The Lottery in Babylon, La Lotería en Babilonia

Yes, yet another of my translations of a Borges story, this time The Lottery in Babylon, or as it was originally titled, La Lotería en Babilonia.

The original in Spanish can be found at

The Lottery in Babylon (translated from the Spanish) by Jorge Luis Borges

Like all men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all of them, a slave; I have also known omnipotence, opprobrium, incarceration. Look: missing on my right hand is an index finger. Look: visible on my stomach through this rent cape is a ruddy tattoo — it is the second symbol, Beth. On nights when the moon is full, this symbol confers unto me power over the men whose mark is Ghimel while rendering me subject to the men of Aleph, who on moonless nights must obey the men of Ghimel. In a cellar in the half-light of dawn, I have slit the throats of sacred bulls before a black altar. For an entire lunar year, I have been declared invisible: I would cry out and no one would respond, I would steal bread and I was not beheaded. I have known what the Greeks knew not: uncertainty. In a brass chamber, before the strangler’s silencing scarf, hope has remained faithful; in the river of delights, panic stood steadfast. Heraclides Ponticus relates with admiration that Pythagoras recalled having been Pyrrhus, before him Euphorbus, and before him some other mortal; to recall analogous vicissitudes I need not find recourse in death, nor even imposture.

I owe this almost monstrous variety to an institution that other republics have not conceived of or which works imperfectly or secretly in them: the lottery. I have not delved into its history; I know that the sages cannot manage to agree; I know of its powerful aims what a man unversed in astrology can know of the moon. I am of a vertiginous country where the lottery is a principal part of reality: until this very day, I have thought as little of it as I have the conduct of the inscrutable gods or of my own heart. Now, far from Babylon and its beloved customs, I think with some bewilderment of the lottery and of the blasphemous conjectures that the shrouded men murmur at twilight.

My father would recount that in ancient times — a question of centuries, of years? — the lottery in Babylon was a game with a plebeian character. He would relate (truthfully or not I cannot say) that barbers gave out rectangles made of bone or parchment and adorned with symbols in exchange for copper coins. In the full light of day, a drawing of lots would be held: the fortunate few would receive, without further corroboration by chance, money coined in silver. The procedure, as you can see, was simple.

Naturally, these ‘lotteries’ failed. Their moral virtue was nil. They did not appeal to all of man’s faculties, only to his hope. In the face of the public’s indifference, the merchants who founded these venal lotteries began to lose money. Someone tried something new: the interpolation of a few adverse fortunes amongst the many favourable. With this reform, the buyers of numbered rectangles ran the double chance of winning a sum of money or of paying a fine, sometimes considerable. This slight danger (for every thirty favourable numbers there was one adverse) awoke, as is natural, the interest of the public. The Babylonians flocked to the game. He who did not purchase fortunes was considered pusillanimous, a yellow-belly. With time, this justified contempt found a further target: along with he who did not play, he who had lost out and did not pay his fine was also disdained. The Company (as it had begun to be called by then) had to protect the interests of the winners, who could not collect their winnings if there was lacking in the coffers the almost entire sum of the fines. Lawsuits were filed against the losers: the judge sentenced them to pay the original fine, plus court costs, or be put in jail for a time. So as to defraud the Company, they all opted for jail. From the daring of these few was born the source of the Company’s almightiness: its ecclesiastical and metaphysical significance.

A short while later, the lottery reports omitted the listing of fines and limited themselves to publishing the days of prison that each adverse number was worth. This laconicism, almost unnoticed at the time, was of capital importance. It was the first appearance of non-pecuniary elements in the lottery. Success was grand. Urged on by the lottery’s players, the Company was forced to increase the number of adverse fortunes.

It is widely known that the people of Babylon are devout followers of logic, and even of symmetry. To them, it was incoherent that the favourable numbers should result in rounded coins and the unfavourable in days and nights of incarceration. Some moralists reasoned that the possession of money did not always bring about happiness and that other forms of fortune are perhaps more immediate.

