The Book of Sand – Pre-Intermediate Level
Nowadays it is common to tell readers that made-up stories are true. Mine, however, is true.
I live alone on the fourth floor of a 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. Dressed in gray and carrying a gray suitcase in his hand, he had the look of a quiet man who did not want to be noticed. I saw at once that he was a foreigner. At first, I thought that he was old. Only later did I see 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 his visit, which was not to last an hour, I found out that he came from the Orkneys.
I asked 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.
“I have several English Bibles,” I answered, “including one of the first – John Wicliffe’s. I also have a Cipriano de Valera Bible, a Luther Bible, and a Latin copy of the Vulgate. As you see, I am not in need of Bibles.”
He said nothing for a few moments, and then added, “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 I could see that it had passed through many hands. Examining it, I was surprised by how heavy it was. On the part of the book you see when it is standing on the shelf were the words “Holy Writing” and, below them, “Bombay.”
“Around a hundred years old, probably,” I suggested.
“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 two columns, 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 black and white picture, like the kind found in dictionaries. It was of an anchor, and looked as if it had been done by a school-boy who could not draw very well.
It was at this point that the stranger said, “Look at the picture 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 anchor, page by page, without success.
To hide the fact that I was troubled by not being able to find the picture again, I asked the stranger a question. “It seems to be a form of the Bible in some Indian language, is it not?”
“No,” he answered. Then, as if telling me a secret, he lowered his voice. “I got the book in a town out in the desert for a handful of rupees and a Bible. Its owner did not know how to read. I think that he saw the book as having some sort of magic power that brought him good luck. He was of the lowest class in Indian society: an untouchable. Nobody but other untouchables could touch him without themselves being made dirty. He told me his book was called the Book of Sand, because both the book and the sand have no beginning and no end.”
The stranger asked me to find the first page.
I laid my left hand on the cover and, trying to put my right thumb on the front 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 when you have an infinite set of numbers, any number can come next.”
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 worry me. “You believe in God, surely?” I asked him.
“Yes, I’m a Christian. But I don’t feel bad in any way. I am reasonably sure that giving the Indian man the Word of God for his devilish book was a fair trade.”
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 said 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. “Do you plan to offer this unusual book to the British Museum?” I asked, acting as if I did not to care.
“No. I’m offering it to you,” he said, and he asked for a very high price for the book.
I answered, in all truthfulness, that such a price was out of my reach, and I began thinking. After a minute or two, I came up with an idea.
“I suggest that we trade,” 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 retirement check, which I just got today, 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 front page carefully, and turned the other pages with all the excitement of a true lover of great books.
“Agreed!” he said.
It surprised me that he did not try to get a better price. Only later was I to understand 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 Norwegians who once ruled it. It was night when the man left. I have not seen him again, and I do not 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 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 a picture 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 that someone might steal it, 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 noticed that there were two thousand pages between each of the small pictures. I set about listing them from A to Z in a notebook, and was not long in filling this up. Never once was did I see the same picture twice. At night, during the short periods of sleep that was able to get, I dreamed of the book.
Summer came and went, and I could see 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 bad dream. 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 result in an infinite fire. 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 books. 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 how high or far from the door, I lost the Book of Sand on one of the basement’s shelves.