Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Porinsky
True Lies: Metaphysical games in Borges’ “Emma Zunz”
Wisconsin Lutheran College
WELS and ELS
Undergraduate Research Symposium
CHARIS Institute of Wisconsin Lutheran College
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53226
April 27 and 28, 2002
Jorge Luis Borges, literary genius of fiction, poetry, and criticism, is a
mastermind at metaphysical games. In a tape-recorded interview with Robert Alifano in
1981 he makes known that he “discovered the labyrinth in a book published in France by
Garnier that [his] father had in his library. . . . That labyrinth was . . . a symbol of being
lost in life. [He believed] that all of us, at one time or another, have felt that we are lost,
and . . . saw in the labyrinth the symbol of that condition” (Charters, 1438). Borges
extends his fascination for labyrinths and other puzzles to his works. He prides himself
on manipulating or “losing” his readers in his complex tales full of irony and
psychological puzzles. “Emma Zunz” is no exception. It is the story of a young woman
avenging the wrongs done to her father which may have led to his suicide. In “Emma
Zunz” Borges toys with the ideas of justice and revenge, and of right and wrong. Many
interpretations are offered for this work of genius; Borges may well be the only holder of
the key to understanding it completely.
There exists an interesting theory that in life we are what we experience: who we are,
and what we do and accomplish, stems directly from what we have encountered earlier.
We simply go through life jumbling up and spitting back out in a different order
components and conglomerates of those components of that with which we have come
Jorge Luis Borges held similar ideas about writing. “Wondering if he had ever
created a single original line in his writing, Borges said that if the reader looks long
enough, a source might be found for everything he wrote. To him invention was just
‘mixing up memories. I don’t think we’re capable of creation in the way that God
created the world’”(Charters, 169). Borges was in agreement with Ralph Waldo
Emerson’s idea that “all literary works are one work and that all writers are one
Borges, the literary genius of fiction, poetry, and criticism, was born in Buenos
Aires, Argentina, in 1899. After being educated in Europe, he would rise to become one
of the most influential artists of a generation of postmodernist writers. “We identify him
as a post-modernist writer and critic primarily by the utter gravity of his fictional
cunning, by his relentless play with the idea of unlimited rhetorical possibilities, by the
way he privileges form over content, structure over essence, event over character”
(Brodzki, 330). But along with influencing others, he himself was influenced by many
factors in his world. There existed numerous backdrops in Borges’ life, which provide
for various perspectives and interpretations of his works and their elements. A plethora
of these influences is revealed in each of his telling tales.
“Emma Zunz” is one such work that brings to light many constituents of Borges’
surrounding environment. But little attention is given to this work in comparison to
others to which it is equally complex.
Borges himself did not consider it his own effort. “In a conversation with
Antonio Carrizo, Borges said: ‘This story was a gift of Cecilia Ingenieros. She gave me
the plot, which I do not like . . . I dedicated it to Cecilia, . . . rather than dedicate it, I
should say that I returned it to Cecilia. She made up the plot‘” (Woskoboinik, 103).
The Borges Collection at the University of Texas at Austin contains the
“Typescript draft of the short story “Emma Zunz,” with a signed and dated postcard to
Cecilia Ingenieros” (Wall, 1). It is a “double-spaced typescript on five folio leaves [that]
exhibits several autograph corrections and revisions. In a two-line autograph note at the
top of the verso of page 5 addressed to ‘Cecilia’ and signed ‘Borges,’ Borges identifies
the typescript as ‘el primer borrador de Emma Zunz’ and parenthetically suggests ‘El
castigo’ as an alternate title.”
The story was first seen published in Sur in September of the year 1948. The
following year it appeared in El Aleph, Borges’ fourth collection of short stories.
“’Emma Zunz’, perhaps Borges’ least characteristic work, is his only story whose
protagonist is a woman” (Brodzki, 331).
“’Emma Zunz’ and many others from Borges . . . are stories about imagination,
the way we think—stories about the art of fiction” (Lindstrom, 140). This may have
come out of the fact that Jorge’s father was a university professor of psychology. He
“amused him in childhood with various philosophical puzzles that continued to intrigue
Borges when he grew up” (Charters, 169). ‘Emma Zunz’ is found in a collection of short
stories by Borges entitled Labyrinths, which are a puzzle or idea that frequently emerge
in Borges’ works. In a tape-recorded interview with Robert Alifano in 1981 he makes
known that he “discovered the labyrinth in a book published in France by Garnier that
[his] father had in his library. . . . That labyrinth was . . . a symbol of being lost in life.
[He believed] that all of us, at one time or another, have felt that we are lost, and . . . saw
in the labyrinth the symbol of that condition” (Charters, 1438).
