02 November 2005

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

While I have at least one copy of nearly everything by Jorge Luis Borges that has been translated into English, I never managed to get a-hold of The Book of Imaginary Beings -- in fact, though I'd see reference to it, I had never even seen a copy. I certainly enjoyed the online version, but though Borges's work often lends itself well to hypertext, I still prefer to read it on paper, bound in a book. It's somehow more Borgesian to read a physical artifact that can collect dust and smudges.

Thus, I was elated to hear that Viking/Penguin was bringing out a new edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings, translated by Andrew Hurley (who translated the Collected Fictions) and illustrated by Peter Sis.

I was about to write a review of the book when Michael Dirda's review appeared in the Washington Post and said just about everything I would have said, and more. (Dirda's far more knowledgeable about bestiaries than I am. You'd think that I'd know more, since a longtime friend of mine created the roleplaying game sourcebook GURPS Bestiary, but, well, much as I try to know everything, I must admit that there are some small tiny minuscule areas in which I am, shall we say, utterly ignorant.)

The book is a delight to read, a joy to dip into for a few pages, then put back on the shelf and, later, return to for a few more pages. It easily becomes addictive, though -- it's not difficult to say, "Oh, I'll just read one more entry, and one more, and..." until the book is exhausted, and you are, too. One of the marvels of the book is its eclecticism. It is not a comprehensive book by any means, and at times the choice of beings and the choice of information presented about them can seem almost random, like a raid on a library rather than a research trip. Personally, I prefer that approach to a vaster one, at least in this instance, because it makes the book feel like a conversation with a slightly dotty, but utterly engaging, old scholar.

There is a useful note by the translator at the end that explains some of the history of the book's various editions, and some new notes have been provided to show Borges's textual borrowings. Some of Borges's own interpretations of the history and mythology seem as imaginary as the beings, which is part of the fun, but the notes are helpful for people who want to parse the balderdash amdst the balderdash.

One thing Dirda points out that also occurred to me is that we don't know from the material provided in the book what Margarita Guerrero's contribution was -- the title page lists the book as by Jorge Luis Borges "with Margarita Guerrero", but we tend to speak of the book as if it were Borges's own, I expect because he's the renowned writer. (I'll try to do some research and see what I can uncover about the collaboration.)

I'll leave you with a tiny excerpt, one entry from the book:
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. The Bushmen of South Africa believe that there was a time when all animals could talk. Hochigan hated animals; one day it disappeared, taking the gift of speech with it.


  1. I was also very excited to hear about this new edition. It immediately went up on my Amazon wishlist.

  2. I had a copy of a previous translation of this book, but somehow misplaced it. I will definitely get a copy of the new translation.

    Coincidentally, I'm doing a bestiary series on my blog which owes much to Borges.