I’ve done that really stupid thing again where I start reading a major writer with a minor work.
Borges is another of those writers who I’ve put off reading for a couple of years, waiting until my Spanish is good enough. Fuck it, I realise, today: it is only by starting to read difficult books in Spanish that I will become able to read difficult books in Spanish.
ANYWAY, autobiographical intro aside, I really enjoyed Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings. It is, essentially, an encyclopaedia of “all” non-real animals – not just ones common in Western fiction (like unicorns and dragons), but also a huge range of imaginary creatures from Chinese, Jewish, North American, Norse, Japanese and Arabic myth/folklore. The book is funny in places, quite engaging, and every page-long entry (average) offers textual, mythological, examples, locates creatures within a cultural etymology, offers parallels with other mythical beasts, and also retells (briefly) the chief stories they feature in.
It is entertaining to learn about the uniformity of the human imagination – the real animals that inspire fear and superstition are the same across the world – whales, giant lizards, birds. And the imagination raises these to anything big enough to swallow the world, things that look like people but are able to fly, tiny people, malevolent, terrifying, beautiful things… All over the world, in every culture, people have the same fears and the same fantasies of what exists outside of their sight. And it’s animals, often, ridiculous animals that people will to be true because the idea of them is somehow pleasing.
For me, alas, the impact of this book was lessened because about a decade and a half ago I read J. K. Rowling’s charity rip-off of this, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. That book, albeit for children, is the same idea. Though this one is much more engaging, much more informed and, clearly, formed the main inspiration for Rowling’s little book. (Which I won’t mock, because it’s not aimed at readers like the reader I’ve become.)
Ultimately, I enjoyed The Book of Imaginary Beings, and it has inspired me to go and read up on Greek myth and also to seek out Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony. But more than that, it’s made me realise that I need to gain some self-confidence and sit down and try to read Ficciones. Otherwise, what am I having Spanish lessons for?