In “’She was unable not to think’: Borges’ ‘Emma Zunz’ and the Female
Subject,” Brodzki says that “figuration and irony loom large in [the story] as they do in
all of Borges’ writing” (336). It is an account of the seeking of a path of revenge mentally
and emotionally through a maze of lies, anger, and hurt, and then following through in
the flesh. It is “compelling because ‘Emma Zunz’—beyond its appeal as a formalist
puzzle, an untypically realistic tale of revenge, or even as a parable of cosmic destruction
and restitution—is a tragedy of restricted choices” (331).
The story begins when 19-year-old Emma receives a letter upon “[returning]
home from the Tarbuch and Loewenthal textile mills on the 14th of January, 1922, . . .
which informed her that her father had died” (Yates, 132). A corporate boss had covered
up his crime of embezzlement by framing Emma’s father. “Aaron Loewenthal’s
accusation had forced Zunz to flee (from Argentina, we assume) to Brazil, where
despondent that his name could not be cleared, he took his own life” (Brodzki, 336).
Emma then “wept until the end of that day for the suicide of Manuel Maier, who in the
old happy days was Emmanuel Zunz” (Yates, 132).
Names have much significance in ‘Emma Zunz,’ as they do in many of Borges’
works. The name Emma Zunz is of Jewish origin. There existed a Jewish colony in
Buenos Aires that “in the baroque architecture of Latin [America, inhabited] the
basement” (Stavans, “Talia in heaven,” 2). For five hundred years they had “been forced
to convert to Christianity or to somehow mask or feel ashamed of their ancestral faith.”
The Jewish body now commends Borges for “Emma Zunz,” which they call “a
description of a theodicy where a young Jewish woman takes revenge against the
perpetrator of her father’s death” (Stavans, “Jewish Issues,” 1). They rant, “To such a
degree were ethnic voices left in the margin that readers today know much more about
Brazilian and Argentine Jews thanks to Borges’s short stories, ‘Emma Zunz’ and ‘The
Secret Miracle’ . . . ” (Stavans, “Talia in heaven,” 2).
Borges himself says, “’Emma Zunz.’ I purposefully chose a Jewish surname so
the reader would accept this story which is somewhat strange; so the reader might think,
‘Well, these things might happen among Jews.’ If I had named her López, the reader
wouldn’t have accepted the story” (Woscoboinik, 106). It was known through Argentina
that Jews were at the bottom of the social totem pole, and that young, female Jews often
prostituted themselves on the streets of Buenos Aires. It’s also possible that the Jewish
element of the story came from the fact that Kafka, who was in his prime when Borges
was just beginning, was of Jewish decent.
“Emma’s father Emmanuel Zunz (MM, ZZ) changes his name to Manuel Maier
(MM) after being ruined by Aaron (AA) Loewenthal. Emma’s MM puts her in the
middle between A and Z, where her father was when he killed himself. However these
letters may be fitted in, they at least point in the ideality of the whole scheme of
background logic” (Lindstrom, 139).
“[The] letters of the Hebrew alphabet have symbolic and semantic connotations,
with two orders of meaning, standard and Caballistic, corresponding to the Tarot images.
For instance, the letter Aleph is equivalent to the numeral value of 1 and also represents
will, man, the magician. In alchemy, Aleph is the beginning of everything”
(Woscoboinik, 114). Aaron Loewenthal thus represents the top of the corporate ladder,
as his name begins with “A.”
“Emma, as lost child now become avenging angel, articulates her hatred of two
systems of patriarchal oppression: an economic system whereby male bosses exploit
male and female workers and a sexual system whereby men exploit women. . . .
Daughter of Manuel Maier, who was forced to change his name from Emmanuel Zunz,
Emma’s name is a derivation of his past identity” (Brodzki, 339). She therefore inherits
his shame, “and she lives in the shadow of his alleged crime.”
“Zunz” is “a quasipalindrome, with ‘un’ (Spanish for ‘one’) between the two z’s”
(Woscoboinik, 116). “One often symbolizes being, the manifestation of the essential. . . .
Some view the One as Everything and Nothing (a title that Borges gives to one of his
stories)” (115). After his death, Emma became an orphan, all by herself, one. Her crime
would become one with her self-inflicted dishonor, the feeling of shame from the
prostitution blending with her father’s shame into one act of revenge.
