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Stories are built from details. Without details, most stories evaporate into bland synopses. But a really catchy story can change up its particulars and keep going with the same knack for continuous renewal that an urban legend or internet meme has.

Take the story that frequently goes by the name “The Tale of the Two Dreamers.” A man has a dream of treasure hidden in a far-off city and, well, here’s a fairly basic, public domain version, from E.W. Lane’s translation of the Arabian Nights. (Go ahead and click; it’s really short. Just come right back, OK?)

You can find a moral in it. You can take it as pure narrative confection. You can diagram it as a really minimal variant of one of those Joseph Campbell hero’s journey stories.

Notice it’s not even an Arabian Nights tale proper. Lane brings it up in an endnote to one of his chapters. The first time I read it, though, it wasn’t even Arabian, but an Eastern European Jewish story, and the cities were Prague and Warsaw rather than Cairo and Baghdad. With a little Googling, I turned up a version where the two places were Somerset and London, and a reference to another version with a couple Dutch cities.

The choice of cities can vary. The bit you need is the dreamer’s sense of being out of a known, safe space, adrift in a place where simple actions can have unpredictable, dangerous results. Every detail is part embellishment, part essential.

The way the ending twist isn’t just a twist, but is thoroughly integrated with what’s come before, makes the story feel well-shaped. If a couple of details are dropped in early about the dreamer’s house (like the garden with its well and fig tree), and those details can reappear in the dream that’s told to the dreamer when he’s far from home, and it’ll feel a little like home when we meet them again at the story’s end. In the course of a story, it isn’t just the details that build up, but the connections, reflections, echoes…

(Which reminds me: in a future post there’s a story I want to tell about a bicycle in a forest in a theater in Paris and really good pie in a town in another forest, and about how sometimes the important thing is how the details don’t link, but this sentence itself doesn’t really link to what I’m supposed to be talking about, so I’d better leave it for now.)

“The Tale of Two Dreamers” came back to me recently in Alberto Manguel’s anthology Black Water, where Manguel notes that the tale was adapted and retold by Jorge Luis Borges. So I had to track down Borges version which, it turns out, is one of the retold stories in his first book, A Universal History of Infamy.

An aside–OK, another aside–A Universal History of Infamy is a lot of fun. It’s Borges retelling stories that have caught his imagination, and sketching odd characters from history. It’s got just one original story, which serves as a snapshot of the moment when Borges the reader evolved into Borges the reader, an embodiment of Austin Kleon’s exhortation to “Draw the art you want to see, make the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read.”(See point 3 in Kleon’s How to Steal Like an Artist.)

Anyway, Borges’ version of “The Two Dreamers” is a good one–better, in many ways, than Lane’s, and the difference is largely in the details. Part of this may be that Borges is working from an additional source, but I have a hunch he’s embroidering a bit on any and all of his sources. If not, he’s certainly selecting and polishing his details with care. (Or perhaps Lane simply doesn’t include enough details, or the right details, or doesn’t polish the details he does use to their best sheen?)

Where Lane gives us “a man of Baghdad,” Borges gives us a man whose name we eventually learn is Mohammed al-Maghribi.

Where Lane’s dreamer’s dream has “a person” who appears with the message to go to the other city, Borges’ dreamer’s dream features a soaking wet man who pulls a gold coin from his mouth before delivering his message. The unexplained drenchedness and miraculous coin prime us so that the message, equally pithy in either telling, arrives with more force.

And instead of the captain of the guard simply describing a house “of such a description” with a garden “at the lower end of which is a fountain,” Borges gives us a list with treasure-hunt momentum: “a house in Cairo in whose yard is a garden, at the lower end of which is a sundial and beyond the sundial a fig tree and beyond the fig tree a fountain and beneath the fountain a great sum of money.” (Borges translated here by Norman Thomas diGiovanni.)

Much later in life, Borges retold the story as part of a lecture on the Thousand and One Nights (recorded in the book Seven Nights). Even compressed to near-synopsis, his telling of the story kept its sundial, fig tree, and fountain, essential embellishments pointing the way to the essence of the story that’s hidden treasure-like beneath the all the shifting details.

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