Jorge Luis Borges,my father and the Book of Sand

· Books, Literature, Philosophy

Jorge Luis Borges

Nirmal Chandra Kumar,my father, who died of cerebral stroke in 1978, aged 60, was a man who was an antiquarian and owned a rare bookshop in Calcutta , India.

He was also among the greatest influences on a generation of artists, from filmmaker to fiction writers, folk musician to folk artist; actors to activists, writer to wanderer; teachers to travellers -more so perhaps than any art critic or editor of his times.For 30 years, Kumar, a stocky Bengali, presided over his own collection of rare books, prints, maps, manuscripts and other materials in his own bookshop

Nirmal Chandra Kumar

Kumar was often compared with Jorge Luis Borges for his obsession with books. He was compared by none other than a man of letters, R.P.Gupta himself. Gupta himself was a bibliophile and spent all his spare time with books. Gupta in his book ‘Stan Kal Patra’, literally translated meaning, Time Manner Place or A place in time, gave an instance of Kumar’s involvement with books. Quote, “Kumar ‘ used to be so engrossed in his books that once whilst I was in Kumar’s place,I asked somebody; the many ways Hoogly could be spelt . I was surprised at the response from Kumar, who reeled out the names – O’Malley, Potter and Laurie -all names of authors of books on the river Hoogly. Kumar was like Borges .He lived in a world of books and everything revolved around it.” But who is Borges? Jean Luis Borges’ fantasies are those of a encyclopedic erudite lover of books.

Borges tells of the adventure of a book collector who discovers minor discrepancies in the woodcuts decorating different copies of the same edition of a book. (If this sounds obscure, it is). Where Kafka envisions a bureaucratic nightmare, Borges envisions an endless library. Borges is not interested in the world, it seems, but only in its books. One of his short stories describes a complete map of the world, 1:1 in scale, just like the world, but not a messy part of it: rather its perfect, paper bound catalogue.

Borges found work as first assistant at the Buenos Aires Municipal Library in Miguel Cané, a working class area. There were so few books, that cataloguing more than one hundred books per day, he was told, would leave little to do for the other staff and so look bad. The task took him about an hour each day and the rest of his time he spent in the basement of the library, writing articles, short stories and translations.

Jorge Luis Borges loved reading as a child and would spend hours on end with his books. As a young man, Borges had difficulty socializing with his peers, and as a result turned to books even more. Looking back, it is easy to see that Borges substituted novels and poetry for friends and playmates. Borges would never feel ridicule or censure from the companionship he had with written words, many penned years earlier. When Jorge Luis Borges began writing, however, it can be noticed that much of his works are centered on books. This may not seem all that unusual, due to his love of books, and his later occupation, however it can also be seen another way. Borges, in “The Book of Sand” particularly, had an unhealthy obsession with books and wanted to keep others from developing the same obsession.

In his fifties he went blind due to a hereditary condition that would also affect his son; however he continued his work and eventually became the Director of the National Library of Argentina. (Gargan) His own writing wasn’t recognized until 1961 when he won an International Publisher’s Prize with playwright Samuel Beckett for his work Solomon’s Other Voices, Other Vistas claims the following year he became even more widely known and received much praise for a collection of short stories he had published titled Ficciones: 1935-1944.

Being a librarian and lover of books, it is quite fitting that one of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories is about a book and one man’s obsession with it. “The Book of Sand” was published in a collection of the same name in 1977. It’s the story about a man who purchases a mysterious book from a Bible seller. The book is in a language the narrator has never seen before, but the page numbers are in Arabic. It’s also in the two column format of a Bible, and says “Holy Writ” and “Bombay” on the side. The seller of the book warns the narrator that once he’s seen a page, he’ll never see it again. The salesman challenges the narrator to find the first page of the book, and then the last. Each time, the man is unable to do so. The pages seem to have a will of their own. Giving what he thinks is a fair price for such a treasure, the narrator purchases the book.

The main character studies the book continuously. He stops going out. He stops seeing his friends. He wakes up in the middle of the night and studies the book for hours on end. He keeps an alphabetic list of the pictures he’s seen in the book, wondering how many he’ll see before it repeats. The list continues to grow, and he never sees the same picture twice. He realizes the book is monstrous, and it has tainted him. He thinks about destroying the book by fire, but fears the “burning of an infinite book might prove likewise infinite and suffocate the planet with smoke.” Finally he thinks of the Argentine National Library. (Coincidentally this is where Jorge Luis Borges worked for many years.) He goes to the library, and trying not to notice the height or length of the shelf, he leaves the book.

