The Zoo in The Cave

Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings is a thin, unassuming work encompassed in a vast, elusive corpus of writing by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s 160 pages or so, depending on which edition you have, but it is a deceptively intense and puzzling book. The preface advises that this is not a book that is meant to be read straight through rather ‘we should like the reader to dip into these pages at random, just as one plays with the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope’ and that you will do. Humans have evolved to perceive colour: like a kaleidoscope and the visual experience you get from it, it is to our visual system an intensive and inclusive experience not withheld for a long  time; although as visually pleasing as a kaleidescope is, it tells us a lot about the human visual system, and the genuine biological nature of it. Imaginary Beings could be the Kaleidoscope of the human psyche.

Within, Borges captures creatures (I use the term ‘creature’ sparingly) well known and not so well known, from The Unicorn to The A Bau A Qu. They all have varying qualities and characteristics, some more intelligent and less brutish than others, or some like The Fairies which are said to ‘meddle magically in human affairs…the most numerous,the most beautiful and the most memorable of the minor supernatural beings’.

They also come from a variety of sources. Typically some are steeped in a fable, deep cultural history and tradition and others more recent like the brief passage from ‘An Animal Imagined By Kafka’ or the ‘Cheshire Cat from C.S.Lewis’. Other notable names are included as well from Seneca, Pope, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Most notably however Is Plato, who’s name appears several times (the index includes 6 page references; Aristotle has 5, Dante has 11).

Plato’s name resonates though, alongside that of Borges. Plato is as relevant today as ever, from a moral standpoint at least.  The Allegory of The Cave, describes a group of people who have lived inside a cave for all their life facing the blank innards of the wall, where shadows are projected onto the walls by things that pass in front of the fire behind them, giving ‘forms’ to these shadows. Plato said that the forms or ideas, and bodily sensations, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality.

The poetic nature of the allegory should not distract from the several messages that can be interpreted from it. But, the allegory and Imaginary Beings seem to be on a level with one another, because what is striking about Imaginary Beings is how in the 100 descriptions of the mythical beasts used in literature and folklore, so physically distinct from the human form, is how much they can tell us about human nature. Initially, its the whimsical nature of the story; the forms in the cave and the distorted shadows that the fire casts on the walls; small insects inflated to abnormal size and the inhabitants of the cave making stories and sense of them. The allegory is about life, and the life in the cave is the life in the world, and the philosopher who goes out into the world has trouble persuading the other captives that such a place exists.

We think of the beings in Imaginary Beings as confabulation and fantastical, but they could tell us more than we than we could potentially imagine about the way the imaginary mind works. Plato was one of the biggest influences on Sigmund Freud, who’s theory on the composition of the human psyche is so ingrained into public perception of psychology, its terms are entered into every day discourse. Any psychologist would tell you otherwise , as his theories come across as vulgarly outdated in modern academia. The Imaginary Beings although, bring gives his theory life, as Martinez the translator says in the preface ”we are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon in the same we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragons image that fits man’s imagination’. What level of human consciousness allows us to create the image of the dragon, or more importantly, what, all those centuries ago, allowed those peoples to create an image of the dragon?

The Eastern Dragon has ‘the ability to assume many shapes…with a head something like a horse…it is customary to picture them with a pearl…the beast is rendered helpless if its pearl is stolen from it….their teeth bones and saliva are all possess medicinal qualities’ and also ‘The Chinese believe in dragons more than any other deities because dragons are frequently seen in the changing formations of the clouds’, it also mentions ‘tracing the earliest emperors back to dragons’.The dragon and the emperor two impressive powers, one real and the other distinctly not, both the bearers of riches. The Western Dragon alternatively, is described more typically, ‘ a tall standing heavy serpent with claws and wings…belch both fire and smoke’ but also ‘The Dragon Is perhaps the best known but also the least known of the fantastic animals. It seems childish to us and usually spoils the stories in which it appears’. Jung, a contemporary and rival of Freud, also stated the Dragon that it is a reptile and a bird – the elements of the earth and of air. The two dragons are distinctly different and show how culturally different western and eastern methods are in story telling and social constructions (the eastern beings in the book tend to demonstrate a level of morality, where the western creations are seemingly more sinister and interesting in a way that allows a story to be told about them).

