World Book Day Review: "The Book of Sand" By J.L. Borges (& a bit about the Book of Imaginary Beings) #GVbook09

On UNESCO World Book Day and as part of the Global Voices Book challenge, I thought I would tackle a book from an Argentine author. Why? Well, Argentina is one of the places where my sister once lived that I did not have the chance to visit & the place that Celeste, Jorge & Romina, friends who gravitate around the Global Voices/Rising Voices sphere, call home. I don't know much about Argentina and although the epic battles at La Bombonera between Boca Juniors and River Plate are famous all the way to Antananarivo, I desperately needed to know more a bit more.
I asked Celeste where I should start with if I were to read an Argentine author (except for Che Guevara who would be in a category of his own) and she immediately suggested Jorge (corrected) Luis Borges.

I was delighted to learn more about Borges and his work.
However, for the purpose of the book challenge and learning more about the culture, Borges is a complex fellow because he spent a lot of his time in many different parts of the world. Then again, it might just be the right fit since a Global Voices initiative will always redefine and challenge the established boundaries between cultures and aim to bridge them together.
In his writing, Borges would often nonchalantly drop phrases from Hugo, Balke or Schopenhauer in the middle of a stories without bothering with translation, probably assuming that we all should know at least this much from each foreign languages.

The Book of Sand is a collection of short stories that bends time, space and personalities. For the untrained reader like myself, it takes some adjusting to stay with Borges train of thought. Truth be told, many of the subtleties of his writing are still lost on me but I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

In my naive opinion, the Book of Sand felt like a challenge to the reader to look beyond the finality of events and understand that the beginning and end, fact and imagination are all truly relative. Such assessments are sometimes difficult to accept for someone who has spent most of his life trying to prove hypothesis as facts.
There are 13 short stories in the book but I will focus on one called The Congress because it speaks to the difficulty for a heterogeneous group to come together in trying to achieve a common goal.
In The Congress, the narrator is Alexander Ferri, an Argentine who recalls his days as a member of a society called the "Congress of the World". One of the goal of this group composed of many nationalities was to preserve classic books from every regions of the world. The dynamic of the group is described in details by Ferri, from the charismatic leader Glencoe to the internal rivalries of Eguren and Ferri. They all met in a ranch and are sent on missions to collect classics fro all over the world. The fascination for Europe is touched upon when members are manoeuvring to be sent to the libraries of Paris or London. Ferri falls in love with Beatrice in paris and fails in his mission to collect the books.
The Congress comes to an end abruptly when Glencoe gathers all the books collected and orders them to be burn. The reason he says, is that the idea of a Congress itself was wrong in assuming that they were an accurate representation of the rest of the world. Does the only engineer there represent all engineers ? Does Nora, the Norwegian truly represent all Norwegians ?

The Congress points that we like to shrink and summarize the world in a way that can be comprehensible to us but, in the end, these attempts are always futile. It is just impossible to have a true replicate of all the regions of the world and any similar initiatives are pointless.

As Madagascar tries to find an exit to its political dead end, such assessment of the true representation of a group is hitting very close to home for me at this time. No entity can ever claim that it represents perfectly a population. However, a group has to agree on a set of rules to live by and tolerate each other. When those agreements are rendered meaningless for whatever reasons, the opus of the members (like the collection of classic books initiative) usually ends in ashes.

Even though, this particular story brought me back to the crisis back home, I welcomed the rest of the short stories as an escape to the accrued violence there for the past few days.

A final link between Borges and Madagascar can be found in his other book: the Book of Imaginary Beings where Borges devotes a whole chapter to the origins of mythological creatures called lemuri:
"The Lemuri were the souls of the evil dead, created by Romulus to subdue the restless spirit of his brother Remus".

That is indeed consistent with Malagasy traditional folk stories in which lemurs are sometimes thought to carry the spirit of passed relatives.
I am sure Georgia (GAP) and David will be thrilled to know that the monkey on their back might just be the embodied spirit of someone's ancestors :). And Leonard, don't be surprised if those guys start to engage you in a conversation.


  1. I am fairly certain that the entire Global Voices community will reincarnate into lemurs in our future lives. I know that Borges would approve.

    You know, Nicholas is a big Borges fan as well.

    (Unrelated: Last night I saw a presentation by Abderrahmane Sissako from Mauritania. He really impressed me and I'm going to watch Bamako as soon as possible. Much of what he was talking about was very much related to GV and RV - the one way flow of culture from west to africa, barriers to entry in media production, the way piracy hurts local media producers, etc, etc.)

  2. David,

    does that make Madagascar the de facto location for GV summit in a 100 years ? :)

    I figure Nicholas would get Borges, I have much catching up to do to know what he is talking about most of the times.

    Thank you for sharing Sissako's work. Awesome discourse and I love how he explains that African issues need a more comprehensive take than just riffing about its dictators and corruption.

  3. what strange animal, i never seen it before !