Let me see if I can summarize this famous short story. I’m going from memory.
A guy—Borges—explains that the Zahir is a twenty-centavo coin. If you’re like me, you think, Okay, that’s what Argentines call that coin. Wrong. He goes on to explain that at other times in history the Zahir has been a vein in a piece of marble, a tiger, a brass astrolabe, and many other things. Now if you’re like me, you don’t know what he’s talking about. Welcome to the characteristic Borges beginning: a long first paragraph you know you’re only gonna understand upon a second or third reading.
But to continue. A socialite woman, a model and fashionmonger, has suddenly died. Borges heaps a bunch of satirical prose upon her memory, and then admits he was in love with her. He goes to her wake. He looks at her dead face and has feelings. Then he leaves and wanders the street. On a lark, or rather out of perversity, he goes into a bar, orders a brandy, and gets “the Zahir” in his change. He immediately starts philosophizing about coins. One coin is all coins, et cetera. He goes home and throws himself into bed.
Next day, something really strange starts to set in. His mind keeps returning to the coin. He gets rid of the actual artifact by spending it, but his thoughts keep going back to it … And at this point, I think I’ll interrupt the précis to give you an image of the coin he’s talking about.
He describes the coin in the first sentence of the story in great detail:
En Buenos Aires el Zahir es una moneda común, de veinte centavos; marcas de navajas o de cortaplumas rayan las letras N T y el número 2; 1929 es la fecha grabada en el anverso.
In Buenos Aires the Zahir is a common twenty-centavo coin into which a razor or letter opener has scratched the letters N T and the number 2; the date stamped on the face is 1929. —Hurley translation
In Buenos Aires the Zahir is an ordinary coin worth twenty-centavos. The letters N T and the number 2 are scratched as if with a razor-blade or penknife; 1929 is the date on the obverse. —Fitts translation
Now, the coin in the photograph above lacks the scratched “N T” and the “2,” but other than that, it’s the very article. It cost me six or seven bucks off a Spanish website. I expected to pay more. I’m naive and thought the coin’s importance in this story would make it a precious thing, a collector’s item. But no: it was and is a commonplace piece of monetary trash. Want one? Go online.
Back to the summary: Borges has gotten rid of the coin, but he still has it on the brain. He has dreams about coins. He writes a story about coins. Then, somehow, he’s prompted to study the lore and traditions and documents related to the Zahir. He learns that traditional Arab culture sustained a certain folk belief, namely that God allows, at any given historical moment, exactly one object on the earth to be a Zahir. Whoever comes in contact with that object starts to think about it all the time, more and more, until the person thinks of absolutely nothing else. To the rest of the world, the person eventually seems catatonic. At some point, though, the Zahir-object is destroyed or thrown into the sea, and the process begins again, somewhere else in the world.
Borges, still narrating, hears of other people in Buenos Aires who have clearly come into contact with that maddening twenty-centavo coin. Somebody’s chauffeur has been admitted into an insane asylum. Somebody else is doing nothing but babbling about the coin. Borges remarks, with stoic dignity, that he is already only a fragment of his old self, and expects to be obliterated altogether within a few months. (The dead woman from the beginning of the story has not been mentioned for a long time; in fact, she never comes up again.) He philosophizes that no one need pity him in the least, as he will not be suffering when his mind is thoroughly unified, brought to a laser focus on the meaningless coin. He reports he can already picture both sides of the Zahir at once. The last sentence of the story reads: Quizá detrás de la moneda esté Dios [“Perhaps behind the coin I shall find God.”]
Even casual readers of Borges might note something curious in this minor piece, namely that it acts as a kind of seesaw opposite to the much more famous story “The Aleph.” In “The Aleph,” Borges looks at a single gleaming point (under a staircase in somebody’s basement, or something) and is able to view everything in the universe at once. (Tiny dot reveals all.) In “The Zahir” (note the A-to-Z thing going on) the gleaming point sucks in the universe. (Tiny dot takes everything away.)
I am far from the first person to point out the opposition of the two stories, and I am probably not the first to venture that the meaning of “The Zahir” is bound up in a more-or-less hostile interrogation of religion and religiosity. Basically, if the ideal of the religious person is to live in constant mindfulness of God, to see God in all things, to resolve all difficulties in God, then isn’t that as terrible as the clearly terrible situation of the Borges character at the end of the tale? Put it this way: if everything is One, then everything might as well be zero.
Which brings me back to the “N T 2” that was scratched on the coin. One of Borges’s favorite tricks was to twig Christianity by means of Islam and Buddhism and the other world religions. It’s an old trick. Gibbon does it. Lots of people. What you do is handle the foreign religion with the same respectfulness and indulgence one is supposed to observe in handling Christianity, knowing full well that doing this will sound offbeat and slightly ironic. The hint starts to materialize that the religions all stand in need of this indulgence, because they are all equally quaint, and equally false. This is why Borges makes belief in the Zahir an emphatically Middle Eastern and Asiatic affair. His only hint that the perverse desire for homogenized nullity belongs just as much to Christianity as to the Eastern religions is that citation: “N T 2.”
You see, “N T” means exactly the same thing in Spanish as it does in English: Nuevo Testamento / New Testament. If you made a list (in either language) of meanings for the abbreviation NT, its use to mean “New Testament” would dwarf all other usages combined. It’s roughly equivalent to “USA” for “United States of America.”
Okay, but what about the “2”? Well, what’s the second book of the New Testament? Only the oldest Gospel: Mark. And why should Borges specially single out Mark? Maybe because of this:
28 And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?
29 And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord:
30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.
Look, I don’t know. Maybe there’s a hundred miles of Spanish commentary on this short story, firmly establishing that “N T 2” stands for something completely different. I haven’t seen those documents; I’m just going toe-to-toe with the text like a normal person.
Below is my twenty-three-year-old copy of an Argentine print of the story collection The Aleph. There are exactly fourteen footnotes in the whole book, each one of ’em put there by Borges himself. There’s not one by a helpful person who is actually trying to explain anything.
At any rate, it must be admitted the story “The Zahir” is not itself a Zahir. You, reader, are about to pass on to the rest of your day, untroubled by any of this. I, too, the moment I press SEND on this piece, shall regard the matter as closed, though it obviously isn’t.
It seems that for all of us, as for Borges, the topic of God actually does fit neatly underneath a twenty-centavo piece—which happens to be the exact same size as an American nickel.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.