the museum of imaginary creatures

Imaginary animals: myths, legends and childhood fantasies in fantastic zoology

In the prologue to their Manual of Fantastic Zoology, J.L.Borges and Margarita Guerrero wrote
A child, when taken for the first time to the zoo is any one of us ,or rather, we were once this child , something we have forgotten... In the garden, in that terrible garden, the child sees living animals never seen before: jaguars, vultures, bisons and even stranger giraffes. For the very first time he sees the boundless variety of the animal kingdom, and his like this spectacle, which should alarm or terrify him so much, that going to the garden zoo is, or may seem to him, childish fun ... [...] Plato (were he to take part in this investigation) would tell us that the child has already seen the tiger in the previous world of the archetypes, and that upon seeing it now he recognises it. Schopenhauer (even more boldly) would say that the child looks at the tigers without horror because he does not ignore the fact that he is the tigers and the tigers are him, or rather, that the tigers and he are of the same essence, the Will. Let us now pass from the zoological garden of the reality to the zoological garden of mythologies, the fauna of which does not comprise lions but sphinxes and griffins and centaurs. The population of the latter zoo ought to surpass that of the former, since monsters are simply combinations of elements drawn from real beings and the possibilities of the art of combination is close to infinity. [...] Whoever browses our manual will see that the zoology of dreams is poorer than the zoology of God. (English paraphrased from the Italian translation by Franco Lucentini).

In actual fact, though, the array of animals in the manual includes beasts belonging to the noble tradition of mythology, religion, literature and art, but overlooks at least two treasure-troves of fantastic beings: science fiction and children's literature. And yet, it does not escape the notice of the authors that, if the real zoological garden provides true childish fun how much more does that of the imagination. Nor do they fail to note that adults who are willing to believe that the imaginary animals described in Mediaeval bestiaries are real, as are those presented by the writer or someone known to them, are adult-children, for whom the very fact of believing in something that does not exist is due to a felling of resonance towards deep convictions that "the book", with its authority, manages to render credible. This authority is somewhat akin to that which the priest, the noble , the press, television or the internet claim the right to exert as dispensers of truth, tamers of peoples.

Borges would have enjoyed a visit to the "Museo delle Creature Immaginarie" [museum of imaginary creatures] created by Altan, Stefano Benni and Pietro Pierotti, featuring 52 sculptures by the latter inspired by the incredible production of fantastic beings which Europeans have availed themselves of for many centuries when dealing with Africa: Herodotus' Africa full of three-headed giants; the Africa of hic sunt leones. The rapport, devoid of imagination, regarded the African continent's communities and resources (slavery, colonialism); the invention of contemporary Africa; the possibility of rediscovering in Africa meaning and resources the importance of whose value we are no longer capable of imagining. One emblem of this genealogy of extraordinary beings may be considered the Babonzo:

An animal endowed with two pairs of feet pointing in opposite directions, so that it can walk only sideways. The tail unfurls and emits the sound of a trumpet every time the Babonzo breathes. On its head, the Babonzo has a growth from which a hand protrudes to express all the Babonzo's feelings, seeing that the face of the Babonzo has always got the same (rather stupid) expression. The Babonzo's call is as follows: "KREWTEWKEWEUKQUEQUETRKWEKWEKWEKWEKTREKUEKUETREWQUEKWSTWEKEK" (try it yourself). One peculiarity of the Babonzo, the only animal in the world with this characteristic, is that it shrinks instead of growing. The Babonzo cub weighs more than two hundred pounds (four osvalds) at birth and the mother needs a ladder to hatch the egg. As the years pass, the animal becomes smaller and smaller: a Babonzo-baby is at least six times the size of the parent Babonzo and twenty times as big as its grandfather Babonzo. A hundred-year-old Babonzo is the size of a thimble though it does not die: after a while they cannot be found any longer.

But to remain within the Italian world of books for children, we wish to mention two volumes by Pino Pace and Giorgio Sommacal: "Bestiacce" and "Univerzoo" whose protagonist is Pico Pane and his assistant Sam Colam, two books of fantastic zoology, the first set on planet Earth, in a quest for improbable creatures; the second on the margins of the Galaxy where improbable beings abound.
Sweet dreams...

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