“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” appears as the first story in the Ficciones collection by Borges. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is one of the most difficult stories by Borges, probably not the story one should start with when first reading Borges. Yet, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a highly crafted story with intricacies are unveiled with each reading.

Originally published in the literary magazine Sur in 1940 “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” sets the standard for the fiction that Borges would write.

Considering the complexities of the story for some readers I’m going to explain more about it than I do for the other stories. So, there is a spoiler here but one reads “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” for much more than the plot.

The story is presented as non-fiction, starting as a remembrance by the first-person narrator who talks of a discussion with the Argentine writer Bioy Casares, a close friend of Borges. The two writers are examining an encyclopedia article but an article that mysteriously only exists in one copy of an encyclopedia and not any other copy of the same edition.

The narrator then comes across a strange document (Orbis Tertius) that details the history of not only an unknown country (Uqbar) but of a planet (Tlön). For most of the story Borges goes to lengths to explain the culture of this planet, the languages, the histories, and all aspects of that world.

A postscript to the story is dated 1947. (Recall that the story was published years earlier). The postscript tells of a wealthy man in Memphis, Tennessee. A reporter for a Nashville newspaper has uncovered an entire encyclopedia about the world of Tlön in a Memphis library. Underlying the encyclopedia is a secret benevolent society that has existed for hundreds of years.

Finally, the narrator reveals that the history and knowledge of Tlön is the prevalent history and knowledge of the world today: “already a fictitious past has supplanted in men’s memories that other past, of which we now know nothing certain.” [ya en las memories un pasado ficticio ocupa el sitio de otro, del que nada sabemos con certidumbre – ni siquiera que es falso]

Thus, the story moves from being an intellectual exercise to one that reflects on the modern world. There are multiples levels in which the story can be read. At one level, it’s an indictment of the totalitarian governments that were sweeping the world during the 1930s and 1940s, governments that were erasing history and replacing it with fabrications of their own that many people readily accepted.

Disturbingly, that aspect of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is still relevant today, just consider some of the fictions issued by the Bush administration.

At another level, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is about how people know what they know and the nature of knowledge. In fact, it goes beyond that and examines the nature of reality. In one sense the story is a parody of the philosophy of idealism, knowledge based upon perceptions of the mind rather than real objects. Yet, Borges did not reject idealism and it comes to play in many of his writings.

What’s amazing about “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is that the more you learn about philosophy, then the greater your appreciation of this story and the immense talents of Borges.