Another source of restlessness abounded in the down-at-heel neighbourhoods. The members of the sacerdotal college multiplied the stakes and rejoiced in the full range of hope and terror’s vicissitudes; the poor, with an understandable or inevitable envy, knew themselves to be excluded from these notoriously delightful ups and downs. Everyone, rich and poor alike, had a justified yearning to participate equally in the lottery, which inspired an indignant agitation whose memory the years have not erased. Certain obstinate souls did not comprehend, or pretended not to comprehend, that they were dealing with a new order, a necessary historical stage… A slave stole a crimson ticket, a ticket that in the next drawing merited his having his tongue burnt to a crisp. The criminal code fixed the same penalty for a ticket’s theft. A number of Babylonians argued that he deserved the red-hot iron for his thieving; others, more magnanimous, that the public executioner should apply the lottery’s penalty as chance had determined…

There were disturbances, there were lamentable effusions of blood; but the Babylonian people finally imposed their will and they achieved their generous ends against the opposition of the rich. Firstly, they forced the Company to assume full public power. (This unification was necessary given the vastness and complexity of the new operations.) Secondly, they made the lottery secret, general and free of charge. The mercenary sale of lots was abolished. Once initiated into the mysteries of Bel, all free men automatically took part in the sacred drawings of lots, all of which were held in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights and determined each man’s destiny until the subsequent drawing. The consequences were incalculable. A happy drawing could instigate one’s elevation to the council of magi or the imprisonment of an enemy (well-known or private) or, in the peaceful dark of one’s room, one’s meeting the woman who has begun to make one fluster or who one was never expecting to see again; an adverse drawing: mutilation, a variety of infamies, death. Sometimes a single event — C’s assassination in a tavern, B’s mysterious apotheosis — was the brilliant result of thirty or forty drawings. Combining bets was difficult; we must remember, though, that the individuals of the Company were (and are) all-powerful and astute. In many cases, the knowledge that certain joys were simple fabrications of chance would have diminished their moral worth; to avoid this inconvenience, agents of the Company made use of suggestion and magic. Their moves, their manipulations, were secret. To get at everybody’s innermost hopes and fears, astrologers and spies were employed. There were certain stone lions, there was a sacred latrine called Qaphqa, there were fissures in a dusty aqueduct, all of which, according to general opinion, led to the Company; persons malign or benevolent deposited exposés in these sites. An alphabetical archive collected these reports of varying veracity.

Incredibly, grumbling abounded. The Company, with its habitual discretion, did not reply directly. It preferred to scribble in the rubble of a mask factory a short line of reasoning which now forms part of the sacred scriptures. This doctrinal piece observed that the lottery is an interpolation of chance into the order of the world and that the acceptance of errors is not the contradiction of chance, but its corroboration. It observed also that those lions and the sacred squatting place, although not disclaimed by the Company (which did not renounce the right to consult them), functioned without official guarantee.

This declaration pacified the public’s unease. It also had other effects, perhaps not foreseen by its author: it profoundly modified the spirit and the operations of the Company. There remains little time — we have been told that the ship is about to set sail — but I will try to explain.

As improbable as it may seem, nobody until then had attempted to produce a general theory of games. The Babylonian is not speculative. He reveres the dictates of chance, surrendering his life, his hopes, his panicked terror to them, but it never occurs to him to delve into their labyrinthine laws, nor the giratory spheres from which they are revealed. Nonetheless, the officious declaration that I have mentioned inspired many discussions of a juridico-mathematical nature. From one of them was born the following conjecture: if the lottery is an intensification of chance, its periodic infusion into the cosmos, would it not be desirable then for chance to intervene in all stages of the drawing and not only in one? Is it not ridiculous that chance should dictate that a person die while the circumstances of that death — its confidentiality, its publicity, its timing an hour or a century into the future — are not subject to chance? These eminently reasonable scruples prompted in the end a considerable reform whose complexities (aggravated by centuries of practice) are understood only by a handful of specialists; I will attempt to summarise them regardless, even though I do so only symbolically.

