Borges and the Beast: The Book of Imaginary Beings

Jorge Luis Borges is the quintessential example of a nerd. He’s unjustly ignored by niche pop culture (or whatever term you use to describe the phenomenon behind Stranger Things or Doctor Who). In a time when non-conformism has gone mainstream that’s almost a badge of honor.

The Book of Imaginary Being s by Jorge Luis Borges.  Amazon  |  Goodreads  |  WorldCat

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges. Amazon | Goodreads | WorldCat

Of Branding and Snobbery

The only community that seems to appreciate the whimsical weirdness of the Argentine genius is that of the literary snobs. Which is a shame, for just like Eva Perón, they have no real sense of value.

I bet all my lifetime earnings that none of them would pay any attention to The Book of Imaginary Beings had it been written by someone else, especially if they come across the tiny paperback edition that I purchased. But the Borges brand is so powerful, it inevitably inspires all kinds of pompous quotes, handily plastered on the back cover by the publisher, Vintage Classics: “Borges is a genius of the first order,” states the starstruck Martin Amis. “Only Borges could dream the world with such intellectual rigor,” adds Ian McEwan. I wonder if the quotes were taken out of context or the critics didn’t bother to read a single page.

Both fail to note that the mythical creatures in this book weren’t created by the writer himself. Although his commentary certainly adds value, here Borges is more of a collector than an author. He has hunted down imaginary beasts from various myths and legends— European, Middle Eastern, African, Chinese, Native American.

A griffin by Martin Schongauer, 15th century. Source:  Wikimedia

A griffin by Martin Schongauer, 15th century. Source: Wikimedia

Scary Monsters and Super Creeps

The book offers a fresh take on familiar creatures like the centaur, the phoenix, the kraken, and the salamander. They are joined by a colorful company of lesser-known freaks like the alicanto (a nocturnal bird from Chile, whose diet consists of precious metals), the amphisbaena (a poisonous snake that has heads at both extremes of its body), the zaratan (a sea creature camouflaged as an island from the Arabian Nights), and the chiang-liang (a Chinese monster that has the head of a tiger, the face of a man, and a snake for a tongue). There’s a memorable cameo by a three-legged ass that shits amber, and a couple of spherical human souls that triumphantly roll into Heaven certainly deserve an honorable mention.

Somewhat surprisingly, Borges has included beings imagined by writers like Franz Kafka, C.S. Lewis, and Edgar Alan Poe. Depending on how much you enjoy the subject, you might be bothered by a handful of inconsistencies: The Chinese dragon has its own entry, but is also discussed in the one about the Eastern dragon. Another entry titled An Experimental Account of What Was Known, Seen, and Met by Mrs. Jane Lead in London in 1614 simply lists a bunch of already known creatures. Literary geniuses can be sloppy editors.

The black king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Aswad, depicted in  Kitab al-Bulhan.  Source: The  Bodleian Libraries , via  Wikimedia

The black king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Aswad, depicted in Kitab al-Bulhan. Source: The Bodleian Libraries, via Wikimedia

Reading Manual

“As we all know,” writes Borges in the preface, “there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the way erudition.” If this sounds delusional to you, please remember that nerds of his caliber can’t relate to the exorbitant mediocrity of everyday life.

Needless to say, such a thought has never crossed the mind of most humans. The minority of us who find erudition sexy have to work very hard to shake off all the guilt-tripping. No amount of pleasure that we could possibly derive from this laborious activity could be described as lazy.

Then, quite suddenly, Borges seems worried about efficiency. This book shouldn’t be read straight through, he says, but rather treated like a plate of tapas. There’s some logic to this suggestion because conceptually, it’s an alphabetized compendium of standalone entries.

Once again, he’s wrong. The Book of Imaginary Beings is not a typical encyclopedia, where an entry about chemistry is followed by another one about Cher. If that were the case, I would have gladly taken his advice, since only aspiring chemists with a penchant for wigs would find the infodump intriguing.

The entries in this bestiary are interconnected, and many of them complement each other in unexpected ways. Take the Chinese and the European dragon. They share a common appearance, but when it comes to symbolism, they are complete opposites—the first one is wise and divine, the second suffers from a bling addiction that clearly impacts its mental abilities.

A similar dichotomy exists between the Western and the Eastern unicorn, where the spiritual contrasts with the virile. Leonardo da Vinci—known for inventing curious contraptions that never worked—thought the only way to catch a (Western) unicorn was to bait it with a virgin. Such a lewd technique would be useless against its Chinese counterpart, who is an example of moderation and sensual restraint.

A hippocampus on my calf. Tattooed by  Eric Noseli

A hippocampus on my calf. Tattooed by Eric Noseli

Granted, there are exceptions. All hippocampuses are horny and promiscuous regardless of latitude. But as a general rule, Eastern beasts are prone to thoughtfulness, while Western ones tend to be dramatic and superficial. It would be a great shame to miss on such enlightened cultural comparisons just because you decided to skip a page or two, wouldn’t it?

Even creatures that don’t share common qualities can be seen in a different light once they are studied together. After all, the fauna of this book didn’t originate on another planet or in the womb of an ambitious, omnipotent deity. It sprung out of the chaotic human imagination. And although Borges claims that “the zoology of dreams is far poorer than the zoology of the Maker,” I feel compelled to remind you that quantity doesn’t always trump quality. The human mind has one crucial advantage over the blind force of evolution—it is inherently narcissistic. Its self-absorption puts it at odds with the Universe and the ensuing tension breeds conflict—that delicious nectar that all interesting stories are made of.

"We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination… It is, so to speak, a necessary monster…"

This book should be in the collection of every devoted fantasy fan. I’ve heard some cryptozoologists find it interesting as well, but I think those people miss the point—the monsters collected here are not meant for the real world. Their biggest asset is that they are, after all, imaginary.