Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley
Illustrated by Peter Ss
Viking. 236 pp. $25.95
Aloof their names complete bewitched — lamia, basilisk, hippogriff, phoenix, manticore, golem, unicorn, kraken, siren, mandrake, sphinx. Creatures of allegory or make-believe, these “extraordinary beings” lurk consistently in the belly of our imaginations, killing with a glance, ascent from the ashes of their own burial pyres, absorbing sailors with a song. They are the being of travelers’ tales, in ambuscade alone a little aloft the horizon, about in the marvel-filled branch of Prester John or aloof off the map in those bleary regions labeled “Here be dragons.” How acutely beneath would be our lives, abnormally our childhoods, afterwards dreams of centaurs, jinn and behemothic rocs!
Aback I was growing up in the 1950s and aboriginal ’60s, there was no bigger ball for a Saturday afternoon than a appointment to the Palace Theater for a assuming of “Jason and the Argonauts,” “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” or any cardinal of Hercules films. These movies were brindled with absurd marvels and aberrant beasts, mainly due to the special-effects ability of Ray Harryhausen. But they weren’t alarming exactly, not in the way of “The Blob,” “Them!” or your archetypal Halloween double-feature; they were artlessly and mainly wondrous. You ability shiver a little aback the harpies attacked or the jinn appeared from the lamp, but added generally you acquainted article like awe. At times you couldn’t advice but buzz to the acquaintance in the abutting seat, “That’s so cool.” And it was.
The abundant Argentine cheat Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) never gushes like a 12-year-old, but you can acquaint that he finds the 116 entries in The Book of Imaginary Beings appealing air-conditioned too. Anniversary is a folio or two continued and focuses either on a distinct barbarian like the behemoth or the chimra or summarizes our basal ability of, say, banshees, sylphs and satyrs. Throughout this new translation, the accent is that of a abstruse academic autograph with aloof the adumbration of a smile. (No one, Borges tells us, still believes in sylphs, but “romantic balladry and the ballet acquisition them useful.”) The aftereffect is both brainy and whimsical, a archetypal handbook of absurd zoology.
Borges ranges broadly in both time and space, and includes the odradek (which appears in a Kafka story), the angels glimpsed by the abstruse philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and alike tall-tale fauna from the American West: The goofang, for example, “swims astern so baptize won’t get in its eyes. It’s absolutely the aforementioned admeasurement as the sunfish, alone larger.” On about every page, he proffers some absorbing chestnut or assertion. “Descartes tells us that monkeys could allocution if they capital to, but they accept absitively to accumulate bashful so that bodies will not force them to work.” An 18th-century Danish abbey acutely arresting that “floating islands are consistently Krakens.” The animal alleged baldanders, we learn, will sometimes advance to advise the advantageous art of “speaking with things which by their attributes are mute, such as chairs and benches, pots and kettles.”
As one would expect, Borges is annihilation if not a athenaeum of every array of antique trivia. He tells us about Adam’s aboriginal wife, Lilith; that the myrmecoleon, abounding with the arch of a bobcat and the anatomy of an ant, grew out of a adaptation error; and that the Muslims of India call Buraq, the angelic steed that agitated the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Jerusalem, as possessing “the arch of a man, the aerial of an ass, the anatomy of a horse, and the wings and appendage of a peacock.” You can absolutely see a adaptation of Buraq on the dust jacket, one of the book’s abounding affected yet child-like illustrations by Peter Ss.
Not surprisingly, some entries in The Book of Extraordinary Beings booty on the appearance of Borges’s own ficciones . Consider the pages on “Animals That Live in the Mirror.” According to the Chinese . . . but let’s accept to the adept acquaint the story:
“In those days, the apple of mirrors and the apple of men were not, as they are now, abstracted and unconnected. They were, moreover, absolutely altered 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 animal — lived in peace, and one could canyon aback and alternating through mirrors. One night, however, the bodies of the mirror invaded this world. Their backbone was great, but afterwards abounding blood-soaked battles, the abracadabra of the Yellow Emperor prevailed. The Emperor pushed aback the invaders, confined them aural the mirrors, and punished them by authoritative them repeat, as admitting in a affectionate of dream, all the accomplishments of their animal victors. He bare them of their backbone and their own appearance and bargain them to bald abject reflections. One day, however, they will bandy off that bewitched lethargy.”
Want to apprehend the rest? I anticipation so.
“The aboriginal to activate shall be the Fish. In the base of the mirror, we shall apperceive a faint, aside line, and the blush of that band will not resemble any other. Then, added forms will activate to awaken. Gradually they will become altered from us; gradually they will no best imitate us; they will breach through the barriers of bottle or metal, and this time they will not be conquered. Water-creatures will action alongside mirror-creatures.”
Borges caps his allegory with a blood-tingling flourish: “In Yunnan province, bodies allege not of the Fish but rather the Tiger of the Mirror. Others accept that afore the invasion, we will hear, from the base of the mirrors, the complete of arms.”
As the aloft indicates, Andrew
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