom, Naomi (1990). Jorge Luis Borges: A Study of the Short Fiction. G.K. Hall & Co. pp.  18–20, 22. ISBN   0-8057-8327-X.