After acting nonchalantly with her female friends the day after the letter arrived,
Emma went downtown, “to the waterfront. Perhaps on the infamous Paseo de Julio . . .
she wandered, . . . She entered two or three bars, noted the routine or technique of the
other woman. Finally she came across men from the Nordstjärnan. One of them, very
young, she feared might inspire some tenderness in her and she chose instead another,
perhaps shorter than she and more coarse, in order that the purity of the horror might not
be mitigated” (Yates, 134). She needs a specific kind of man for the job. “Emma has
deliberately selected one who will not draw from her an empathetic response”
“He was a tool for Emma, as she was for him, but she served him for pleasure
whereas he served her for justice” (Yates, 135). He would provide her with the shame
she needed to carry out her scheme. “A deconstructive reading of ‘Emma Zunz’
applauds her decision to assume the language of phallic discourse only to cast it aside
with impunity after it has served her purpose” (Brodzki, 347). After the deed is done, she
tears up the money left by the sailor man as she had torn up the letter concerning her
father’s death, “though the reasons for doing so are different. The act of tearing the letter
(metonymically linked to the photo of one Milton Sills, under which it lies) is associated
with tearing the money, which is likened to throwing away bread, both impieties and
improprieties committed within the context of a greater ‘impiedad’—the loss of her
innocence” (Brodzki, 341).
The gun she uses to kill Loewenthal is also a phallic symbol that coincides with
her act of prostitution. “He lived above the factory, alone. Situated in the barren
outskirts of the town, he feared thieves; in the patio of the factory there was a large dog
and in the drawer of his desk, everyone knew, a revolver” (Yates, 135). She enters
through the iron gate, and detours around the chained, barking dog, rehearsing her lines.
Once inside, “[she] managed to have Loewenthal leave to get a glass of water for her.
When the former, unconvinced by such a fuss but indulgent, returned from the dining
room, Emma had already taken the heavy revolver out of the drawer” (Yates, 136).
“Now Emma holds the revolver and, therefore, manages to symbolize both phallic power
and right, instituting a new order which encompasses both the human and the divine”
“In Aaron Loewenthal’s presence, more than the urgency of avenging her father,
Emma felt the need of inflicting punishment of the outrage she had suffered. She was
unable not to kill him after that thorough dishonor” (Yates, 136). Emma was now
wreaking vengeance for her own shame, rather than that of her father. The two situations
had now become fused into one.
Here “[the use of the analogy between Christ and the literary text as a background
metaphor makes it a shadowy criterion of logic which . . . substitutes for objective reality
as it is laboriously simulated in realism” (Lindstrom, 139). Just as Christ was our
substitute, sacrificing his body on the cross for our sins, she had sacrificed her body in the
name of “private justice for offenses against honor” (Ludmer, 148). “Emma, in order to
achieve her goal, must first have sexual intercourse with a stranger, to her profound
disgust. The story never tells us that she wanted clinical evidence of the sexual abuse she
would later allege against the murdered Loewenthal, and no detail suggests it, nor is there
any hint that she needed to feel outraged in order to pull the trigger. . . .” (Lindstrom,
139). Emma was taking upon herself her father’s shame, just as Christ took upon himself
our sin and shame. “Emma’s father is a dishonored person, and to kill in his name . . .
Emma must also be a dishonored person. Once she enters her father’s archetypal class,
Emma is her father . . . Emma is avenging not this or that dishonour . . . but dishonour
itself” (Lindstrom, 139).
There was no turning back now. “Emma squeezed the trigger twice. The large
body collapsed as if the reports and the smoke had shattered it, the glass of water
smashed . . . “ (Yates, 136). She had done it. She had achieved divine justice, where
human justice lacked.
Corruption of the state is another backdrop and influence in Borges’ works and
many others’ in his place and time, including Roberto Payro, Roberto Arlt, Jose Bianco,
Ernesto Sabato, Beatriz Guido, Rodolfo Walsh, and non-Argentineans Augusto Roa
Bastos and Garcia Marquez (Ludmer, 143). “The Argentine narrative as corpus delicti
presents crime as a means by which the state shows its power. The literary body of
evidence also [reveals] the lack of state justice, and how such lack results in a farce, a
parody of truth” (Ludmer, 141). Corruption of the state led to people taking matters into
their own hands. The working class was the main glutton for punishment of the state.
The literature stemming from this pressure conveys this: “in the fictions of social realism
the subjectivities of the working-class victims, and not those of the criminal bosses, do
the speaking” (Ludmer, 143). Other characteristics of these tales of crime and “Justice of
God” (Yates, 136) include the fact that the victim is never a mother, that the story is told
at least partially from the point of view of the criminal, that the criminal is unnamed or
referred to by nickname or shortened name (Emma is short for Emmanuel, her father’s
name), and that the criminal or “chronicler” reveals the truth about the crime to the reader
Also, “[in] the corpus the criminal does not receive punishment (or ‘justice’) by
the state for his crime” (Ludmer, 148). This is the case in ‘Emma Zunz’: Emma’s story
is believed. “[The] story was incredible, but it impressed everyone because substantially
it was true. True was Emma Zunz’ tone, true was her shame, true was her hate. True
also was the outrage she had suffered: only the circumstances were false, the time, and
one or two proper names” (Yates, 137). These words “[achieve] a double transformation
of the two discourses, which are then explicitly stated as equivalent” (Brodzki, 345).
