An old man's stories? Aren't old men's stories always the best? Borges took a long break from fiction before these tales were written, and the difference shows, both in his skill, which has grown, and in his sense of the world, which has become more melancholy. The change in outlook is best expressed in the tale 'A Weary Man's Utopia', a story which threw me into a fit of depression, but which is very beautiful! This volume also contains my favourite tale by Borges, 'The Rose of Paracelsus', which is actually from 'Shakespeare's Memory', Borges last collection of fiction, which contained only four stories and is included in this volume. It is about a legendary alchemist who supposedly has the ability to recreate a rose from it's own ashes, as well as the usual talent for transmuting any metal into gold. When a young man appears demanding to be accepted as Paracelsus's pupil, the old alchemist demands in return absolute belief without prior proof of his abilities. Its portrayal of the relationship between Paracelsus and the young man can be read as an expression of Borges's relationship with his audience, or the world at large. As with Paracelsus's magic, one needs to surrender cynicism and put yourself in Borges's hands before these stories can be truly appreciated. Perhaps not the best introduction to this incredible writer, this volume should probably only be purchased if you have read and enjoyed his earlier fictions, as it is enriched by knowledge of his earlier work, which allows you to appreciate the subtle contrast. As I am not a reader of Spanish, I am unable to comment on the translation, but other reviewers have already commented on the translator, who did the volume 'Labyrinths', also available from Penguin. Their comments are not favourable, but I can say that nothing in his prose will stop you from enjoying this book. Even if these tales are inferior to the originals, they are still superior, in my opinion, to those of any English-language writer of short stories except Edgar Allen Poe, and that is high praise indeed.
Trying to full describe the writings of Jorge Luis Borges is like trying to explain exactly why Leonardo da Vinci's art still captivates. The man wrote works of art.
And "The Book of Sand and Shakespeare's Memory" brings together two of Borges' shorter collections, with all sorts of surreal twists in a seemingly ordinary world. These rich, slightly uneasy stories are a shining example of why people enjoy Borges -- magical, rich in language, and poignant in their finality.
Interestingly, two of the stories -- one from each collection -- have strikingly similar stories. "August 25, 1983" has Borges stumbling across an older version of himself, dying as he tells Borges a bit about his future. And "The Other" has Borges at Cambridge, where he accidentally bumps into a younger version of himself, whom he imparts some wisdom to.
But the stories are about far stranger things as well -- a hunt for blue tigers that leads to strangely fascinating stones, an alchemist's rose, a poet telling a king of pure beauty and wonder, receiving the hazy memories of Shakespeare, a book with no ending, the ultimate Word, a creepy religious sect, and even a Lovecraftian homage in which a man comes across grotesque aliens in a remote house.
Good luck finding flaws in this book -- Borges' writing is exquisitely detailed and atmospheric, and densely packed with philosophical pockets. And these stories are magical realism in the purest sense, with a slight, almost mystical twist to the everyday events that we take for granted -- being mistaken for someone else, being sold a book, et cetera.
And Borges wraps these stories in lush, digified prose that takes a little while to wade through, but the richness of the words he uses is worth it ("The sin the two of us now share... the sin of having known Beauty, which is a gift forbidden mankind"). He's even able to craft stories very unlike his usual style -- "The Mirror and the Mask" has the style and flavour of an ancient Irish myth.
Perhaps it's because these were Borges' last stories, but there's a very reflective, introspective feeling to many of them -- Borges seems to be glancing back at his life, and ahead to his death. But he doesn't lose his touch for the haunting, almost otherworldly explorations ("Blue Tigers") and the feeling that the unnameable is just a misstep away.
"The Book of Sand and Shakespeare's Memory" is a brilliant collection of Borges' exquisite stories. Magical and gritty, beautiful and haunting -- and sadly, the last work he did.
on 19 September 2000
Borges is often referred to in superlatives. One of the most influential writers of the twentieth century in any language, Borges' style is fundamental to his appeal. So fans should treasure this excellent translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, who collaborated with Borges on a number of his books. I have to admit preferring the prose to the verse sections of this book, and the Book if Sands is not as extraordinary as Ficciones. Nevertheless, it is a classic. As a Borges afficionado (in English and Spanish), I can only regret that di Giovanni has not published more translations of Borges prose - he communicates the spirit as well as the meaning of the crotchety old genius.
on 18 September 2007
The Book of Sand, especially when read chronologically,after Borges earlier work, evokes a mood only comparable to Shakespeare's final romantic phase, in which the themes loss and gain, reconciliation, mortality and art itself meet under the guise of a fantastic neoclassic world. There is a modesty and an ease in Borges craft that, when dealing with the old themes of his literary and his personal life (perhaps for him these are synonymous) that gives us the sense of the master looking back on his art and on life and reflecting. Again we have the double Borges met in his earlier work, peering at himself from across the bounds of time that few writers have experimented with, especially in the teasing biographical way that Borges is known for. For Borges, as the world was realized by Shakespeare in his unsubstantial pageant ('all the worlds a stage'), his life and obsession- literature- emerges poignantly in his infinite volume- The Book of Sand.
on 23 July 2010
Borges was an old man when he wrote these stories but why do they all have to be told by old men? It is a bit off-putting for this reader who is not an old man. Considering the imagination he unleashes, Borges could have considered also speaking with other voices. The least attractive stories for me were the ones that tell a sort of parallel Argentinean history. The translator did feel it necessary to supply a lot of notes for these stories, which should be a warning. The less geographically and temporally fixed stories are much more enjoyable. Borges' theme of infinite texts is revisited, as is his notion of time as a landscape that you can travel in, rather than a line. I give three stars as an average; a few stories are five-star, but others only one.