Sep 272011

The Book of Imaginary Beings Jorge Luis Borges

I won’t bother saying too much about Borges. He is, like Cortazar and Lem after him (both of whom you can expect me to have more to say about at some later time), a creator of books that are themselves self-reflections on what it is to be a book.

The Book of Imaginary Beings is, maybe, not this kind of book exactly. Here is what it is: an exhaustive catalogue of imaginary beings drawn from all the mythologies and literatures of the earth.

I have (for no very good reason) decided to make an attempt to illustrate each entry in order, beginning with “A Bao A Qu”:

Borges' A Bao A Qu

“A Bao A Qu”

If you want to look out over the loveliest landscape in the world, you must climb to the top of the Tower of Victory in Chitor. There, standing on a circular terrace, one has a sweep of the whole horizon. A winding stairway gives access to this terrace, but only those who do not believe in the legend dare climb up. The tale runs:

On the stairway of the Tower of Victory there has lived since the beginning of time a being sensitive to the many shades of the human soul and known as the A Bao A Qu. It lies dormant, for the most part on the first step, until at the approach of a person some secret life is touched off in it, and deep within the creature an inner light begins to glow. At the same time, its body and almost translucent skin begin to stir. But only when someone starts up the spiralling stairs is the A Bao A Qu brought to consciousness, and then it sticks close to the visitor’s heels, keeping to the outside of the turning steps, where they are most worn by the generations of pilgrims. At each level the creature’s colour becomes more intense, its shape approaches perfection, and the bluish form it gives off is more brilliant. But it achieves its ultimate form only at the topmost step, when the climber is a person who has attained Nirvana and whose acts cast no shadows. Otherwise, the A Bao A Qu hangs back before reaching the top, as if paralysed, its body incomplete. its blue growing paler, and its glow hesitant. The creature suffers when it cannot come to completion. and its moan is a barely audible sound, something like the rustling of silk. Its span of life is brief, since as soon as the traveller climbs down, the A Bao A Qu wheels and tumbles to the first steps, where, worn out – and almost shapeless, it waits for the next visitor. People say that its tentacles are visible only when it reaches the middle of the staircase. It is also said that it can see with its whole body and that to the touch it is like the skin of a peach.

In the course of centuries, the A Bao A Qu has reached the terrace only once.
This legend is recorded by C. C. Iturvuru in an appendix to his now classic treatise On Malay Witchcraft (1937).

It occurs to me that Borges is a sort of bridge from the 19th to the 20th centuries, and also that we aren’t far off from a time when the 19th and 20th centuries are considered their own continuous era.

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