Transformative moments

Nick Owchar is deputy editor of Book Review.

A monster, Jorge Luis Borges says in “The Book of Imaginary Beings,” is “nothing but a combination of elements taken from real creatures, and the combinatory possibilities border on the infinite.”

The lamia, the centaur, the Hydra, the Minotaur -- all taking attributes from two or more creatures -- are here in this rich little bestiary, as well as lesser-known cousins, such as the ichthyocentaur, which lives undersea, and the hippogriff, mingling the lion-eagle of the gryphon with the horse.

Readers of Borges may recall the land of Uqbar, a place inhabited by transparent tigers, in the story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” The note sounded in that tale, says translator Andrew Hurley (who also translated Borges’ “Collected Fictions”) here “attains the complexity of a Bach fugue.”


“Complexity” isn’t the right word, however. The last thing Borges would want readers to think is that this eccentric catalog is academic or difficult. “Our wish would be that the curious dip into it from time to time,” he explains in a preface.

At Borges’ request, then, skim away -- reacquaint yourself with monsters of the Aeneid, the Odyssey and Lucan’s “Pharsalia.” Learn the most exquisite bits of trivia: that the word “gnome” is associated with “gnosis” ("[I]t has been conjectured that Paracelsus invented the word ‘gnome’ because these creatures knew ... the exact location of hidden metals” ); that the horrible serpentine basilisk, whose stare turned the living to stone, could be killed by the crowing of a rooster or the flatulence of a weasel.

Lewis Carroll’s looking glass is much friendlier than the version found in Cantonese lore and described in the entry “Animals That Live in the Mirror.” Those images that seem to reflect us are really watching us. One day, Borges writes, they “will become different from us; gradually they will no longer imitate us; they will break through the barriers of glass or metal, and ... will not be conquered.”

Most of the creatures in this book appear to be caught in mid-transformation: Is this a part of what it means to be monstrous -- to be condemned (by whom? what gods?) never to be fully one thing or the other? Borges himself was at a transformative moment when the book’s final version was published in 1967 -- a downward shift, some critics have said. His best work -- “Ficciones,” “The Aleph” -- was behind him, and all his genius could muster was this odd patchwork anthology. This point is raised not to give credence to the (tedious) charge but to suggest instead that here the master is returning to his sources for renewal. “The Book of Imaginary Beings” is compact and slides easily between “Bulfinch’s Mythology” and “The Golden Bough.” Make room for it. *