The Book of Sand

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Jorge Luis Borges, who will turn eighty next year, has been writing and publishing for fifty-six years of his life. Because of the widely held belief of many readers in the United States that nothing of any literary consequence has been written in Spanish since Don Quixote, Borges was not “discovered” until the 1960’s by the English speaking world. Some tardy discoverers refuse to recognize the South American origin of Borges and continue to place him in anthologies and works of criticism dealing with modern European fiction and literature, but both Borges’ life and literature remain very much Latin American. Just as the Nicaraguan Ruben Dario revitalized Spanish poetry in the nineteenth century, so Borges renovated the prose idiom of the Spanish language.

Borges is the chronological father of modern Latin American writing as well, a paternity readily admitted to by such progeny as Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Carlos Fuentes (The Death of Artemio Cruz, A Change of Skin, Aura), Julio Cortázar (Hopscotch, Blow-up), and still others less famous or less translated. His late appearance made him anachronistically a contemporary contributor to that explosion of novels, short stories, and poetry starting in the mid-1960’s in Latin America known as the “boom.” Ironically, most of Borges’ influence and fame rests upon a corpus of essays (Inquisiciones, 1925; Evaristo Carriego, 1930; Discusión, 1932; Other Inquisitions, 1952) and short stories (A Universal History of Infamy, 1935; Ficciones, 1935-1944; The Aleph, 1949) that generally appeared between 1925 and 1952. As with any writer as productive as Borges there have been ups and downs of critical success. In fact, after the publication of Doctor Brodie’s Report (1970—Spanish, 1972—English), a new style and somewhat new subjects emerged, indicating an unexpected and regrettable change toward narrative simplicity. Fortunately, Borges has forsaken his flirtation with Rudyard Kipling and has returned to his stock of doubles, Platonic archetypes, mirrors, dreams, repeating patterns across time, and literary works-within-works in The Book of Sand. The same economical style and the same thematic preoccupations here echo those of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The Book of Sand’s thirteen stories explicitly and implicitly avoid, even disclaim novelty. In “The Congress” the aging narrator states that “novelties—maybe because I feel that they hold nothing essentially new and are really no more than timid variations—neither interest nor distract me.” Borges’ specific usage of the adverb “essentially” underscores his point that attempts at originality and newness are only pale reflections of eternal essences. With the possible exceptions of “The Bribe,” by his own admission a psychological story, and “There Are More Things” (also the title in the original), a tribute to and pastiche of the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, these compact narratives constantly stir up memories of plots, themes, and lines of earlier stories and essays and further heighten the Platonic effect so dear to Borges that “to know is to know again.”

Among the themes that Borges has used in the past those of the double, time, pantheism, and the existence of a magic word that expresses everything reappear singly or in combination in these stories. “The Other” employs the double. This initial story resembles “The Circular Ruins” of Ficciones and the poem, “Borges and I.” “Ulrike” uses cyclical time as the characters perform fundamental timeless acts. In “Ulrike” life imitates literature as it did in Ficciones’ “Theme of the Traitor and Hero” where the narrator suspects the “existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines.” In this instance, however, the Colombian narrator imperceptibly becomes Sigurd and Ulrike, Brynhild, characters of the Volsungs Saga. Apparently casual allusions to De Quincey and his Ann of Oxford Street, the Niebelungen, Henrik Ibsen, and William Morris, both of whom wrote versions of the Volsungs Saga, enrich the structure of this work and make it typically Borgesian. In this and in other stories of the collection the characters tend to disintegrate, one character blending with another, or often they remain nameless like their fictitious narrator.

Personal time, the important theme in “Avelino Arredondo,” contrasts Arredondo’s personal experience with a rigorous, unrelenting, external chronology. “Utopia of a Tired Man” uses the voyage in time to take the narrator out of the present and set him down into the distant future. This...

(The entire section is 1951 words.)