Let us imagine a first drawing, one which condemns a man to death. In order for the sentence to be realised, another drawing is held that proposes, say, nine possible executioners. Of these nine, four might initiate a third drawing that will give the name of the eventual executioner, two might replace the drawing’s adverse result with a fortunate one (say, a treasure’s discovery), another might exacerbate the sentence of death (that is, a sentence made more infamous or embellished with torture), still others might refuse to carry it out…

Such is the lottery’s symbolic scheme. In reality, the number of drawings is infinite. No decision is final, each branch out into others. The ignorant suppose that infinite drawings require an infinite time; in reality, it is enough that time be infinitely divisible, as the famous parable of Achilles and the Tortoise demonstrates. This infinitude harmonises admirably with the sinuous numbers of Chance and the Celestial Archetype of the Lottery adored by Platonists…

A certain deformed echo of our ritual seems to have resounded along the Tiber: Aelius Lampridius, in his Life of Antoninus Heliogabalus, tells of how this emperor would write out on seashells the fortunes fated for his guests so that one would receive ten pounds of gold and another ten flies, ten dormice, ten bears. It is only right to recall that Heliogabalus was educated in Asia Minor, amongst the priests of his eponymous god.

There are also impersonal drawings without definite purposes: one will decree that a sapphire from Taprobana be thrown into the waters of the Euphrates; another, that a bird be released from atop a tower; another, that each century a grain of sand be removed (or added) to the innumerable found on the beach. Sometimes, the consequences are terrifying.

Under the beneficent influence of the Company, our customs are steeped in chance. The buyer of a dozen amphorae of Damascene wine would not be surprised if one were to contain a talisman or a viper; the scribe who draws up a contract very rarely fails to introduce some erroneous point; in this hasty declaration, I myself have embroidered a certain splendour, a certain atrocity; perhaps, too, a certain mysterious monotony…

Our historians, the orb’s most perspicacious, have invented a method for correcting chance. It is well known that the operations of this method are (in general) trustworthy; although, naturally, they are not divulged without a measure of deceit. In any case, there is nothing so contaminated with fiction as the history of the Company…

A paleographic document, exhumed in a temple, could well be the result of a drawing from the previous day or the previous century. No book is published without some variation between copies. Scribes take a secret oath to omit, interpolate, vary. Indirect falsehood is also practiced.

The Company, with divine modesty, eludes all publicity. Its agents, as is only natural, are secret; the orders it continually (perhaps incessantly) issues out are no different to those lavishly spread by impostors. Besides, who would boast of being a mere impostor? The inebriate who improvises an absurd mandate, the dreamer who suddenly awakes and with his own bare hands strangles to death the woman who sleeps by his side — are they not, perhaps, carrying out a secret decision of the Company’s? This silent working, comparable to God’s, inspires all manner of conjecture. One such example abominably insinuates that the Company ceased to exist centuries ago and that the sacred disorder in our lives is purely hereditary, traditional; another considers the Company to be eternal and teaches that it will endure until the last night, when the last god will annihilate the world. Another declares that the Company is omnipotent but that it exerts its influence only in the most trifling of matters: the cry of a bird, the shades of rust and dust, the half-asleep dreaming of the dawn. Another, from the mouths of masked heresiarchs, claims that the Company has never existed and never will. Another, no less vile, reasons that to affirm or deny the reality of the Company is inconsequential, as Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.

The original in Spanish can be found at


Rio with Greek Subtitles

Written in 2004 on Sunday the 2nd of May, four months into my year-long trip overseas.

I had to find myself a Greek consulate in Brazil to ask a question about my passport. Not thinking Greece had much to do with Brazil, I was very surprised to discover after a quick squizz on the internet that there are seven Greek consulate offices throughout Brazil. Seven! I found only one Greek restaurant in all of Rio de Janeiro, yet there are seven Greek consulates throughout Brazil! I didn’t think I was going to find even one office for the country of 11 million retsina drinkers, but I suppose all the Greeks in the foreign affairs office-department-thing want to be posted to places like Brazil instead of places like war-torn Angola, where Greece also has a consulate. Setting up more offices in Brazil makes for a greater chance of having some South American fun, and Greeks in the foreign affairs department I’m sure could make up many good and even official-sounding reasons for having such an overstated presence in the country.

So anyway, I headed off to the consulate in the more residential Cariocan suburb of Flamengo to get my question answered. Once there, Stelios, the dude at the front desk, told me that Spiros, the passport man, would be able to see me in about half an hour and answer any of my questions. As there was a good half hour to kill, me and Stelios chewed the fat marinated with a divine mix of lemon, garlic and oregano. Interestingly enough, it turns out Stelios has been living in Rio for the past twenty years after having given England and the USA a go but not finding them up to scratch. For whatever reason, Rio worked for him and he found himself a Brazilian wife with whom he has raised four children.

