Paperback review: The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, By Caspar Henderson
Sunday 13 October 2013
Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967) is populated with fantastic creatures from literature and folklore: it contains such strange visions as the Humbaba, from an ancient Mesopotamian poem, whose tail and penis end in snapping snake’s heads, and the Celestial Stag of Chinese myth, a “tragic animal” that lives underground and melts into a “foul smelling liquid” on contact with fresh air.
The animals in Caspar Henderson’s Book of Barely Imagined Beings, a “21st-century bestiary”, are scarcely less wondrous than Borges’, but these are real. Take the axolotl, an amphibious Mexican cave-dweller with uncanny, human-like features, which is able to regenerate severed limbs. Or Venus’s flower basket, a sponge whose body forms “a translucent filigree cage” in which shrimps become trapped. Or, indeed, gonodactylus, a vicious crustacean that uses its hairy “gonad fingers” to disembowel its enemies.
Each entry begins with discussion of a particular species before opening out into an essay on a wider theme: the moray eel’s retractable jaw inspires an exploration into the human preoccupation with monsters, while the jumping spider prompts a mini-treatise on the workings of memory. The book is a gorgeous object, full of detailed illustrations and colourful typography.
Henderson’s erudition and digressive style lend the book the flavour of 17th-century miscellanies by Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. But this is in other respects a very modern work, imbued with an awareness of the fragility of nature. In focusing on mysterious, little-known animals Henderson seeks to alter our “sense of what is possible” in the natural world and to foster a concern for its less charismatic fauna. And, in that sense, this is not just a beautiful book – it is an important one.
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