The OF Blog: Borges Month: El libro de arena (1975)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Borges Month: El libro de arena (1975)

El libro de arena (The Book of Sand) was Borges' penultimate short story collection released in his lifetime.  Published in 1975, it contains several stories that build on the strength of his 1970 collection, El informe de Brodie/Brodie's Report.  Some of the fictions, such as "The Book of Sand," read almost as counterparts to stories from Ficciones or El Aleph.  Others, such as "The Other," follow in theme and form his 1960s poetry and El informe de Brodie.

In re-reading these stories recently, I couldn't help but marvel at the depth of emotion that this collection has in comparison to Borges' other short fiction collections.  "The Other" is a very poignant story of an older Borges meeting a younger Borges, full of dreams and sight, and telling that younger self of the horrors that fell upon Argentina after World War II (needless to say, Borges was not a fan of Juan Perón).  The writing is very elegant, with little intertextual play.  It reads as a dialogue between the author's memory (just as Perón had temporarily returned to power in 1973, before being ousted later in 1975) and the author's present.  It is not a cheery tale, but it is a powerful one, told simply, but with a lot to say within those few words.  It is perhaps my third-favorite story in this collection.

My favorite story, "The Congress" is one of Borges' longest solo fiction works.  It is perhaps one of his favorite works, if comments in this collection's epilogue are any indication.  It is a story of a secret, utopic universal congress, where every type and nationality of people would be represented.  Naturally, this raises issues about people who represent more than one entity within themselves, so the Congress expands.  Then issues regarding culture, particularly language and literature are raised, leading to more growth.  The conclusion to this story is ambiguous, as it can be seen as a metaphor for human existence and our desire to create order and yet to avoid having other systems of order imposed upon us.

"The Book of Sand" is a late counterpart to the much earlier "The Library of Babel."  Here, instead of an infinite library, there is a book of infinite pages, with no beginnings or ends.  How the narrator tells this story is what is important here and Borges certainly makes the most out of this outlandish proposal.  "Ulrica" is the story of a romance, based perhaps on a romance that Borges once had (his second wife, María Kodama, has claimed that it's about her, but this, along with other matters surrounding Borges' last decade of life, is a hotly-contested issue).  It is a good story, but it does not move me as the three I mention above.

There is a Lovecraft-inspired horror story in here, "There Are More Things," but it was perhaps the weakest story in this collection, or at least the one I related to the least.  "The Disco" is a clever fiction of barely 1000 words dealing with Odin, but it is relatively light.  The same holds true for the otherwise-solid remaining stories:  "The Sect of the Thirty," "The Mirror and the Mask," "Undr," "Utopia of a Man Who is Resting," "El soborno," and "Avelino Arredondo."  None of these are bad tales, but they are lesser than the three I highlighted above.

Although some of the tales contain references to the usual Borgesian staples of labyrinths, mirrors, and the death-foreboding doubles, the mood of these stories, as I noted above, is rather more reflective and sometimes somber.  It is a collection of stories by an author who knows he is in the evening of his life and yet so much power was put into these tales that hint at the death that was looming over him.  For those who think that Borges' stories were all about puzzles and metaphysics, a reading of The Book of Sand should convince that reader that this is far from the case.  Highly recommended.

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