Wanting to amuse myself, and knowing Greeks to be a patriotic lot even though most of them don’t live in Greece anymore, I baited him by asking if his wife can cook like his mother, if his family can dance a tsifteteli and if they can speak Greek. I knew what the answers would be, so it came as no surprise to hear that he made sure his wife could cook a decent pastitsio before deciding to marry her, that his family dance the tsifteteli better than anyone in Greece and that his children speak excellent Greek.

But even though I had begun with my own stereotypically patriotic vision of Greek expatriots, it shocked me to discover that he had sent his poor eldest son to serve in the Greek army. Every Greek male has to serve in the army for eighteen months, all of which can be avoided simply by living in another country. His son, who would be a Greek citizen because of his father’s Greek nationality despite his having been born and raised in Brazil, could stay in Greece for as much as six months each year before having to join the army. Most of us Greek citizens born or raised in other countries take advantage of this and avoid military service whilst still enjoying the country every now and again. Stelios, however, sent his son to Greece specifically to serve in the army, because, according to Stelios, that was his son’s duty as a Greek man.

Thinking this was exceptionally odd, even for the most patriotic of Greeks who are usually even prouder of their disrespect for authority and rules, I became very afraid of the kind of person I was speaking to when I did some mental arithmetic. Twenty years ago, when Stelios first landed in Rio, Brazil was being run by a military government that had been in power since 1964. Furthermore, when he left Greece, about twenty-five years ago, Greece had only just become democratic again after having been ruled by a weird-arse military junta that wanted to return Greece back to its ancient glory days. So that meant he left Greece after it was only just starting to emerge from a period of military rule, found the relatively democratic and free countries of England and the USA not to his liking, only to end up settling in Brazil, a country still being run by a military government that liked to repress, kill and torture every once in a while. I took a mental note of this man’s love of the military and decided when telling him the story of my family, not to mention that part of the reason my father came to Australia was so that he could avoid doing his obligatory military service. I also failed to mention that my grandfather was a communist guerrila, and instead babbled on about my mother’s island, Kephallonia, for as long as I could.

Soon enough though, the thirty-minute wait was over and I was directed to Spiros’s office, where a single question that took twenty seconds to answer turned into a thirty minute social chat that served to explain why I had to wait that long to see him in the first place. Within this thirty minutes, Spiros smoked three cigarettes, offering me one each time he opened his packet, and fielded two lengthy personal calls. It was a quintessentially Greek performance, and possibly because we shared an understanding of the undeniable logic of our own culture, our conversation was exceptionally friendly and hit a high note when we landed on the subject of the respective pros and cons of capoeira and thai kick-boxing.

Yes, Spiros, the passport dude at the office of the consulate general in Rio de Janeiro, was a huge fan of thai kick-boxing, and just like any wog cruising down the slow lane on Chapel Street on any Friday night of the year, he wanted to get fit by kicking people’s heads in. I told him that he should start capoeira seeing as he is in Brazil, but he was under the false impression that it would not adequately strengthen what he claimed were his ever-atrophying legs.

That was when I decided to show him the very tiring cadeira position, a position where your thighs are level with your knees and it looks like you’re about to take a shit, just to prove how much capoeira works your legs. He was skeptical at first, but once he got into position and stayed there for a few seconds, he understood. We were two Greek men, looking like we were taking a dump in a small office of the consulate general in Rio de Janeiro, talking martial arts and pretending we were tough. Not surprisingly, we bonded over the experience.

He gave me his phone number once the meeting was deemed over and claimed that he would start watching TV in the cadeira position from then on. I walked out of there quite pleased with myself thinking I may have converted someone to the capoeira cause, but I later slapped myself for having completely forgotten to mention Australia and Greece’s very own Stan “the Man” Longinides, who once was and maybe still is the world kick-boxing title holder. I reckon Spiros would have been mightily impressed by a Greek-Australian holding a kick-boxing title, and I reckon another fifteen minutes would have been needed to adequately cover all the official matters that would have been brought up in our meeting if the feats of Stan had ever been mentioned.

