The Book of Sand – Intermediate Level
The line is made up of an infinite number of points. A plane is made up of an infinite number of lines. A volume is made up of an infinite number of planes. The hypervolume is made up of an infinite number of volumes. No… using geometry is unquestionably not the best way of beginning my story. Nowadays it is common to claim that made-up stories are true. Mine, however, is true.
I live alone on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Belgrano Street, Buenos Aires. Late one evening, a few months back, I heard a knock at my door. I opened it and a tall stranger stood there. There was nothing special about his appearance — or perhaps it was my bad eyesight that made it seem that way. Dressed in gray and carrying a gray suitcase in his hand, he had an unassuming look about him. I saw at once that he was a foreigner. At first, he struck me as old. Only later did I realize that I had been misled by his thin blond hair, which was, in a Scandinavian sort of way, almost white. During the course of our conversation, which was not to last an hour, I found out that he came from the Orkneys.
I invited him in, pointing to a chair. He sat for a while before speaking. There was a feeling of sadness about him — as there is now about me.
“I sell Bibles,” he said.
Speaking like a Bible expert, I replied, “In this house are several English Bibles, including the first – John Wicliffe’s. I also have Cipriano de Valera’s and Luther’s which, from a literary point of view, is the worst. And I have a Latin copy of the Vulgate. As you see, it’s not exactly Bibles I stand in need of.”
After a few moments of silence, he said, “I don’t only sell Bibles. I can show you a Holy Book I came across in Bikaner, India. It may interest you.”
He opened the suitcase and laid the book on a table. It was covered in a kind of cloth, and there was no doubt that it had passed through many hands. Examining it, I was surprised by its unusual weight. On the spine were the words “Holy Writing” and, below them, “Bombay.”
“Nineteenth century, probably,” I remarked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never found out.”
I opened the book and looked through some of the pages. The writing was unknown to me. The pages, which were worn and hard to read, were laid out in a double column, as in a Bible. The text was closely printed and made up of short paragraphs, also like a Bible. In the upper corners of the pages were Arabic numbers. I noticed that one left-hand page bore the number (let us say) 40,514 and the facing right-hand page 999. I turned the page; in the upper corner was a number in the millions. It also bore a small illustration, like the kind found in dictionaries. It was of an anchor, done with pen and ink as if by a school-boy who could not draw very well.
It was at this point that the stranger said, “Look at the illustration closely. You’ll never see it again.”
I noted my place and closed the book. At once, I opened it again. I looked for the illustration of the anchor, page by page, without success. “It seems to be a form of the Bible in some Indian language, is it not?” I said to hide my concern.
“No,” he replied. Then, as if telling me a secret, he lowered his voice. “I got the book in a town out in the desert in exchange for a handful of rupees and a Bible. Its owner did not know how to read. I think that he saw the Book of Books as a talisman. He was of the lowest class in Indian society: an untouchable. Nobody but other untouchables could stand in his shadow, let alone touch him, without being made dirty by the contact. He told me his book was called the Book of Sand, because neither the book nor the sand has any beginning or end.”
The stranger asked me to find the first page.
I laid my left hand on the cover and, trying to put my thumb on the title page, I opened it. It was useless. Every time I tried, a number of pages came between the cover and my thumb. It was as if they kept growing from the book.
“Now find the last page.”
Again I failed. In a voice that was not mine, I just managed to say, “This can’t be.”
Still speaking in a low voice, the stranger said, “It can’t be, but it is. The number of pages in this book is no more or less than infinite. None is the first page, none the last. I don’t know why the page numbers don’t follow each other. Perhaps to suggest that the terms of an infinite series admit any number.”
Then, as if he were thinking out loud, he said, “If space is infinite, we may be at any point in space. If time is infinite, we may be at any point in time.”
His wild ideas started to annoy me. “You are religious, no doubt?” I asked him.
“Yes, I’m a Christian. But I don’t feel guilty in any way. I am reasonably sure of not having cheated the native when I gave him the Word of God in exchange for his devilish book.”
I told him that I was sure he had done nothing to be sorry for, and asked if he were just passing through this part of the world. He replied that he planned to return to his country in a few days. It was then that I learned that he was a Scot from the Orkney Islands. I told him I liked for Scotland very much, through my love of Robert Louis Stevenson and David Hume.
“You mean Stevenson and Robbie Burns,” he corrected.
While we spoke, I kept looking through the infinite book. Pretending not to care, I asked, “Do you plan to offer this unusual book to the British Museum?”
“No. I’m offering it to you,” he said, and he asked for a rather high sum for the book.
I answered, in all truthfulness, that such a sum was out of my reach, and I began thinking. After a minute or two, I came up with an idea.
“I propose an exchange,” I said. “You got this book for a handful of rupees and a copy of the Bible. I’ll offer you the amount of my monthly pension check, which I’ve just collected, and my Wicliffe Bible. It has been handed down through my family for hundreds of years.”
“An original Wicliffe!” he said quietly to himself.
I went to my bedroom and brought him the money and the book. He studied the title page carefully, and turned the other pages with all the excitement of a true lover of great books.
“It’s a deal,” he said.
It amazed me that he did not try to get a better price. Only later was I to realize that he had entered my house with his mind made up to sell the book. Without counting the money, he put it away.
We talked about India, about Orkney, and about the Norwegian nobles who once ruled it. It was night when the man left. I have not seen him again, nor do I know his name.
I thought of keeping the Book of Sand in the space left on the shelf by the Wicliffe. However, in the end I decided to hide it behind the volumes of a broken set of The Thousand and One Nights. I went to bed and did not sleep. At three or four in the morning, I turned on the light. I got down the impossible book and looked through its pages. On one of them I saw an illustration of a mask. The upper corner of the page carried a number, which I no longer remember. But it was in the hundreds of millions.
I showed no one my treasure. To the luck of owning it was added the fear of having it stolen, as well as the worry that it might not truly be infinite. Having these two things on my mind all the time brought back old feelings that I could trust no one. I had only a few friends left. Now I stopped seeing even them. A prisoner of the book, I almost never went out anymore.
After studying every inch of the book with a magnifying glass, I was sure that there were no hidden parts or trickery. I discovered that the small illustrations came two thousand pages apart. I set about listing them from A to Z in a notebook, and was not long in filling this up. Never once was an illustration repeated. At night, during the short periods of sleep that was able to get, I dreamed of the book.
Summer came and went, and I realized that the book was monstrous. Was I, who looked upon the volume with my eyes, who held it in my hands, any less monstrous? I felt that the book was like something you would find in a nightmare. It was an evil thing that went against the laws of nature, and was dangerous to the world as we know it.
I thought of fire, but was scared that the burning of an infinite book might also prove infinite. I didn’t want to be the cause everyone on the planet dying from smoke. Somewhere I remembered reading that the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest. Before retirement I worked at the Argentine National Library, which contains nine hundred thousand volumes. I knew that to the right of the entrance was a staircase which lead down into the basement. Old books, maps and periodicals are kept there. One day I went to the library and managed to get downstairs without being seen. Trying not to notice at what height or distance from the door, I lost the Book of Sand on one of the basement’s dusty shelves.