The Dragon is a regular and influential feature in popular culture, still today, one only has to look to China and Wales. They are creations by human culture and have helped us make sense of it, which is where the characteristics of the dragon and the emperor may tie in together.  Caspar Henderson in his essay for the Guardian states how The ‘Fauna of Mirrors’ forereshadows a series of lectures given by Borges which described his recurring nightmares ‘I am afraid to pull my mask off and afraid to see my real face’. This demonstrates the power of the creator and also the power of the perceiver with these Imaginary Beings. Because that is what they are – imaginary. They are created by a human imagination and are perceived by a human conscience, and as much as they appear fantastical they always have the human element of the creator. The fear or wonder they create is only that of the fear and wonder instigated by the initial human creator.

Imaginary Beings is an exploration in the cave of the human mind. Our fears and demons lurking in our subconscious illuminated by the fire of our waking consciousness, which creates these beings. Do we create stories to make sense of this? Of course we do. Narrative guides our life. When we are struggling the daily battle, we turn our hopes and fears into stories based on what we know, and give them endings based on what we already know and what we do not know. Henderson, mentioned earlier, claims the book is a shadow of the future. In the era of climate change, the Earth is rapidly heating altering DNA structure; we could be on the cusp of mass extinction, but what new life forms that this could alter and bring might as well be plucked out of Imaginary Beings because who genuinely knows. Like the prisoner freed from the cave, it takes somebody to step outside the realm that scientist is working in and speculate, make sense of all that we are not making sense of.

The slim book is a zoological creation, but not any ordinary zoo. Instead of the animals we might usually see, lions, and ligers, we see animals much more closer to human reality. They may not be Platonic forms of our fears but they are certainly lurking within our collective imaginations helping us make sense of the world, proving the true power of story telling. They are also there to give comfort, and make sense, which sounds something similar to what religion essentially does. In some cases, they create fear to the listener of the stories, but this is only the fear that the teller has originally and already felt.

Caspar Henderson’s essay is available here:

Fire and Forms in the cave


When worlds collide: Alif the Unseen, a review.

Even the cover of a book has a mystical element of rarity

Before beginning a novel, I like to know about the writer; I turn to the back, read the profile of the writer, other works, other life etc. As Martin Amis once said, it’s not about connecting with the characters, but connecting with the author. Just reading G.Willow Wilson’s small, brief biography at the back of the book, you know you are going to be in for something ambitious and she delivers a sprawling, fast-paced debut novel full of ideas; a combination of old age fantasy, genie’s and magic, and the hard, modern day realism of the cultural revolutions in the middle east.

Set at the time of the Arab Spring, Alif is a a hacktivist with no allegiances to any political ideology ‘Alif was not an ideologue; as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it’. Alif’s hacking away, until he finds himself the target of ‘The Hand’, an ambiguous, presumably government censor who’s sinister intent, transcends the metaphysical, internet world and into the real one.

 Alif’s is then embroiled in to a catch me if you can scenario with his veiled, female neighbour Dina, as his love interest Intisar is the subject of an arranged marriage. Before she leaves him though, she gives him a used, worn but incredibly rare book, the Alf Yeom, The Thousand and One Days which is an ingenious invention by Wilson, a supposed alternative to Scheherazades, The Thousand and One Nights, except the Alf Yeom is rarer and is a much more powerful entity. Its ironic as Alif’s online prowess cannot translate into physical ability, as he is plunged into a game of cat and mouse in the real world, that has the feel of a video game.

