The South (short story)

Last updated

"The South" (original Spanish title: "El Sur") is a short story by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, first published in La Nación in 1953 and later in the second edition (1956) of Ficciones , part two (Artifices).


Plot summary

"The South"
by Jorge Luis Borges
Original titleEl Sur
TranslatorAnthony Bonner
Country Argentina
Language Spanish
Published in Ficciones (2nd ed)
Media typePrint
Publication date1953
Published in English1962

Juan Dahlmann is an obscure secretary in an Argentine library. Although of German descent, he is proud of his criollo maternal ancestors: his military grandfather had died fighting the aboriginals in the wild Pampas "pierced by the Indians of Catriel", a romantic end that he enjoys thinking about. He has a number of family heirlooms: an old sword, a lithograph photo, and a small estate in southern Argentina he has never found time to visit.

In February 1939, he obtains a copy of Weil's Arabian Nights. He takes the book home, and—eager to examine it— he rushes up the stairs to his flat while reading it, slashing his head accidentally with the sharp edge of a window frame left open. The wound on his scalp keeps Dahlmann bedridden at home with a very high fever. After a few (yet for him seemingly endless) days of perplexing and horrifying discomfort, he is moved to a clinic, where the treatment for his injury, instead of helping, causes him greater suffering. Rendered semi-delirious and confined in an anonymous room, he feels humiliation and self-hatred, as though he were in hell.

"The South" denoument is set on the endless plains of the Argentine Pampas, traditional home of the Gauchos, which extend almost 1000 km South of Buenos Aires (also West and North) It was also associated with the wilder working class suburbs at the Southern edge of city, already increasingly decaying and abandoned at the time of writing La Pampa - Alfredo Ebelot.pdf
"The South" denoument is set on the endless plains of the Argentine Pampas, traditional home of the Gauchos, which extend almost 1000 km South of Buenos Aires (also West and North) It was also associated with the wilder working class suburbs at the Southern edge of city, already increasingly decaying and abandoned at the time of writing

After days of painful treatment in the hospital, he is suddenly told that he is completely recovered, having survived sepsis. Discharged from the hospital, Juan Dahlmann sets off to his estate in the South to convalesce. Riding a taxi at dawn to the train station, Dahlmann regards the awakening city sights with great joy, enjoying them as if for the first time. Having to wait for his departure, he decides to have a bite at a famous cafe near the station where a cat lends itself to the patrons' caresses. Dahlmann reflects amusingly on the creature's seemingly inhabiting an eternal present dissociated from human time.

Dahlmann boards the train and rides out of the city into the plains of the South. He begins to read Arabian Nights but then closes the book because he is fascinated by the scenery. The train conductor enters his compartment and notifies him that the train will not be stopping at his destination so he will have to alight at a previous station. On the deserted station, Dahlmann steps off into nearly empty fields. He makes his way through the darkened roads to the only watering hole (a typical almacén de campo ) outside of which he notices Gaucho's horses. He sits down, orders food, and begins to read Arabian Nights.

Three peones (farm hands) sitting at a table nearby throw a bread crumb at him, which he ignores, prompting them to recommence their bullying. Dahlmann stands up in order to exit the establishment. The shopkeeper (calling him by name) tells Dahlmann to pay them no heed, saying they are drunk. This prompts Dahlmann to do the opposite; he turns and faces the three locals. One of the thugs or compadritos brandishes a knife. The alarmed shopkeeper reminds Dahlmann that he does not even have a weapon. At this point, an old man in the corner, a gaucho (a figure who, to Dahlmann as to most Argentines represents the essence of the South and the country's romanticized past) throws a dagger at Dahlmann's feet. As he picks up the blade, Dahlmann realizes that this means he will have to fight, and that he is doomed; he has never wielded a knife in his life and is sure to die in the encounter. However, he feels that his death in a knife fight is honorable, that it is the one he would have chosen when he was sick in the hospital, and he decides to have a go.

The narrative switches from past to present tense in the story's final sentence, as Dahlmann and the thugs exit the bar and walk into the endless plain for their confrontation.

Alternative interpretation

It warrants noting that, in the Prologue for '’Artifices", Borges explicitly acknowledges an alternative interpretation of the narrative, while refraining from giving any details or hints with respect to its nature. He writes:

"Of 'The South', which is perhaps my best story, let it suffice for me to suggest that it can be read as a direct narrative of novelistic events, and also in another way."

With this in mind, one may well reinterpret the story such that everything after Dahlmann's darkest moments in the hospital is a narration of his idealized death—the one Juan Dahlmann fabricates and enacts in his feverish mind while on the verge of a pathetic demise in the hospital he has never really left. He imagines the journey South in order to regain a measure of honor, self-respect, and transcendence in his last moments of consciousness.



