The OF Blog: Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand

Monday, September 07, 2009

Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand

El hecho occurió en el mes de febrero de 1969, al norte de Boston, en Cambridge. No lo escribí inmediatamente porque mi primer propósito fue olvidarlo, para no perder la razón. Ahora, en 1972, pienso que si lo escribo, los otros lo leerán como un cuento y, con los años, lo será tal vez para mí. (p. 7)

The incident occurred in the month of February 1969, to the north of Boston, in Cambridge. I did not write it immediately because my first thought was to forget it, in order not to lose my mind. Now, in 1972, I think that if I write it, the others will read it as a story and, with the years, maybe it'll be so for me.
This opening to the first story in Jorge Luis Borges' 1975 collection, El libro de arena (The Book of Sand), "The Other," serves to illustrate how even late in his life (Borges was 76 when the book was published in Argentina), Borges was still playing with images of doubles, of secret societies, of conflicts between idealized forms and human desires, and how to represent notions of infinity. In many respects, this collection takes several of the elements present in his earlier collections, Ficciónes (1941, 1944), The Aleph (1949), and Dreamtigers (1960), and expounds further upon the mystical elements found in some of those stories.

In this collection, the metaphorical uses of sand are present in some of the stories. In "Ulrikke," the story closes with the temporal meaning of sand: "Como la arena se iba el tiempo. Secular en la sombra fluyó el amor y poseí por primera y última vez la imagen de Ulrica." (p. 26) In the titular "Book of Sand," sand represents the grains of infinity and the desire to corral not just knowledge but also infinity into something that is tangible for humans.

Another hallmark of Borges' stories in this collection (and one that stretches back into his earlier collections) is the use of first-person narrators whose introspective examinations serve to create a sense of dissonance between the observer and what has been observed. Such a separation occurs at the beginning of "The Congress" and it serves to accentuate the strangeness that is the Congress of the World. But Borges's stories are not always distant and genial. Take for instance "There Are More Things," a story dedicated to the American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Borges creates a scene of psychological horror not out of explicit images of monstrosities, but out of very rational observations of how incomprehensible the searches for grasping infinite objects can be. "The Sect of the Thirty" plays again with the notion of secret cults that possess ancient knowledge. In it, Borges again discusses the problematic issue of Judas, a theme he first explored in Ficciónes with "Three Versions of Judas."

In a way, "The Sect of the Thirty" represents a major problem for this collection. As a short 5-6 page story, it is far from bad, but when read after Borges' earlier works, the latter suffers in comparison. The stories are good, but they feel more like pale xeroxes of the themes that Borges had explored in the 1940s. While "The Book of Sand" might complement and extend the notions of infinity contained in "The Library of Babel," it does not have the same impact, likely because several of its elements have been recycled from previous stories of Borges. While I was impressed by how the stories were written and how erudite Borges is, working in references to Scandinavian skalds and mythical references to various global myths, ultimately this collection does not contain as many memorable stories as did the three earlier collections that I mentioned above. Out of these, "The Other" and "The Book of Sand" stick out the most, but they feel lighter in comparison to "Borges and I" or "The Library of Babel."

This comparison, almost inevitable when considering Borges' oeuvre, makes it difficult to be objective when assessing The Book of Sand's merits as a collection. If this book had been written by anyone other than Borges, it likely would have been lauded as a strong short story collection. But when compared to the author's earlier works, it comes across as being a lesser work because of the recycled motifs. However, this is not to say that the collection is not worth reading. I just wouldn't claim that it is as strong as his first three collections.


Mihai A. said...

Very nice review, Larry. I am going to search for my Borges' books I have in my library :)

Harry Markov said...

His first collections seem old enough to have been translated in Bulgarian. Hopefully my library has them.

I do have a theory on why they fail in comparison to his earlier works. As trivial as it may ring 76 is not an age, when ideas shine as brightly as a writer wants them to. At 76 I don't see myself publishing a collection, though I hope it happens.

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