The Zahir

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"The Zahir"
Author Jorge Luis Borges
Original title "El Zahir"
Country Argentina Flag of Argentina
Language Spanish
Genre(s) Fantasy, short story
Media type Print
Publication date 1949

The Zahir (original Spanish title: "El Zahir") is a short story by the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. It is one of the stories in the book The Aleph and Other Stories, first published in 1949, and revised by the author in 1974.

[edit] Plot summary

In the story, Zahir is a person or an object that has the power to create an obsession in everyone who sees it, so that the affected person perceives less and less of reality and more and more of the Zahir, at first only while asleep, then at all times.

Borges plays himself in the story as a man who, after paying for a drink, gets the Zahir in his change. At the very beginning of the story Borges describes it: a common twenty-centavo coin, with the year of minting of 1929 and knife marks scratching the letters N T and the figure 2.

Borges then tells the reader about a train of thought focused on famous coins throughout history and legend, and the fact that a coin symbolizes our free will, since it can be turned into anything. These feverish thoughts keep him awake for a while. The next day Borges decides to lose the coin. He goes to a faraway neighborhood in Buenos Aires, while he carefully avoids looking at the street names and numbers, and manages to get rid of the Zahir by paying for another drink in an anonymous bar.

The writer is unable to forget the coin, which fills his dreams and (we are allowed to guess) his waking moments too. In the meantime, he tries to look for a cure to his obsession, and after some research he finds a book that explains his malady. In this book, the Borges character reads that the Zahir (or sometimes Zaheer) is a piece of Islamic folklore that dates back to the 17th century. A Zahir is an object that traps everyone who so much as takes a look at it, even from afar, into an obsession that finally erases the rest of reality. In other times and places, a tiger has been a Zahir, as well as an astrolabe, the bottom of a well, and a vein of marble in a column of a mosque. According to the myth, everything on earth has the propensity to be a Zahir, but "the Almighty does not allow more than one thing at a time to be it, since one alone can seduce multitudes".

Borges tells us that soon he will be unable to perceive external reality, and he will have to be dressed and fed; but then he reflects that this fate does not worry him, since he'll be oblivious to it. In idealistic philosophy, "to live and to dream are synonymous", and he will simply pass "from a very complex dream to a very simple dream". In a mixture of despair and resignation, he wonders:

Others will dream that I am mad, and I [will dream] of the Zahir. When all men on earth think day and night of the Zahir, which one will be a dream and which a reality, the earth or the Zahir?

In Arabic, zahir ( ظاهر ) is an active participle with meanings denoting apparent, visible, obvious, manifest, surface, exoteric, exterior, literal, superficial, etc. Al-Zahir is a name of God, the Manifest, paired with al-Batin, the Concealed.

[edit] Other works of the same title

  • The title of The Zahir (2005) by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho refers to the Borges story. It tells the story of a man who becomes obsessed with his wife, who has disappeared.

[edit] Notes

  • The Zahir is in many ways the opposite of The Aleph, the subject of another Borges short story also published in the same short story collection. Whereas viewing the Aleph causes the observer to see all things, viewing the Zahir causes the observer eventually to see only the Zahir.
  • This is one of many Borges stories that manifests the author's obsession with tigers. (The story mentions a man afflicted by the Zahir who sees only tigers).
  • One interpretation of the story is as a parable about unrequited love. The story is dedicated to Wally Zenner, one of the many women Borges courted unsuccessfully.
  • Borges touches upon the concept of the Zahir in his short story Deutsches Requiem, also published in 1949. In it he wrote, "I had come to understand many years before that there is nothing on earth that does not contain the seed of a possible Hell; a face, a word, a compass, a cigarette advertisement, are capable of driving a person mad if he is unable to forget them."
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