But my exploration of spaces dedicated to the Greek in Rio de Janeiro didn’t stop there. A couple of weeks after my experience with the foreign affairs department, I danced the Zorba at the only Greek restaurant in all of Rio de Janeiro after I took some curious Brazilian friends to see how we hairy-chested people eat, dance and smash plates. Unfortunately, the food was exceptionally ordinary, there was no retsina available and the owner of the restaurant was a boring fuck, but the Brazilians didn’t know any better and they thought the food and ambience was wonderful.

Me and my Brazilian troupe decided to head down to the restaurant on a Friday night on the promise that there was to be some Greek dancing and plate smashing in the land of the samba. Even though I was not expecting anything at all decent, I was still shocked to find two belly dancers from the sizeable Lebanese community in Brazil being passed up as dancing in a traditionally Greek manner, and doing the shaking of their thing to Arabic music. Even Shakira was played for these Lebanese ladies masquerading as Greeks to shake their bellies to, and if the ladies weren’t so attractive, I would have demanded the head of the treasonous restaurant owner who was presenting to an unsuspecting Brazilian audience music and dance that was more Turkish than Greek. When real Greek music finally came on and the ladies started dancing shite, I could not withstand the affront to my cultural heritage any longer and stormed onto the middle of the dance floor to lead proceedings and showcase the flair of a Greek man in full flight. I danced a tzamiko and a kalamatiano to showcase for the people of Brazil the culture of Greece, and felt overwhelmingly relieved that the people were not going to be leaving the restaurant thinking some Arabic belly-wobbling was a traditional Greek way to give vent to our passions and desires on the dancefloor.

The plate smashing was also another sorry affair as only a single shitty plate was handed out to each customer in the restaurant that evening. Every person rolled their eyes in tight-arsed disappointment upon receiving their solitary plate, but when the opening didi-didi-ding of the Zorba announced itself from the stereo to end proceedings for the evening, I knew I could make the night memorable for the Brazilians wanting to experience the joy of being Greek.

The people parted as I made my way onto the dancefloor where I knew the time had come to do my duty as a Greek man. I asked the restaurant owner if he was to share the spotlight with me and the damn fine Lebanese ladies in the middle of the dancefloor, but the treacherous bastard refused. After the owner wouldn’t dance the Zorba, I was certain the guy must have been Turkish, maybe Albanian, or quite possibly one of those Yugoslavians who go around pretending they’re Macedonian. A man that does not dance a Zorba with his chest out, his head held high and with the kind of expression that lays bare the torment in his soul is most definitely not Greek, so it was up to me and only me to provide a performance that night that would get the audience understanding how a Greek man dances and how a Greek man lives. With the wailing bouzoukis reaching their climactic crescendo and Zorba’s dance going into overdrive, a room full of Brazilians smashed their plates in unison and caught a glimpse of the emotional epiphanies that electrify each expression of every Eleftherios, Erasmus or Elias the Greek world over. And with that, everyone in the room got an idea of what it means to be Greek, to experience the lows of life and then experience the sweetened joys of the heightened highs that result. And with that, everyone in the room knew they had seen a Greek man dance.

After having led the dancing with a fine round of applause from the crowd, after having brushed my hand over the prickles of my post five o’ clock shadow and after having left the restaurant with a fine Brazilian beauty on my arm, on that fine summer’s night I was certain that I was the most authentic Greek man in all of Rio de Janeiro. That evening, I gave more to my beloved Greece than any eighteen months of obligatory military service ever could, and with a tear in my eye, I vowed to all who cared to listen that I was gonna grow myself a moustache. Nothing came of the moustache and it was the very next day when I was back to my normal self after having been transformed into the über Greek, but for a few fleeting moments there, I was the poster boy for the Greek nation and I was proud.

Will Fado Save the Music Industry?

After perhaps two years of the entire cost of my musical acquisitions being bound up with my monthly broadband connection fee, I’ve finally paid directly for music.

Blessed youtube had the glorious Amália Rodrigues singing Barco Negro, a song I had heard first sung by her musical heir, Mariza, and I just had to get it.

Maybe if more people liked fado, more people would end up actually paying directly for music?