What exactly was Borges trying to communicate through “Emma Zunz”? Was he
making a feminist statement against the latino machismo? In the end it appears that
Emma’s final product was not so much a victory over a man that had done her father, and
therefore her, an injustice. After all, “doesn’t she, ultimately, like all women, exist only
as the possibility of mediation, transaction, and transferene between man and himself?
Isn’t woman in turn metaphorized in this text?” (Brodzki, 346). It seems her subjection
and self-defilement is more a loss than a victory from a feminist standpoint. “Emma’s
narrative demonstrates the complicity of language and deception, in particular self-
deception” (Brodzki, 346). Then, was it a blow against the corruption of the state, as she
climbed the stairs to Loewenthal’s suite above the factory, and rose above him in his
death? Or maybe it was merely a remark about the suppression of the Jewish community,
in particular the Jewish woman.
Or perhaps Borges’ intention was something entirely different than to reveal the
revenge of a suppressed female, a suppressed working class, or a suppressed Jew. Maybe
Borges’ intended to convey that Emma Zunz had the same idea as Raskolnikov in
Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Maybe Emma was only trying to commit the
perfect crime! She had the setup: the perfect motive and the perfect sitting-duck victim.
She covered her tracks nicely, tearing up the heart-breaking letter, which might reveal her
motive, and the money paid her by her client. She allowed herself to be used sexually in
order to have the “[shame], hate, and outrage [that] metaphorically and irrevocably link
Emma’s violation and Loewenthal’s death. (In detective’s terms, she has given us both
motive and justification.)” (Brodzki, 345).
Rereading and discussing the story and Borges’ frame of mind with others leads
me to see the story in an entirely altered light. Borges, exceptionally well-read and
tremendously complex, was very keen on irony and metaphysical games. I have begun to
believe “Emma Zunz” was just that: a game. In the story, Borges plays with the ideas of
justice and revenge and their difference (or is there any?) He also toys with the reader,
leading them to take the side of the criminal, who is Emma herself.
We are told that Loewenthal lies and wrongs Emma’s father, which may or may
not be true, as it is coming from her perspective. But Emma lies, murders, and commits
sex crimes in order to avenge the injustice done to her father. Do four wrongs make a
right? Yet Borges manipulates us into taking her side through the form in which he tells
the story. The facts of the matter are all presented—her wrongs are not lightened—but
the reader still roots for her. In the end, she kills because she is appalled at what she has
done, rather than for what was done to her father: “In Aaron Loewenthal’s presence,
more than the urgency of avenging her father, Emma felt the need of inflicting
punishment for the outrage she had suffered. She was unable not to kill him after the
outrage she has suffered” (Yates, 136). Ironically, she never gets the chance to tell
Loewethal why, but instead shoots him before finishing “the accusation she had
prepared,” defeating the entire purpose. “She never knew if he managed to understand”
Borges continues to play with the reader through the end, where he says that the
story was “substantially” true; that “only the circumstances were false, the time, and one
or two proper names” (Yates, 137). Just as Borges claims of his works, that “a source
might be found for everything he wrote,” there was also a source for each element in
Emma’s story that made it true to an extent, when presented in an exclusive Borges
manner. There was a source for her tone, a source for her shame, and a source for her
hate. The story was true, merely a few facts were jumbled up and spit back out in a
Brodzki, Bella, “’She was unable not to think’: Borges’ ‘Emma Zunz’ and the Female
Subject,’” MLN, Volume 100, Issue 2, Hispanic Issue (Mar., 1985), 330-347.
Charters, Ann, The Story and Its Writer (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), 1748.
Lindstrom, Naomi, Jorge Luis Borges: A Study of the Short Ficiton (Boston: Twayne
Publishers, 1990), 174.
Ludmer, Josefina, “The corpus delicti,” Modern Language Quarterly, June 1996 v57 n2
Stavans, Ilan and Amy Prince, “Talia in heaven,” The Literary Review, Fall 1993 v37 n1,
Stavans, Ilan, “Jewish Issues in Argentine Literature from Gerchunoff to Szichman,”
Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1992 v41 n4 pp
Wall, Catherine E., “The Jorge Luis Borges Collection at the University of Texas at
Austin, Latin American Research Review, Summer 2001 v36 i3, pp 154.
Woscoboinik, Julio, The Secret of Borges (New York: University Press of America,
Yates, Donald A. and James E. Irby, Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings by
Jorge Luis Borges (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1964),