When does fiction become non-fiction? When it’s by Borges.


I have my very own plant pot!
Jan 4, 2018
North-east England
Review: The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Into English by Norman Thomas di Giovanni.

This is a curious book. First, it is a non-fiction account of entirely fictional subjects. How do librarians and marketers even begin to deal with that? I mean, did Borges consider at all how many headaches he would cause those poor people? Second, the book has absolutely no plot, just character after character after character. I’m willing to bet Borges never made a penny off film rights for this book, as even the most motivated Hollywood hack would have a Herculean task of making a screen-play out of this. (Did you see how I fit a reference to an imaginary being in there? I must be channelling Borges!)

But what characters there are! There’s the Kujata, a mythical bull with four thousand eyes, ears, nostrils and feet which is so large it takes five hundred years to walk from one eye to another; and Franz Kafka’s “odradek”, which is a “flat, star-shaped spool for thread” which seemingly exists for the sole purpose of falling down stairs; and also the English mystic Jane Lead’s “creature whose substance is Bliss” which exists in all things, even “the laments and groans of those entrapped in Hell.” And there are easily a dozen more that will boggle your mind.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this book is a modern bestiary, that is, a catalogue of creatures mythological, hypothetical and literary, gathered from around the world. Indeed, the world itself is included, under the entry “Animals in the Form of Spheres”. And like medieval bestiaries, which included religious and moral allegories to show how nature conformed to Christian belief, Borges adds a light touch of psychology and anthropology to give these creatures context and, dare I say it, life (though Frankenstein’s monster is not included in the book).

In short, this is an erudite exploration of the depths of humanity’s fecund imagination (though be careful, lest you in some wondrous grot or secret cell there encounter the kraken) which is, itself, composed of a series of short stories, analyses and diagnoses. Pick it up, read two or three entries, set it down and come back later when you’ve got five minutes to spend in delightful distraction.
If I recall correctly, I got the impression he compiled it from the archives of his Library (I should check, of course, but not right now). In other words I imagine him gradually building it up, every time he came across a monster, note it down, and add another entry... I guess there are more difficult ways of writing a book...
I'm not sure how he started on it but he put together several editions, with each subsequent edition adding more creatures. In he later editions, he worked closely with the translator, di Giovanni, actively researching new creatures. I think they visited major libraries to prepare the later editions.