Borges’ main message seems to be that too much of anything is never a good thing. In this case, everything in the main character’s life ceased to exist with the exception of the monstrous book.

The narrator stopped doing things he enjoyed and instead studied and stressed over the book. He feared to even share the book with others. It became an obsession. Because there are a few similarities between this story and Borges’ life, such as the story taking place in Argentina, the narrator’s love of books, and the mention of the Argentine National Library, it may be possible that Borges inserted part of himself into the story. It would not be the first time a story of his was autobiographical. He admitted that “El Sur” was in fact based on events in his own life.  “The Book of Sand” may also be, in part, autobiographical. Perhaps Borges felt that his love of books had begun running his life, and made it impossible to other things he once enjoyed. He had always loved books and in fact that was why he had become a librarian, but maybe that part of his life had taken over the rest of it. He is one of the greatest bibliophile of all times.

Jorge Luis Borges was born in 1899, in Buenos Aires. A few years later his family moved to the northern suburb of Palermo, which he was to celebrate in prose and verse. He received his earliest education at home, where he learned English and read widely in his father’s library of English books. When Borges was nine years of age, he began his public schooling in Palermo, and in the same year, published his first literary undertaking – a translation into Spanish of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince.”

In 1914 the Borges family traveled to Europe. When World War I broke out, they settled for the duration in Switzerland where young Borges finished his formal education at the Collège in Geneva. By 1919, when the family moved on to Spain, Borges had learned several languages and had begun to write and translate poetry.

In Seville and Madrid he frequented literary gatherings where he absorbed the lessons of new poetical theorists of the time – especially those of Rafael Cansinos Asséns, who headed a group of writers who came to be known as “ultraists.” When the family returned to Argentina in 1921, Borges rediscovered his native Buenos Aires and began to write poems dealing with his intimate feelings for the city, its past, and certain fading features of its quiet suburbs.

With other young Argentine writers, Borges collaborated in the founding of new publications, in which the ultraist mode was cultivated in the New World. In 1923 his first volume of poetry, Fervor of Buenos Aires, was published, and it also made somewhat of a name for him in Spain.
In 1925 his second book of poetry, Moon across the Way, appeared, followed in 1929 by San Martin Notebook – the last new collection of his verse to appear for three decades. Borges gradually developed a keen interest in literary criticism. His critical and philosophical essays began to fill most of the volumes he published during the period 1925-1940: Inquisitions (1925), The Dimensions of My Hope (1926), The Language of the Argentines (1928), Evaristo Carriego (1930), Discussion (1932), and History of Eternity (1938).
In 1938, with his father gravely ill from a heart ailment, Borges obtained an appointment in a municipal library in Buenos Aires. Before year’s end, his father died. Borges, himself, came close to death from septicemia, the complication of an infected head injury.This period of crisis produced an important change in Borges. He began to write prose fiction tales of a curious and highly original character. These pieces seemed to be philosophical essays invested with narrative qualities and tensions. Others were short stories infused with metaphorical concepts. Ten of these concise, well-executed stories were collected in Ficciones (1944). A second volume of similar tales, entitled The Aleph, was published in 1949. Borges’s fame as a writer firmly rests on the narratives contained in these two books, to which other stories were added in later editions.

Borge with Maria Kodama by the Siene

In 1955, following the overthrow of the Peronist regime in Argentina, Borges was named director of the National Library in Buenos Aires. In that same year his sight deteriorated to the point where he became almost totally blind.

After The Aleph, he published an important collection of essays, Other Inquisitions (1952); several collections of poetry and prose sketches, Dreamtigers (1960), In Praise of Darkness (1969), The Deep Rose (1975), and The Iron Coin (1976); and two collections of new short stories, Dr. Brodie’s Report (1970) and The Book of Sand (1975). Aside from these works, Borges wrote over a dozen books in collaboration with other persons. Foremost among his collaborators was Adolfo Bioy Casares, an Argentine novelist and short-story writer, who was Borges’s closest literary associate for nearly 40 years.

Borges married Elsa Astete Millan in 1967 but was divorced in 1970. He married Maria Kodama in 1986, shortly before his death on June 14, in Geneva, Switzerland.

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