This week something different. I’m not recommending a novel but an A-Z of `curious and fabulous creatures’  compiled by the great South American writer, Jorge Luis Borges. The first Spanish edition was published in 1957 under a title which translates as `A Handbook of Fantastic Zoology’. Unless you read Spanish, the one to go for is the 1969 edition of `The Book of Imaginary Beings’  enlarged and translated into English by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with Borges. This is available as an ordinary paperback or in a Penguin Classics Luxury edition illustrated by Peter Sis. Sadly, there isn’t an ebook version yet. Because Borges was virtually blind, he needed helpers to do the research for `The Book of Imaginary Beings’  but the style is very much his own.

The book starts with the A Bao A Qu and finishes 120 entries later with the Zaratan. This probably makes you ask, as I did, `The what and the who?’ The very obscurity of these entries is a sign of how wide-ranging – and how strange – `The Book of Imaginary Beings’ is. In a preface, Borges says that it isn’t meant to be read straight through but dipped into at random, `just as one plays with the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope’.  Do that, and you could find yourself reading about the snake-headed, green-furred Shaggy Beast which survived the Great Flood to prey on innocent girls, or the scarlet-eyed Monkey of the Ink-Pot who drinks the ink of writers (he’d have to live on Printer ink nowadays), or the Goofang, a fish that swims backwards to keep the sun out of its eyes. Or perhaps you might be tempted by entry titles such as `The Sow Harnessed with Chains and Other Argentine Fauna’ or `The Elephant that Foretold the Birth of Buddha’  or `The Lamed Wufniks’.

You could use this book in a more purposeful way to find out about the origins of many of the creatures we meet in Fantasy fiction – unicorns, the phoenix, eastern and western dragons, centaurs, sirens, the Sphinx, the Minotaur and many more. Budding writers might be interested in such little-known South American beings as were-jaguars or the Conchónes, head-shaped wizards who use their giant ears as wings.  Borges refers to taking `a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.’  In `The Book of Imaginary Beings’ there is plenty of knowledge on offer which might be useless in the real world but could come in very handy in Fantasy novels. If you want to stop the Fenrir Wolf from ending the world, you’ll need a rope made of six impossible things including the sound of a cat’s footfall, the beards of women and the breath of fish. If you are faced with devils in Annam, who are you going to call? The Five Heavenly Tigers.

Borges cites all manner of sources, from Ancient Chinese scrolls to the novels of Kafka and C.S.Lewis.  Through this book I’ve discovered such gems as an 18th century novel with a heroine who is half-woman and half-bird and the wonderfully weird `Chinese Ghouls and Goblins’.  But are all the sources he mentions genuine? That’s a tricky question because Borges was a master of fictions within fictions, a great literary joker who liked to play with concepts of reality. Perhaps someone can tell me if people in Pennsylvania really tell tales about the Squonk, a morbid beast which can be tracked by its trail of tears. Or take the mysterious A Bao A Qu, a creature who only comes into being when someone climbs the spiral stair of the Tower of Victory in Chitor. Is it an old Malayan legend or an invention by Borges? People argue about this on the internet. The entry on the A Bao A Qu certainly shares some of the qualities of Borges’ best short stories. It is concise, thought-provoking, elusive and haunting. The A Bao A Qu, who glows into life in response to a human soul, only to fade again with a moan`like the rustling of silk’ unless that soul has achieved enlightenment, lingers in my mind. As for the Zaratan – well just don’t land your boat on it. Until next week…