Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

Sometimes, even the most serious person must feel the need to play around. President Richard Nixon escaped from the Cold War by bowling. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote comic operas. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer played in the Par 3 Tournament before the Masters.

Jorge Luis Borges, along with Margarita Guerrero, wrote The Book of Imaginary Beings (El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios).* And a great diversion it is!

The book is just as the title implies: an encyclopedia of the strange and fantastic creatures that inhabit the literary world. Some, like the Harpies, have a long and varied history that comes down to us from classical mythology, both from European and Asian traditions. Others people modern works by authors such as C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra or Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Borges wrote two editions of the book, first in 1954 (entitled The Anthology of Fantastic Zoology (Manual de Zoología Fantástica), and an expanded version in 1967. He obviously hoped to expand the book further, as the prologue to the 1967 edition notes:

A book of this nature is necessarily incomplete; each new edition is the core of future editions, which may be multiplied to infinity. We invite its eventual readers in Colombia or Paraguay to send us the names, reliable descriptions, and most conspicuous habits of their own local monsters.” p. xv (English language edition)

Alas, a further edition was never issued. I can only imagine the incredible entries that might have come from the communities of the Africa and Oceania.

Still, the 120 beasts described in the volume provide important glimpses into the potential of the human imagination, as well as insights into the cultures that provided the myths. Take, for example, The Ink Monkey (El Mono de la Tinta), which comes to us from China:

This animal is common in the northern regions and is about four or five inches long; it is endowed with an unusual instinct; its eyes are like carnelian stones, and its hair is jet black, sleek and flexible, as soft as a pillow. It is very fond of eating thick China ink, and whenever people write, it sits with folded hands and crossed legs, waiting till the writing is finished, when it drinks up the remainder of the ink; which done, it squats down as before; and does not frisk about unnecessarily. – Wang Tai-hai (1791) p. 134 (English language version)

Such a monster could only come from a culture where ink was highly prized and expensive, and hints at the frustration of running out of such a precious commodity. Other mythological creatures, like dragons, seem to pop up in multiple locations. Borges refers to these as “necessary” monsters in the preface to the 1954 edition, but not in the 1967 version, so maybe he didn’t find them so “universal” upon further review.

I found this book because of an early review for the Read-A-Myth Challenge from The Parrish Lantern. His review was outstanding, and includes a really fun “monster quiz” I urge you to take. I enjoyed this book tremendously, as it was fun to read over a period of months, one entry at a time. My daughters and I referred to it while watching Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and agreed that JK Rowling had taken some real liberties with the Basilisk. But that’s what mythology is for, isn’t it? The monsters we create – and recreate – tell us about ourselves and our world, while linking us to our past.

Okay, last review to finish the last challenge of the year. I really enjoyed the Read-A-Myth Challenge, and I made it to Level 3 Mimir: World Myth! I included myths from both the Greek and Sufi traditions, two non-fiction books about mythology, a modern reinterpretation of a classic myth, and an anthology. Bellezza and I were able to organize a read-along of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad for this challenge, which was really a lot of fun, and introduced me to a number of new blogs. So thanks to JoV and Bina for hosting this wonderful challenge. It was a blast – even if it did take me the entire year to complete it!

*I read the Spanish version of the book, a gift from my in-laws. But I used the English language version, illustrated by Peter Sis, for reference. Of course, the order of the two books is completely different, as they are alphabetized by noun, but the content is the same. So in this case, the English translations given were actually approved by the author.


  1. This sounds fantastic! And you read this in Spanish, I'm so impressed. That's one of my goals for 2012, which is to finally learn a language, as best as I can, instead of a little bit of Spanish, a little bit of Italian, but never anything enough for me to be able to really communicate or read in a different language. Rosetta Stone, here I come!

    And I really need to check out this Read-a-Myth challenge for 2012!

  2. Oh this must be such a fascinating book! The description of the ink monkey is so much of fun :) Thanks for introducing this book. Am definitely going to read this one :)

  3. You read the most fascinating and usual books! I love stopping by to see what you've found to read next.

  4. Congratulations on finishing the challenge -- and for doing it with such a wonderful book!

    Hope you have an enjoyable New Year's weekend.

  5. Glad you got to read this wonderful book & that you enjoyed it, also thanks for the mention.
    PS. Best wishes for the new year.

  6. What a great book! I'd heard of it before...but haven't yet gotten to it (long TBR list).

    Happy New Year to you!

  7. @Natalie -- Don't be too impressed, I still need to have a dictionary handy when I read in Spanish! But the only way to get better is to jump right in. Reading familiar books in another language (like the Harry Potters or the Twilights) is a great way to practice.

    @Nivedita -- I can't wait to hear what you think of it.

    @Amused -- I get most of my ideas from other bloggers, but I will admit to having great access to academic titles, which I love :)

  8. @TheBookGirl -- I am promising myself I will not leave so many challenges until the 11th hour in 2012. We'll see how that goes!

    @Parrish -- Thanks for your original review. I wound up loving the book.

    @Bev -- I get the long TBR list!

  9. Have you read Diana Wynne Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasyland? I think it's the same sort of book. I have that one on my shelves but I'll look for this one too!


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