The South (short story)

"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).

"The South"
AuthorJorge Luis Borges
Original title"El Sur"
TranslatorAnthony Bonner
Published inFicciones (2nd ed)
Media typePrint
Publication date1953
Published in English1962

Plot summary

Juan Dahlmann is an obscure secretary in an Argentine library. Although of German descent, he is proud of his Argentine 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 is fond to consider. He has a number of mementos from his forefather: 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—rushes up the stairs and gashes his forehead against a loose jamb. The wound Dahlmann suffers forces him to lie bedridden with a very high fever. After a few days of perplexing and horrifying discomfort, his doctors move him to the hospital, where instead of improving, the treatment for his injury causes him greater suffering, causing him to feel humiliation and self-hatred, almost as though he were in hell.

(It warrants noting at this point that, in the Prologue for Artifices, Borges explicitly acknowledged the possibility of 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 in such manner that all that follows 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, whilst upon the verge of a pathetic demise in the hospital he never left, in order to regain a measure of honor, self-respect, transcendence in his last moments of consciousness.)

After days in the hospital, he is suddenly told that he is recovering, after almost having died of sepsis. 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. Having to wait 30' for his departure, he decides to have a bite at a famous cafe near the train station. In the locale, he notices a cat, the mythical creature who, in many cultures (for example, Egypt), is associated with eternity and the gods.

After his meal, 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 to enjoy the scenery. The train conductor enters his compartment and notifies him that the train will not be stopping at his destination, but at a previous station. Once the train reaches 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 or rough farm hands sitting at a table nearby throw a bread crumb at him, which he ignores. However, after a short while, they begin again. Dahlmann stands up in order to exit the establishment. The shopkeeper (calling him by name) anxiously asks Dahlmann to pay them no heed, saying they are drunk. This prompts Dahlmann to do the opposite, to face them. One of the thoughts or compadritos brandishes a knife. Seeing the situation getting out of hand, the shopkeeper calls out that Dahlmann does not even have a weapon. At this point, an old man in the corner, a gaucho (which to Dahlmann represents the essence of the South, as well as of the romantic past) throws a dagger to Dahlmann. It lands at his feet. As he picks up the dagger, 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, when Dahlmann and the toughs exit the bar and walk into the endless plain for their confrontation.


  • The events of the story are semi-autobiographical: Borges also worked in a library. At New Year's 1939, Borges suffered a severe head wound and nearly died of blood poisoning.
  • Borges considered "The South" to be "acaso mi mejor cuento", or "perhaps my best story". (Artificios, Prólogo)
  • "The South" inspired and is referenced in the short story "The Insufferable Gaucho"[1] by Roberto Bolaño.
  • The short story is read by Mick Jagger's character in the 1970 film Performance. The movie contains several other allusions to Borges.
  • Spanish film director Carlos Saura wrote and directed the TV movie, El Sur, which was adapted from Borges' short story. Saura's film takes place in more modern times (1990), and Saura also attempts to strengthen autobiographical themes found in the original story.[2]
  • Julio Cortázar's short story La noche boca arriba is a retelling of Borges's short story "The South."


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).


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