There’s no English translation of Borges’ El Libro de Arena, or The Book of Sand, available on the web, so I’ve gone and made a translation that I hereby publish forthwith:
The Book of Sand (translated from the Spanish) by Jorge Luis Borges
…thy rope of sands…
George Herbert (1593-1623)1
Lines consist of an infinite number of points; planes an infinite number of lines; volumes an infinite number of planes, hypervolumes an infinite number of volumes… No, this, this more geometrico, is definitely not the best way to begin my tale. Affirming a fantastic tale’s truth is now a story-telling convention; mine, though, is true.
I live alone, in a fourth-floor apartment on Calle Belgrano. One evening a few months ago, I heard a knock on the door. I opened it and in walked someone I had never met before. He was a tall man, of indistinct features. My myopia perhaps made me see him that way. Everything about him spoke of an honest poverty. He was dressed in grey and carried a grey valise. I sensed immediately that he was a foreigner. At first I thought him an old man; later I noticed that what misled me was his sparse hair, an almost-white blond, like a Scandinavian’s. Over the course of our conversation, which would last no longer than an hour, I learnt that he hailed from the Orkneys.
I showed him his seat. The man paused a moment before speaking. He exuded a melancholy air, as do I now.
“I sell Bibles,” he told me.
Not without pedantry I responded:
“In this house there are several English Bibles, including John Wyclif’s, the first of all. I also have Cypriano de Valera’s, Luther’s — which, as a piece of literature, is the worst of the lot — and a copy of the Vulgate in Latin. As you can see, it’s not Bibles I have a need for.”
After a brief silence he responded:
“I don’t sell only Bibles. I can show you a sacred book that might interest you. I aquired it in the outskirts of Bikanir.”
He opened his valise and placed the book on the table. It was a clothbound octavo volume which had undoubtedly passed through many hands. I examined the book; its unexpected heft surprised me. On the spine was printed Holy Writ and below that Bombay.
“From the nineteenth century I’d hazard,” I observed.
“I don’t know. I’ve never known,” was the response.
I opened it at random. The characters were unfamiliar. The pages, which appeared to me worn and of poor typographic quality, were printed in two columns like a Bible. The text was cramped and arranged in versicles. In the upper corner of each page were Arabic numerals. It caught my attention that the even-numbered page bore, let’s say, the number 40,514 and the odd-numbered page that followed 999. I turned the page; the overleaf bore an eight-digit number. Also printed was a small illustration, like those in dictionaries: an anchor drawn in pen and ink, as though by a child’s unskilled hand.
It was then that the stranger told me:
“Study the page well. You will never see it again.”
There was a threat in what he said, but not in his voice.
I took note of the page and shut the volume. I reopened it immediately.
In vain I searched for the figure of the anchor, page after page. To hide my discomfort, I said to him:
“This is a version of the Scripture in some Hindustani language, right?”
“No,” he replied.
Then he lowered his voice as if entrusting me with a secret:
“I acquired the book in a small town on the plains for a few rupees and a Bible. Its owner didn’t know how to read. I suspect that he saw the Book of Books as an amulet. He was of the lowest caste; people couldn’t step on his shadow without contamination. He told me that his book is called the Book of Sand because neither the book nor sand possess a beginning or an end.”
He suggested I try finding the first page.
I placed my left hand on the cover and opened the book with my thumb and forefinger almost touching. All my efforts were useless: several pages always lay between the cover and my hand. It was as though the pages sprouted from within the book.
“Now search for the last page.”
Again I failed; I only managed to stammer in a voice not my own:
“This cannot be.”
Always in a low voice, the Bible seller said:
“It cannot be, yet it is. The number of pages in this book is exactly infinite. No page is the first; none the last. I don’t know why they’re numbered in this arbitrary way. Perhaps it’s to demonstrate that the terms of an infinite series include any number.”
Later, as if he were thinking aloud:
“If space is infinite, we are in no particular point in space. If time is infinite, we are in no particular point in time.”
His musings irritated me. I asked him:
“You’re a religious man, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I’m Presbyterian. My conscience is clear. I’m sure I didn’t cheat the native when I gave him the Lord’s Word in exchange for his diabolical book.”
I assured him that he had no reason to reproach himself, and I asked him if he was just passing through these lands. He replied that he was thinking of returning to his homeland in a few days. It was then that I learnt he was Scotch, from the Orkney Isles. I told him that I had a special affection for Scotland because of my love of Stevenson and Hume.
“And of Robbie Burns,” he corrected.
While we spoke, I continued exploring the infinite book. With a false indifference I asked him:
“Do you intend to offer this curious specimen to the British Museum?”
“No. I offer it to you,” he said, and offered a high price.
I replied, in all honesty, that the price was too high for me and I remained in thought. After a few minutes I had come up with a plan.
“I propose a trade,” I said. “You obtained this volume for a few rupees and the Holy Scripture; I offer you my retirement funds, which I’ve just been paid, and the Wyclif Bible in gothic lettering. I inherited it from my parents.”
“A black-letter Wyclif!” he murmured.
I went to my bedroom and I brought back the money and book. He turned the pages and studied the binding with the fervour of a bibliophile.
“It’s a deal,” he said.
I was astonished that he did not haggle. Only afterwards did I realise that he had entered my house with the intention of selling the book. He didn’t count the bills; he put them away.
We chatted about India, the Orkneys and the Norwegian jarls who had governed them. Night had fallen by the time he had left. I never saw him again, nor do I know his name.
I thought of keeping the Book of Sand in the space left behind by the Wyclif Bible’s absence. In the end I opted to hide it behind several misshapen volumes of Thousand and One Nights.
I went to bed and could not sleep. At around three or four in the morning I turned on the light. I searched for the impossible book and turned its pages. In one of them I saw printed a mask. In the corner the page bore a number — I don’t remember which anymore — that was raised to the ninth power.
I showed my treasure to no one. Against the joy of possessing the book grew the fear that it would be stolen, and later the suspicion that it was not truly infinite. Both these worries aggravated my already long-standing misanthropy.
I had few friends still alive; I stopped seeing them. Prisoner of the Book, I almost never left the house. I examined the worn spine and cover with a magnifying glass, and I discounted the possibility of some kind of artifice. I found that the small illustrations were spaced two thousand pages apart from one to the other. I noted them down in a small alphabetised notebook, which did not take long to fill. They never repeated. At night, in the scarce intervals insomnia withdrew its hold over, I dreamed of the book.
Summer was coming to an end and I realised that the book was monstrous. There was no consolation in the thought that no less monstrous was I, who perceived the book with eyes and touched it with ten nailed fingers. I felt the book to be a nightmarish object, something obscene that slanders and compromises reality.
I thought of fire, but I feared that the burning of an infinite book would be just as infinite and suffocate the planet with smoke.
I remember having read that the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest. Before retiring I worked in the National Library, which housed nine-hundred thousand books; I know that to the right of the lobby a curved staircase descends to the basement, where the newspapers and maps are stored. I took advantage of the librarians’ inattentiveness for a moment to lose the Book of Sand in one of the humid shelves. I tried not to notice how high or how far from the door.
I feel somewhat relieved now, but I do avoid even passing by Mexico Street.2
1 The quote appears in English in the Spanish original.
2 The National Library of Argentina is found on Mexico Street (calle México) in Buenos Aires.