In 1990, Carlos Saura wrote and directed a 55-minute television movie based on El Sur entitled Los Cuentos De Borges: El Sur (English: The Borges Tales: The South). Saura's film takes place in more modern times (1990), and Saura also attempts to strengthen autobiographical themes found in the original story. [2]

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, as well as a key figure in Spanish-language and international literature. His best-known books, Ficciones (Fictions) and El Aleph, published in the 1940s, are collections of short stories exploring themes of dreams, labyrinths, chance, infinity, archives, mirrors, fictional writers and mythology. Borges' works have contributed to philosophical literature and the fantasy genre, and majorly influenced the magic realist movement in 20th century Latin American literature.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Adolfo Bioy Casares</span> Argentine novelist (1914–1999)

Adolfo Bioy Casares was an Argentine fiction writer, journalist, diarist, and translator. He was a friend and frequent collaborator with his fellow countryman Jorge Luis Borges. He is the author of the Fantastique novel The Invention of Morel.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Julio Cortázar</span> Argentine writer (1914–1984)

Julio Florencio Cortázar was an Argentine, nationalized French novelist, short story writer, essayist, and translator. Known as one of the founders of the Latin American Boom, Cortázar influenced an entire generation of Spanish-speaking readers and writers in America and Europe.

<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.

<i>Borges on Martín Fierro</i>

Borges on Martín Fierro concerns Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges's comments on José Hernández's nineteenth century poem Martín Fierro. Like most of his compatriots, Borges was a great admirer of this work, which he often characterized as the one clearly great work in Argentine literature. Because Martín Fierro has been widely considered the fountainhead or pinnacle of Argentine literature, Argentina's Don Quixote or Divine Comedy, and because Borges was certainly Argentina's greatest twentieth-century writer, Borges's 1953 book of essays about the poem and its critical and popular reception - El "Martín Fierro" - gives insight into Borges's identity as an Argentine.

<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.

<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).

Sur or SUR or El Sur may refer to:

New Arabian Nights by Robert Louis Stevenson, first published in 1882, is a collection of short stories previously published in magazines between 1877 and 1880. The collection contains Stevenson's first published fiction, and a few of the stories are considered by some critics to be his best work, as well as pioneering works in the English-language short story tradition.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ricardo Güiraldes</span> Argentine novelist and poet

Ricardo Güiraldes was an Argentine novelist and poet, one of the most significant Argentine writers of his era, particularly known for his 1926 novel Don Segundo Sombra, set amongst the gauchos.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gerardo Romano</span> Argentine actor

Gerardo Romano is an Argentine actor who has made some 45 appearances in mainstream film and television in Argentina since 1979. He is widely regarded as one of Argentina's leading actors.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Edgardo Cozarinsky</span>

Edgardo Cozarinsky is a writer and filmmaker. He is best known for his Spanish-language novel Vudú urbano.

"The Sect of the Phoenix" is a short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, first published in Sur in 1952. It was included in the 1956 edition of Ficciones, part two (Artifices). The title has also been translated as "The Cult of the Phoenix."

"The Dead Man" is a short story by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. It was first published in the magazine Sur (#145) in November 1946 and appears in the 1949 short story collection The Aleph.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jorge Marrale</span> Argentine actor

Jorge Marrale is an Argentine actor.

<i>The Book of Sand</i> (short story collection) 1975 book by Jorge Luis Borges

The Book of Sand is a 1975 short story collection by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. In the author's opinion, the collection, written in his last days — and while blind — is his best book. This opinion is not shared by most critics, many of whom prefer his other works such as those in Ficciones (1944).

El Sur (1990) is a TV movie written and directed by Carlos Saura and is a chapter in the Spanish TV series Los Cuentos de Borges. Saura's 55-minute film is based on the short story El Sur by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges.

<i>The Insufferable Gaucho</i>

The Insufferable Gaucho is a collection of five short stories and two essays by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño (1953–2003). It was published in English in 2010, translated by Chris Andrews. During his lifetime, Bolaño made his name as a writer of short stories, and The Insufferable Gaucho collects a disparate variety of work. From its comical title story to the Kafkaesque "Police Rat", the book's wide spectrum of storytelling techniques "makes an ideal introduction to the Bolaño imaginaire."

Jorge B. Rivera (1935–2004) was an Argentine poet, essayist, critic, journalist and researcher on issues of history and popular culture. He was born in Buenos Aires in 1935 and died on August 27, 2004. He is considered a pioneer in research in mass communication in Argentina.

<i>Historia de la eternidad</i>

Historia de la eternidad is the first essay book published by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, in 1936.


  1. "The Insufferable Gaucho".
  2. Elley, Derek. "El Sur", Variety (magazine) , New York City, 2 December 1992. Posted on 1992-12-01.