Book review: The Book of Imaginary Beings [4/5]

The Book of Imaginary Beings is a medieval-style bestiary written in a self-consciously inconsistent style, encyclopedic at times and humorous at others. Some entries evidently report the facts about their subjects, while some cast explicit doubt about not only their own veracity but even about the possibility that anyone could have believed in such creatures. This initially seemed like strange territory for Jorge Luis Borges, if anything can qualify for that description, but by the end that impression had vanished: it’s imaginative, far-reaching, observant of the human psyche, and serious about its own absurdity, consistent with Borges’ vision that I’d become familiar with elsewhere. However, one gets the feeling that unlike his more challenging work, he wrote this book simply for the fun and freedom of it.

There are 116 creatures featured in total; many but not all of them caught my attention. Like a traditional reference work, its entries are organized alphabetically, which suits the reading experience since we never know what to expect from the next fantasy. I read this book over a period of about two years, a couple of dozen pages at a time, and I think this similarly served me well since it helped maintain a high sense of novelty as I made it through to the end.

Some of the chimerical beasts that might be expected make an appearance: centaurs, gryphons, sirens, and sphinxes; you can see I skipped over many more hiding in the middle of the alphabet. These are the kinds of imaginary beings one might immediately think of and they tend to be the least interesting. Fortunately, they occupy only a small share of the book, and Borges makes a special effort to bring some special understanding to each of these monsters. He notes that the chimera itself—an animal with a lion’s head, serpent’s tail, and she-goat’s body—is perhaps a metaphor for a Lycian volcano whose base is infested with serpents, whose middle contains pastures where goats roam, and whose summit hosts lion dens. Toward the end of the entry, Borges even acknowledges the need to attach a more compelling narrative to the beast, writing, “…people were already growing a bit tired of the Chimaera. It was better to translate the beast into something (anything) else than to picture it as it was.” Borges is attentive to the unique creative spark that makes each creature come alive; one cannot simply combine unlike animals to create a new one worthy of our contemplation.

The remainder of the beings on display are drawn from an impressive variety of sources. There is the Squonk, an animal of Pennsylvania whose “misfitting skin” is covered with warts and moles, and which weeps constantly; “when surprised and frightened, it may even dissolve itself in tears.” Another American creature that Borges is particularly skeptical of is the Gillygalloo, which “used to build its nest on the slopes of the famous Pyramid Forty. It laid square eggs so they wouldn’t roll down and break. Lumberjacks would hard-boil the eggs and use them for dice.”

More meditative entries include the Simurgh, “an immortal bird that makes its nest in the branches of the Tree of Science.” In one legend, a number of birds determine to find the Simurgh, their King, in order to rectify the state of anarchy in China. They make an epic pilgrimage to the mountains that encircle the earth, crossing the seven seas. On their travels, they lose many friends to abandonment and death, until finally thirty of them “come to the mountain on which the Simurgh lives, and they contemplate their king at last: they see that they are the Simurgh, and that the Simurgh is each of them, and all of them.” Another memorable entry entitled “An Animal Dreamed by C.S. Lewis” consists only of a charming passage from Perelandra, where the narrator describes his encounter with a sensitive dog-like creature with a beautiful singing voice and excruciating shyness.

A few passages are more historical or sociological; for example, we’re given the primary evidence for the existence of the salamander, a lizard that lives in flames: the four elements—earth, air, water, and fire—are symmetrical in importance. If earth- and water-dwelling animals exist, then so must air- and fire-dwelling ones, necessitating the reality of the salamander, or at least something similar. In addition, it was claimed that salamanders make cocoons that can be woven into fire-resistant clothing. Amazingly, such clothing could actually be obtained, lending additional credibility to the animal’s existence. Unfortunately for its wearers, the material was probably not salamander silk, but rather asbestos.

This book is a lot of fun, can be read a page or two at a time in any order or put down for arbitrarily long periods, reads well in every kind of mood, and has cool pictures. Although it’s not on my list of essential reading, I recommend it for a dusty spot on a bookshelf, where it can be casually perused whenever the passing impulse strikes.

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