Death and the Compass by Jorge Luis Borges
In Death and the Compass by Jorge Luis Borges we have the theme of revenge, murder, mystery and deception. Taken from his Collected Fictions collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Borges is writing a mystery. One in whereby the police may not necessarily be seen in a positive light. This may be deliberate as Borges could be suggesting that those in authority may not necessary be omnipotent. The real genius in the story is in fact the criminal Red Scharlach. It is by leading Lönnrot to his death and completing his puzzle that the reader sense that Scharlach has been one step ahead of everybody else at all times. He is also not to be found guilty of any of the murders and may in fact have committed the perfect crimes by using religious scripture as a backdrop to his crimes. The colour red also plays some significance in the story. Not only is Red Scharlach’s first name but the name Scharlach is also German for scarlet (red). Red is also a colour of passion and Scharlach is passionate about getting revenge on Lönnrot for imprisoning his brother. Regardless of who might get in his way.
The story also reads like one is following a labyrinth. There is no simple A to B route to be taken. At least not till Lönnrot figures out the map. As to why Scharlach makes things so complicated for the police and others is difficult to say. Obviously he doesn’t want to get caught but he may also be trying to highlight his own ingenuity and to harvest personal satisfaction in killing Lönnrot in the most complicated way possible. Leading him to his own death so that he does not have to burden himself with trying to find Lönnrot. Though it is clear to the reader that Scharlach could have easily killed Lönnrot in a simpler manner. It may also be a case that Borges is suggesting that just as Scharlach has created a labyrinth. Life itself is also like a labyrinth or maze. Nobody really knows the direction that they are going as a lot of a people’s desires or hopes are out of their control. One may have to reach C first before they can get to B or A.
The number four plays an important part in the story. There are four people killed. There are four letters in the unspeakable name of God (JHVH). The four locations of the murders that have been committed mark out a perfect rhombus. All the murders occurred on the 4thday of the month according to the Jewish calendar and Scharlach’s brother was held and died in a quadrilateral jail. Though Scharlach himself was not Jewish by using the number four and the Jewish references he threw the police off his scent. The police were looking for a scholar of Judaism. Something that Scharlach wasn’t. Though he did everything in his power to ensure others where fooled. This in itself may be important as it highlights to the reader the degree of deception that Scharlach was prepared to go through in order to commit his crimes. If there is one downfall for Lönnrot (apart from dying) it is the fact that he over-analyses everything. Something which suits Scharlach. Scharlach knows that Lönnrot will solve the puzzle before the police and as such will come alone to his own death. Making things that much easier for Scharlach.
In reality life would have been simpler for Lönnrot if he had not followed the path that he did. He could and did never expect the final victim to be himself and that the plot for all the murders would eventually lead to his own death. Neither would Lönnrot have suspected that he was the main target. The killing of the Rabbi after all had been an accident though it also served to be the impetus for Scharlach’s plans. Scharlach took the Rabbi’s own words written down on the typewriter and managed to create a complicated plan that was known to no one but Scharlach himself. It is only after reading the story that the reader realises just how devious Scharlach has been in order to exact revenge against Lönnrot. Nobody was to stand in Scharlach’s way when it came to executing the plan. Which leaves the reader to wonder just what Scharlach may be capable off. Revenge for his brother’s death may have been the initial trigger but the fact that Scharlach has also gotten away with killing Lönnrot leaves the reader wondering who may be next. Scharlach is not only a dangerous and cunning criminal but he does not appear to have any peers. With Lönnrot dead and the police being ineffectual. Scharlach can do what he wants to do.