THE BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS
By Jorge Luis Borges with Margarita Guerrero
Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley
Illustrated by Peter Sis
Viking. 236 pp. $25.95 Just their names sound magical -- lamia, basilisk, hippogriff, phoenix, manticore, golem, unicorn, kraken, siren, mandrake, sphinx. Creatures of myth or make-believe, these "extraordinary beings" lurk forever in the recesses of our imaginations, killing with a glance, rising from the ashes of their own funeral pyres, seducing sailors with a song. They are the stuff of travelers' tales, in hiding only a little beyond the horizon, somewhere in the marvel-filled realm of Prester John or just off the map in those misty regions labeled "Here be dragons." How sadly diminished would be our lives, especially our childhoods, without dreams of centaurs, jinn and giant rocs!
When I was growing up in the 1950s and early '60s, there was no better entertainment for a Saturday afternoon than a visit to the Palace Theater for a showing of "Jason and the Argonauts," "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" or any number of Hercules films. These movies were studded with impossible marvels and strange beasts, mainly due to the special-effects genius of Ray Harryhausen. But they weren't scary exactly, not in the way of "The Blob," "Them!" or your typical Halloween double-feature; they were simply and mainly wondrous. You might shiver a little when the harpies attacked or the jinn appeared from the lamp, but more often you felt something like awe. At times you couldn't help but whisper to the friend in the next seat, "That's so cool." And it was.
The great Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) never gushes like a 12-year-old, but you can tell that he finds the 116 entries in The Book of Imaginary Beings pretty cool too. Each is a page or two long and focuses either on a single beast like the behemoth or the chimæra or summarizes our basic knowledge of, say, banshees, sylphs and satyrs. Throughout this new translation, the tone is that of a learned scholar writing with just the hint of a smile. (No one, Borges tells us, still believes in sylphs, but "romantic poetry and the ballet find them useful.") The result is both erudite and whimsical, a model handbook of fantastic zoology.
Borges ranges widely in both time and space, and includes the odradek (which appears in a Kafka story), the angels glimpsed by the mystic philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and even tall-tale fauna from the American West: The goofang, for example, "swims backward so water won't get in its eyes. It's exactly the same size as the sunfish, only larger." On nearly every page, he proffers some charming anecdote or assertion. "Descartes tells us that monkeys could talk if they wanted to, but they have decided to keep silent so that humans will not force them to work." An 18th-century Danish bishop incontrovertibly pronounced that "floating islands are always Krakens." The creature called baldanders, we learn, will sometimes volunteer to teach the useful art of "speaking with things which by their nature are mute, such as chairs and benches, pots and kettles."
As one would expect, Borges is nothing if not a repository of every sort of antiquarian trivia. He tells us about Adam's first wife, Lilith; that the myrmecoleon, burdened with the head of a lion and the body of an ant, grew out of a translation error; and that the Muslims of India describe Buraq, the celestial steed that carried the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Jerusalem, as possessing "the head of a man, the ears of an ass, the body of a horse, and the wings and tail of a peacock." You can actually see a version of Buraq on the dust jacket, one of the book's many elegant yet child-like illustrations by Peter Sis.
Not surprisingly, some entries in The Book of Extraordinary Beings take on the character of Borges's own ficciones. Consider the pages on "Animals That Live in the Mirror." According to the Chinese . . . but let's listen to the master tell the story:
"In those days, the world of mirrors and the world of men were not, as they are now, separate and unconnected. They were, moreover, quite different from one another; neither the creatures nor the colors nor the shapes of the two worlds were the same. The two kingdoms -- the specular and the human -- lived in peace, and one could pass back and forth through mirrors. One night, however, the people of the mirror invaded this world. Their strength was great, but after many bloody battles, the magic of the Yellow Emperor prevailed. The Emperor pushed back the invaders, imprisoned them within the mirrors, and punished them by making them repeat, as though in a kind of dream, all the actions of their human victors. He stripped them of their strength and their own shape and reduced them to mere servile reflections. One day, however, they will throw off that magical lethargy."
Want to hear the rest? I thought so.
"The first to awaken shall be the Fish. In the depths of the mirror, we shall perceive a faint, faint line, and the color of that line will not resemble any other. Then, other forms will begin to awaken. Gradually they will become different from us; gradually they will no longer imitate us; they will break through the barriers of glass or metal, and this time they will not be conquered. Water-creatures will battle alongside mirror-creatures."
Borges caps his fable with a thrilling flourish: "In Yunnan province, people speak not of the Fish but rather the Tiger of the Mirror. Others believe that before the invasion, we will hear, from the depths of the mirrors, the sound of arms."
As the above indicates, Andrew Hurley's translation of The Book of Imaginary Beings reads very well and confidently replaces a 1969 version by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. That earlier edition now strikes me as sometimes a little flat. (From the depths of di Giovanni's mirrors, people hear "the clatter of weapons.") But there are four extra entries in the older collection, and you can never have enough Borges. Hurley's afterword, however, questions their authorship, perhaps rightly. Whatever the case, the new edition is altogether so handsome and enjoyable that it is certainly the one to acquire now. I do wish, though, that someone would explain how much Margarita Guerrero contributed to the writing or research.
Anyone who falls under the spell of The Book of Imaginary Beings should look out for several comparable (or complementary) works. Above all, don't miss T.H. White's The Book of Beasts, a translation, with delightful commentary, of a 12th-century bestiary; Willy Ley's various excursions into "romantic zoology" (starting with The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn); Avram Davidson's highly idiosyncratic and hard-to-find Adventures in Unhistory; Peter Lum's Fabulous Beasts; Richard Carrington's Mermaids and Mastodons; and, not least, the grand-daddy of them all, Pliny's Natural History (especially books 8 through 11). Here be wonders. *
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for Book World. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.