It is the Alf Yeom though that the whole novel centres around, as the second half of the book embarks on a journey of the magical and djinn, Alif complies with Vikram the Vampire, a droll, underworld type figure perhaps a nod to the disputably non-religious The Golden Compass (which gets numerous mentions throughout the novel) the aforementioned Dina, and an American convert, not just to a muslim, but a convert from the western world into this chaotic eastern world, battling prejudices (this arguably resembles Wilson, American born, Islamic convert which she writes about in her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque).
As Alif reads the Alf Yeom he comes to understand that the various tales within it (and Wilson treats us to a few) are sources of deep, metaphorical knowledge. This then is the crux of tale as both Alif and the hand want to harness this knowledge, unlike The Thousand and One Nights, which is effectively binary – black and white text; the Alf Yeom’s stories can be translated as powerful, secret knowledge. However, earlier In the novel, Dina and Alif are discussing the Golden Compass,

‘This book….is full of pagan images. It’s dangerous’
‘Don’t be ignorant. They’re metaphors. I told you, you wouldn’t understand’.
‘Metaphors are dangerous’.

And this is the precursor for the rest of the novel and the Alf Yeom as this is ultimately a book about the power of words and language. Wilson holds no reservations for genre fiction, and in this case she uses it as a powerful tool, because when you strip away the magic, the descriptions of computer programming, you are left with something like the Alf Yeom’s most wanted entity, a powerful philosophy to be harnessed. Centuries of people have tried to exploit and promote their religion with their texts. It has effectively been a war of words, a war of books, as Dina says ‘I was afraid you’d turn into one of those literary types who say books can change the world when they’re feeling good about themselves and its only a book when anybody challenges them. It wasn’t about the book themselves – it was about hypocrisy’. Inevitably Dina uses the example of Salman Rushdie’s, The Satanic Verses. A book produced in the west that sparked outrageous levels of controversy in the east, Rushdie’s use of metaphors for Islamic culture were clearly dangerous. In this age of the internet that Wilson encapsulates, when is a book only a book? And how powerful can a book continue to be.

There might even be a tiny hint of Wittgenstein influence on the view of language when Alif says ‘So you walk, and the path gets rockier, and then there are gaps, and eventually, you find you’re not even in the garden anymore, but out in some howling desert. And you can’t retrace your steps because the path itself was all in your head’  reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s ideas on private language, or more an ironic clash of philosophies between religious (heavy understatement i know) Gandhi and atheist Wittgenstein. People have likened Wilson to Neil Gaiman for the blend of philosophy and genre fiction, but there is a hint of Dickens in the way she evokes cities and its people; the wealth divisions as Wilson contrasts the New Quarter part of the City with the Old Quarter and the Empty Quarter; a city in conflict not only now with its people and its government, but also with its history and its future, its old and new culture. One might even go so far to say that magical realists like Garcia Marquez are evident, evoking the scenes in One Hundred Years of Solitude, with the gypsies bringing magic to the town of Macondo, another capital city (we can assume the City Wilson’s novel is Cairo) in constant revolutions and upheavals.

Besides this, the dialogue at times is a bit clunky, and a touch more subtlety in the mixing of the magical and real elements might have sufficed, and with everything else that it is going on, the love story feels a bit neglected. These are relatively minor, because there is not much to detract from this triumph and as Wilson continues to mature as a writer, these are likely to become more accomplished. Corvus Books (in house publisher of Atlantic Books) should be optimistic of its future with Wilson, because she undoubtedly has a big future as a writer. At times, it reeks of silver screen adaptation.

As we enter the denouement of the tale in the closing scenes, it evokes the scenes witnessed last year in the Arab Spring; a clash of the authority with the people, the bourgesoie and the proletariat, the clashing of old history and the new-age future, the clashing of the religions, the east and the west. A clash of cultures.

Alif the Unseen (427 pp) by G.Willow Wilson, is published by Corvus Books and is out in hardback now for £12.99.