I came across this book in a village on the plain, and I traded a few rupees and a Bible for it. The man who owned it didn’t know how to read. I suspect he saw the Book of Books as an amulet. He was of the lowest caste; people could not so much as step on his shadow without being defiled. He told me his book was called the Book of Sand because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end.
The stories of Jorge Luis Borges are shot through with deep philosophical paradoxes. The questions of time, space and infinity are often interwoven into the pages of a book – with a hint of magic. Many are familiar with The Library of Babel which outlines ‘an indefinite, perhaps infinite’ library, a library that, in this magical world, some call the universe. Within the confines of the Library of Babel, every possible book of every possible combination of letters is said to be collected. This library is, in essence, the library of libraries.
But if the Library of Babel is a library that is all libraries, then what if there was a book that is all books? What if, in the pages of a book, one could find infinity itself?
In his essay ‘Partial Magic in the Quixote’ Borges recounts a series of odd occurrences that take place throughout the history of literature. In Cervantes’s masterpiece Don Quixote, Borges begins to discover the problem of infinity through a number of events; events that seem to blur the line between fiction and reality. First of all:
In the sixth chapter of the first part, the priest and the barber inspect Don Quixote’s library; astoundingly one of the books examined is Cervantes’s own Galatea and it turns out that the barber is a friend of the author and does not admire him very much … The barber, a dream, or the form of a dream, of Cervantes passes judgement on Cervantes….
Here the barber is a mere apparition imagined by the author, an apparition who in the same stroke becomes the judge of the author. The world of imagination starts to cross paths with that of real life – a playful addition perhaps but not exactly an infinite paradox. However, this ‘strange play of ambiguities’ culminates in the second part of the novel where the protagonists themselves have begun to read the the first part of the Quixote! In other words, they have seen themselves within the work of fiction as a work of fiction. As Borges describes, ‘the protagonists of the Quixote are, at the same time, readers of the Quixote.’
This theme continues in a variety of historical works, including, famously, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play in which the audience watches a play within a play – a performance that seems to echo the tragedy of Hamlet itself. But where the idea of an infinite book is really epitomised is in the Thousand and One Nights, where Scheherazade, a virgin married to the sultan who is due to be decapitated at dawn, distracts the king with her tales for one thousand and one nights in order to avoid putting her fate in his hands.
For Borges, the magic of infinity becomes illuminated on the six hundred and second night, ‘On that night, the king hears from the queen his own story. He hears the beginning of the story, which comprises all the others and also – monstrously – itself.’ Were the queen to persist in the telling of this story she would have to include a retelling of all the tales she had just told; she and the king would be trapped in an infinite literary paradox… As Borges describes in When Fiction Lives in Fiction: ‘The immobile king would forever listen to the truncated story of the Thousand and One Nights, now infinite and circular….’ (much like Zeno’s famous paradox).
So what Borges sees in the Thousand and One Nights, much like the Quixote, is a book that contains itself within itself. The perturbing nature of this paradox is never more evident than in his story The Book of Sand where Borges lays out his depiction of an infinite book, or the book of books: 1
I opened it at random. … I was struck by an odd fact: the even-numbered page would carry the number 40,514, let us say, while the odd-numbered page that followed it would be 999. I turned the page; the next page bore an eight-digit number. It also bore a small illustration, like those one sees in dictionaries: an anchor drawn in pen and ink, as though by the unskilled hand of a child. It was at that point that the stranger spoke again. “Look at it well. You will never see it again.”
The Book of Sand is a book that contains a seemingly infinite number of pages. Among the pages of this boundless tome could be contained the pages of every other book ever written, and every book that will ever be written. The Thousand and One Nights, as perhaps Borges’ biggest influence, and possibly the first accidental tale of infinity to be told from the pages of a book, is given a subtle reference here: ‘I thought of putting the Book of Sand in the space left by the Wyclif but I chose at last to hide it behind some imperfect volumes of the Thousand and One Nights.’
So to conclude, what do we find in common in all of these stories; stories where fiction lives in fiction? What is it that, throughout history, has fascinated us about tales of the infinite; tales that break down the barriers of fiction and reality? I’ll give the final words to the great poet himself:
these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious. In 1833, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is a sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written.