Squonks and other fascinating imaginary beings

All writers have a shelf of books they revert to daily. This they do for inspiration, for solace, for delight. They turn to it, most of all, for company in a solitary profession. They are, if you will, our muses. Unlike mythical muses, these writers are neither capricious nor coy, and you can always count on them for wisdom and sound advice. For the last year, my daily shelf has been heavily populated by the prolific Jorge Luís Borges.

As a muse, Borges is as grumpy as he is encouraging. He is, as Paul Valéry said all skilled poets must be, a skeptic that refuses to fall into the trap of cynicism. You are invulnerable, he tells “whoever is reading me”, for you are inevitably dead. Only a profound skeptic could find strength from our very mortality, in the  ‘certainty of dust’ and ‘the limits of our traveled time.’  It takes, after all, one poet to recognise another, and his resolve recalls a verse from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “sceptre, learning, physic must/ all follow this and come to dust.”

Borges was ever the master of concision. His limpid sentences, Italo Calvino writes in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, created “a literature raised to the second power and, at the same time, a literature that is like the extraction of the square root of itself.”

 Squonks and other fascinating imaginary beings

The Squonk. Illustrator: Coert Du Bois

Despite this brevity, the velocity of the ideas embedded within Borges’ prose make every essay ripe for rereading. Any reading of Borges is scattershot; chasing a metaphor, a joke, a thought, you leap effortlessly between essays, poems and stories. As I wrote in my monthly column on bookslut, Borges leads you ever deeper into a thicket of things that might have been and never were:

I think about things that might have been and never were.
The treatise on Saxon myths that Bede omitted to write.
The inconceivable work that Dante may have glimpsed
As soon as he corrected the Comedy’s last verse.
History without two afternoons: that of the hemlock, that of the Cross.
History without Helen’s face.
Man without the eyes that have granted us the moon,
Over three Gettysburg days, the victory of the South.
The love we never shared.
The vast empire the Vikings declined to found.
The globe without the wheel, or without the rose.
John Donne’s judgement of Shakespeare.
The unicorn’s other horn.
The fabled Irish bird which alights in two places at once.
The child I never had.

Borges was an essayist and poet long before he wrote fiction, though the Borges essay and short story are genres all their own.  Italo Calvino’s essay about Borges (from Why read the Classics?) has an amusing aside about how he finally began to write the stories that would make him a fixture in 20th century literature:

What helped him overcome the block that had prevented him, almost until he was forty, from moving from essays to narrative prose was to pretend that the book he wanted to write had already been written, written by someone else, by an unknown invented author, an author from another language, another culture, and then to describe, summarise, or review that hypothetical book. Part of the legend that surrounds Borges is the anecdote that the first, extraordinary, story he wrote using this formula, ‘The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim’ , when it appeared in the journal Sur, convinced readers that it was a genuine review of a book by an Indian author.

With Borges, in keeping with his beliefs, you find only what you read for. In the past month, whilst rereading China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books, I hunted down down some of his beloved monsters within the anthology The Book of Imaginary Beings. Like all fantasists, Miéville borrows from Borges’ meticulous archival, and some of his monsters- kraken, garudas, bahamuts, golems- are direct lifts.  Borges' bestiary draws heavily upon myth and folktales; there are dragons from around the globe, Norse Norns, Indian Nagas, Greek Nymphs. Other creatures- gnomes, hippogriffs, basilisks, centaurs, unicorns, elves, fairies- are now standard fantasy fare.

Jorge Luis Borges in this file photo. Keystone Archive/Getty Images.

Jorge Luis Borges in this file photo. Keystone Archive/Getty Images.

There are also, however, a fair share of odd beasts I have rarely encountered elsewhere. One such is the “squonk”, which Borges finds in the sublime Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, published in 1910 by , published in 1910 by William T Cox. The Squonk, Cox tells us, is little known outside Pennsylvania and impossible to hunt, “for it weeps constantly… it may even dissolve itself in tears. Squonk hunters are most successful on frosty moonlit nights, when tears are shed slowly and the animal dislikes moving about; it may then be heard weeping under the boughs of dark hemlock tress”.

If only, one is inclined to conclude, one were a squonk.

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Updated Date: Sep 08, 2011 12:05:22 IST