And the Queen gave birth to a child who was called Asterion.
I wish I had known before my first read through of The House of Asterion (La casa de Asterion | 1947) that Borges was inspired to write a story from the perspective of the Greek monster, the Minotaur, after seeing Watts’ painting of the lonely, yearning, desperate creature staring out to sea.
Knowing this made my second read through more pleasurable.
Now I could see that the story was the interior ruminations of the minotaur – his life inside the labyrinth (‘another ridiculous falsehood has it that I, Asterion, am a prisoner‘), the many ways he distracted himself with games and imaginative play, his loneliness, and the routine of the ceremony (‘every nine years nine men enter the house so that I may deliver them from evil‘). Asterion revealed that he too is waiting for his redeemer; someone who will relieve him from the evilness that is his existence. For Asterion, death is freedom, liberation. Death is not to be feared, but embraced.
It is only in the final paragraph, where the point of view changes to Theseus, that Borges reveals where we are and who has been narrating the main story. Our newly revealed insider knowledge of the minotaur makes Theseus final comment even more poignant. We see that Asterion believed that Theseus was his redeemer. Asterion did not see himself as a monster, and by the end of the story, nor do we. Borges’ has humanised the monster.
A second read also allows the reader to see the labyrinth, or word puzzle, that Borges had created to tell this story. He drops carefully worded hints along the way that one can appreciate all the more second time around.
I’m not sure I have read another story that places the Minotaur monster in such a sympathetic light. I was reminded of the scene in Frankenstein, where the monster observes the DeLacey family from afar, learning about love, suffering and relationships. He wants to belong, but also knows he will always be a monster. A loving family life is not for him no matter how much he desires it. He will always be alone in the dark, in a world that is neither prison or home.
Asterion also knows that a normal life is not for him. If the common people saw him they ‘prayed, fled, prostrated themselves…others gathered stones.’ In his mind, being the son of a Queen is what made him unique, not his monstrous nature.
My motivation for reading this particular Borges story was Suzanna Clarke and her award winning book, Piranesi. In one of the interviews I read after she won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, she claimed she was inspired bby two of his short stories, The Library of Babel and The House of Asterion. I have now read both and can appreciate how these stories about labyrinths and humanity, time and perception provided the embryo for Piranesi.
Title: The House of Asterion Author: Jorge Luis Borges Translators: Donald Yates & James Irby Published: 1947 Format: ePub
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.