The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part I

January 24, 2021

I recently finished reading The Book of Fantasy, a collection of short fantastical fiction compiled by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and A. Bioy Casares. It was first published in Spanish as Antologia de la Literatura Fantástica in 1940; the English edition was published in 1988, with an introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin.

As far as I can tell, the book is no longer in print, which is remarkable to me given the impressive pedigree of the collection. Also, it’s a fantastic[1] assemblage of work, demonstrating the quality and sheer literary breadth you’d expect from a trio of editors like Borges, Ocampo, and Casares.

If you think I’m writing this post to give you a recommendation, then I’ll save you some time and say: find a copy of The Book of Fantasy and read it. It’s good, it’s worth it, yadda yadda yadda.

The actual reason I’m writing this is for my own edification. I want to remember the stories in this book. I want to remember things in general, frankly. I don’t reflect, don’t digest, don’t ruminate. My mind is full of half-accurate upshot summaries of articles I skimmed, podcasts I listened to at 2x speed, and books I have read precisely once.

So I’m going to go through every story in this book and try to remember something about it.

“Sennin” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

From Laurence Coven, writing for the L.A. Times:

[The] decision to open the volume with “Sennin” by the Japanese writer, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, was inspired. “Sennin” is a beautiful fable that demonstrates how the power of true belief, no matter how bizarre, can conquer the forces of those who accept nothing that reaches beyond the barriers of small-minded reality. An enchanting tale, it also aids the reader joyfully to embrace the suspension of disbelief that he needs to fully explore the labyrinths in the pages just ahead.

Mr. Coven’s analysis was a much deeper than my own. Here’s what I wrote before stumbling upon his review:

A guy wants to become a wise mystic (sennin) and works for 20 years as a servant in order to do so. The couple he works for think they’re scamming him into working for free for 20 years. Turns out, ha!, joke’s on them: he becomes a sennin and flies off.

It’s a folkloric story with a whimsically happy ending. Very often, folkloric tales end horribly, so it’s nice to see things work out in the end.

Like, this is what I’m talking about w.r.t. my earlier claim of “I don’t reflect, don’t digest, don’t ruminate”. I read a thing I like and think to myself “oh ho ho, that’s neat” — and that’s about the extent of my intellectual engagement.

I would like to point out, however, that the works in The Book of Fantasy are listed in alphabetical order by author. So it seems fair for me to ask: how intentional it was to open with “Sennin”, as opposed to Ryūnosuke Akutagawa just happened to have an alphabetically powerful surname?

By the way, did you know that Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was the author of “In a Grove”, which is the story that inspired the film Rashōmon? Another fun fact: according to the bio given by Borges/Ocambo/Casares:

Before taking his own life, he calmly explained the reasons which brought him to this decision and compiled a list of historical suicides, in which he included Christ.

“A Woman Alone with Her Soul” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

The entire story comprises three sentences:

A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.

This story is in many ways an excellent distillation of the flavor of this collection. The style of fantasy in The Book of Fantasy is not well captured by the genre terminology of modern publishing. These stories lurk in the interstices between what we’d call fantasy, horror, folklore, and science fiction. Probably some other stuff, too. And quite often, as in this case, the stories resist classification due to their sheer length (or lack thereof).

I like this story. It’s short, it’s weird, it’s eerie, and it has a title that adds something meaningful to the story. We are all this woman along with her soul. We will be undone by the thing that rang the doorbell, each and every one of us. There is nothing that can be done about it.

Continued at The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part 2.


[1] (pun intended)

The Book of Fantasy: A Review: Part I - January 24, 2021 - Greg Poulos