One of the most famous stories by the great 20th century Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges is, it seems to me, echoed via allusion in the first two panels of the prologue to Season of Mists. “Walk any path in Destiny’s garden, and you will be forced to choose, not once but many times. The paths fork and divide.”
The first Borges story to appear in English was “The Garden of Forking Paths”. It was published in the August 1948 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in a special “United Nations Issue” of the magazine. It has one of the more remarkable tables of contents of any magazine issue I know, with stories by Cornell Woolrich, Ferenc Molnár, Georges Simenon, Karel Čapek, and Anton Chekhov.
The EQMM “Garden of Forking Paths” appeared in a translation by Anthony Boucher, which means that Boucher was not only a well-respected writer of mysteries and science fiction, not only an important and influential reviewer of mystery fiction, not only the man whose name is honored by the annual World Mystery Convention (Bouchercon) and its awards (the Anthonies), not only the man who co-founded The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, not only an important mentor to many writers, including Philip K. Dick — he was also the man who first brought Borges’s work to the United States. Later translations would become the standard ones (as far as I know, Boucher’s has rarely been reprinted), but Boucher was first.
What does any of this have to do with The Sandman? Everything and nothing.
Borges is one of the incontrovertibly great writers of the 20th century. When discussions of the Nobel Prize for Literature turn to listing the major writers who never received the award, Borges’s name comes quickly to mind. And yet it was not in the pages of The New Yorker or even of a small, prestigious literary journal that he made his U.S. debut. No, it was in the pages of a saddle-stapled digest mystery magazine. It appeared between a story called “Being a Murderer Myself” (by Arthur Williams) and a story called “Killer in Khaki” (by Edgar D. Smith).
One of the strengths of The Sandman — though it is something I must admit it took me a bit of time to get used to — is the fertile and fervent mix of material from all sorts of cultural influences. There are the reimagining of characters from a panoply of past comic books, both familiar and esoteric. There are the mythological and religious and occult references, some from known history and some from Neil Gaiman’s imagination. There are the allusions to literatures of every type and era. There is the realism and the fantasy, the humor and wit and slapstick, the pathos and tragedy. It’s a smorgasbord and a collage, and yet the basic concept of the series, the foundational premises of the world the stories depict, links it all together and keeps it from feeling, so far, to me at least, random or thrown together. It’s a grand narrative made up of every other narrative. It’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” — a story about coincidences and infinity and so much more — and it’s Boucher’s Borges in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in August 1948, appearing beside stories by the greatest short story writer of them all, Chekhov, and one of the great pulp mystery writers, Cornell Woolrich, and the man who coined the word robot, Čapek — a slumgullion stew of languages and references, a crazy-awkward gem, an oh-so-unique Frankenstein’s monster of the high and low and in between. Everything. Nothing.
Destiny’s garden suggests this, as does his book. They contain all possibilities. But on reflection, any life’s twists and turns (paths, destinies) seem coherent because they are unified within the thing we call the person or the self. As the narrator tells us on the first page, “At the end of a lifetime of walking you might look back, and see only one path stretching out behind you, or look ahead, and see only darkness.” Our sense of selfhood comes from the coherence of the story we tell to bring order and sequence to the discrete moments that compose a life.
Perhaps this is why the Endless — Destiny, Desire, Despair, Delirium, Dream, Death, and the one that is missing, that has gone away for reasons we don’t yet know — have such human responses to each other. Perhaps humanness comes as much from a certain type of almost banal coherence as it does any other trait. (Is that what we mean by “consciousness”?) In conversation, the Endless hardly seem like the far-more-than-human beings they are. They have their alliances and grievances, their loves and pettiness. They taunt and bait each other. They seem like siblings of some sort, and they refer to each other as such. We might assume they would not need to appear to each other in forms that mimic those of humans, but they do nonetheless. They even have a sense of what is or isn’t appropriate couture — Destiny chides Death for her clothing when she first appears.
And then there is love. What does it mean for one of the Endless to have emotion? The prologue prepares us for what will be, it seems, an Orpheus & Eurydice quest to bring Nada back from Hell. Dream’s siblings, particularly Desire and Death, convince him that he treated Nada unjustly, that he must right his wrong. Beyond this sense of justice, he still seems to love her.
The Endless are not human, though, and their sense of morality and emotion has not, in previous stories, always been predictable or humane. Here, prologued, we don’t know yet where the paths will lead, or even which ones we might follow. The story stands on the precipice of possibility, about to begin.
We might as well end, then, for now, with a moment from another labyrinth: a bit of Borges via Boucher: “Everyone thought of two undertakings; no one imagined that the book and the maze were one.”