The Lottery in Babylon by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Lottery in Babylon” is a fantastic short story written by Jorge Luis Borges. In the story, an unnamed narrator recounts how a so-called lottery (run by “The Company”) influenced the society in which he lived. He begins his tale:

My father would tell how once, long ago–centuries? years?–the lottery in Babylon was a game played by commoners. He would tell (though whether this is true or not, I cannot say) how barbers would take a man’s copper coins and give back rectangles made of bone or parchment and adorned with symbols. Then, in broad daylight, a drawing would be held; those smiled upon by fate would, with no further corroboration by chance, win coins minted of silver. The procedure, as you can see, was rudimentary.

But there was no excitement in this kind of lottery. Some would win for the cost of coin. But they were ultimately unsuccessful. So what happened next? Someone suggested the introduction of unlucky draws. At first, the penalty was a fine. But as you read the story, you’ll understand that those who didn’t or couldn’t pay up for being unlucky were sent to jail. And then:

Some time after this, the announcements of the numbers drawn began to leave out the lists of fines and simply print the days of prison assigned to each losing number. 

And the depravity of the Lottery escalates further. If people can be made to pay fines, why can’t they be sentenced to death? But the narrator provides the following introspective:

If the Lottery is an intensification of chance, a periodic infusion of chaos into the cosmos, then is it not appropriate that chance intervene inevery aspect of the drawing, not just one? Is it not ludicrous that chance should dictate a person’s death while the circumstances of that death–whether private or public, whether drawn out for an hour or a century–shouldnot be subject to chance? Those perfectly reasonable objections finally prompted sweeping reform…

You should read the story to find out what happens at the end. The narrator’s admission leaves you deep in thought…

This short story by Jorge Luis Borges is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. 

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