The Book of Sand has thirteen stories - an accidental or fatal number, the author tells us, but not magical - and they all, more or less, deal with the same theme. While, in each and every story, there is a mystery, an enigma, a puzzle that may or may not be solved, the answer is always the same. Borges wants us to look beyond the artifices of our lives, beyond the linguistic, economic, political and religious restrictions we have given ourselves, and see the world for what it actually is.
One of the - many and varied - literary techniques that Borges uses is that of the literary reference. Always, the narrator uses an obscure reference to better make a point, or to expand the depth of a scene or image, using Tacitus, Sigurd and Brynhild, Ibsen, more. Yet, nestled quietly in between real authors and works are fictional creations, authors that are clever combinations of existing writers, works with titles that are pure fancy. The point that Borges is making is, I believe, that, with the passing of time and the simultaneously corrupting and enhancing efforts of language and culture, it does not matter if these works ever existed or not. To be affected by them it enough, to make a point or drive home an idea is enough. Four hundred years on, invoking the 'fighting windmills' phrase, does it matter if Cervantes ever really existed? Does it matter if I have or have not read the exploits of the man from La Mancha? In Borges world, the answer is no.
In one story, 'Utopia of a Tired Man', Eudoro Acevedo is transplanted from his home in the 20th century, to a place many thousands of years into the future. He meets a man, who explains the fall and rise again of mankind, who reveals the future history until 'now', when everything is different. He explains:
'The planet was populated by collective ghosts - Canada, Brazil, the Swiss Congo, and the Common Market. Almost no one knew anything of the history that preceded those platonic entities, but, of course, they knew every last detail of the most recent congress of pedagogies, or of imminent breakdowns in diplomatic relations, or of statements issued by Presidents...These things were read to be forgotten, for, only hours later, other trivialities would blot them out.'
This lengthy quote is perhaps Borges' most blatant and clear attack on the culture in which he lived. He quite obviously has a love of nature and literature and life, and bemoans the seeming lack of interest that most other people display. While the rest of the story is an interesting look at the future, it is clearly fanciful, and not an ideal world for Borges. Rather, it was written to make us think, something we just don't do enough.
The stories, composed when Borges was over 70, are for the most part an exercise in memory. A narrator of one - Ulrike - will remember a fleeting love. Another story has a group of men conversing on the problem of knowledge, which inspires an old man, 'a bit lost in metaphysics', to share a story of his youth. This is fairly typical for Borges, but is especially poignant here. The characters are remembering sad or strange or horrifying times, and nearly every single narrator mentions needing to share the tale before they die. Borges, at seventy, probably shared this opinion.
I have not taken the time to summarise Borges' short stories, for to do so would be to lose the point. Borges is capable of compressing a vast myriad of ideas and thoughts into a seven page short story, and to further reduce such themes and suggestions would be to lose them. Instead, I have commented upon what they meant to me, and what, I believe, they meant to him. Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps not, but that is the genius of Borges. He is infinitely interpretable, and should be: For each of us, there is an interpretation that fits, and for each of us, it is the right one.