Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Happy on the Shelf #3

As regular readers of this blog know, I was on a Borges reading spree a while back. Since then I’ve moved on to other authors (the felicitous combo of Kafka’s The Castle—a re-read—& a hot-off-the-press title from good pal L.E. Leone, Big Bend), but thru it all I’ve meant to write something about the book that started the Borges binge—The Book of Imaginary Beings, which Borges co-wrote with Margarita Guerrero in 1957; it was later expanded in 1967, & the ‘67 version was the basis of a 1970 translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni & Borges himself. This piece is based on the di Giovanni translation, which is now out of print, & apparently difficult to obtain. A new (2006) translation has been done by Andrew Hurley (Penguin Classics); you can find a comparison of the two translations here.

The Book of Imaginary Beings has graced my bookshelves for a number of years, & I’ve delighted to use it as a reference throughout my adult life. This volume is indispensable should you need to learn about creatures such as the Burak, the Manticore, or the Squonk (& if you decide to wade into The Book of Imaginary Beings to look up one entry, chances are you’ll continue browsing until you’ve read at least a few more). Still, I don’t recall ever reading it from cover to cover before—something, by the way, that Borges doesn’t recommend; he sees the work as one readers should “dip into… at random, just as one plays with the shifting colors of a kaleidoscope.”

When read as a piece, the work does put one in mind of the Borgesian theme of imaginative acts taking on “reality,” as in his wonderful story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which what begins as an elaborate hoax (the creation of another world in encyclopediac detail) eventually overtakes accepted “reality.” So too in The Book of Imaginary Beings we read of creatures who (like the Burak, & several other examples) actually buttress a world, whether it’s the world of Islamic legend, the allegorical Christian world of medieval bestiaries, or even the “fictional” worlds of Kafka, Poe, & C.S. Lewis. There are also a number of examples from Asian, Latin American, Northern European & Classical legend, as well as examples from the Talmud, Swendenborg, & other mystical writings. Borges traces his creatures assiduously back to their sources, & a number of writers who folks once were expected to know, but are now by & large just names beyond any but the most specialized canons make their appearance: Sir Thomas Browne, Pliny, Richard Burton (the 19th century compiler of the 1,001 Nights, not the 20th century actor), etc. One does need to be on guard, however, since Borges occasionally throws in an “imaginary” source—this is apparently the case in the following from the work’s first entry (the "A Bao A Qu"): “This legend is recorded by C.C. Iturvuru in an appendix to his now classic treatise On Malay Witchcraft.” According to Evelyn C. Leeper on the page I linked to above, there is no such author as C.C. Iturvuru, nor any such treatise. According to Leeper, this citation has been removed from the Hurley translation, tho once might surmise this is a case of too much scrupulousness—I’d suspect Borges included the hoax attribution for a reason.

Perhaps the best way to get a flavor of the work is to read a couple of the 120 selections. The selections (which are a bit shorter than average—selections can be as long as three pages) are from the Borges-di Giovanni translation, © 1969 Borges-di Giovanni:

The Monkey of the Inkpot

This animal, common in the north, is four or five inches long; its eyes are scarlet and its fur is jet black, silky, and soft as a pillow. It is marked by a curious instinct—the taste for India ink. When a person sits down to write, the monkey squats cross-legged nearby with one forepaw folded over the other, waiting until the task is over. Then it drinks what is left of the ink, and afterwards sits back on its haunches, quiet and satisfied.

Wang Tai-Hai (1791)

The Nasnas

Among the monstrous creatures of the Temptation is the Nasnas, which “has only one eye, one cheek, one hand, half a torso and half a heart.” A commentator, Jean-Claude Margolin, credits the invention of this beat to Flaubert, but Lane in his first volume of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1839) says it is believed to be the offspring of the Shikk, a demonical creature divided longitudinally, and a human being. The Nasnas, according to Lane (who gives it as Nesnás), resembles “half a human being; having half a head, half a body, one arm, & one leg, with which it hops with much agility….” It is found in the woods and desert country of Yemen and Hadhramaut, and is endowed with speech. One race has its face in the breast, like the blemies, and a tail like that of a sheep. Its flesh is sweet and much sought after. Another variety of Nasnas, having the wings of a bat, inhabits the island of Ráïj (perhaps Borneo) at the edge of the China seas. “But God,” adds the skeptical authority, “is All-Knowing.”

Borges points out in his “Forward to the 1967 Edition” that “[t]he title of this book would justify the inclusion of Prince Hamlet, of the point, of the line, of the surface, of n-dimensional hyperplanes and hypervolumes, of all generic terms, and perhaps of each one of us and the godhead. In brief, the sum of all things—the universe.” This is a marvelous quote to keep in mind when dipping into The Book of Imaginary Beings (or reading it cover to cover)—the imagination, in Borgesian terms, is the creator for those of us within “this mortal coil,” & while (as Borges says) “the zoology of dreams is far poorer than the zoology of the Maker,” in the larger sense of “imaginary beings” it’s the sum of what we know.

Though it apparently does differ in significant ways from the earlier translation, readers interested in The Book of Imaginary Beings are advised to seek out the Hurley translation; the Borges-di Giovanni translation starts at around $40 used on Amazon—yikes!

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