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The Arabian Nights (Norton Critical Editions)
The Arabian Nights (Norton Critical Editions)

W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
544 pp.,

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Michael Robbins


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The Thousand and One Nights.

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No one knows how many stories there are, told across how many nights, or who first told them, or in what language, or how long ago. Alf Layla wa-Layla, the Thousand and One Nights, accreted material over the centuries like a stalagmite. A 9th-century fragment of the title page survives. In the 10th century, both al-Mas'udi and Ibn Nadim mention the work, reporting that it derives from a Persian original. The oldest substantial Arabic version is a three-volume Syrian manuscript from the 15th century. It's from this that Antoine Galland created Les Mille et une nuits, which acquainted the broader European mind with the beautiful storyteller Shahrazad at the beginning of the 18th century. Galland's translation introduced many of the stories—Sindbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba—we associate with the Nights today, and subsequent translators have retained them. (Some have suspected Galland of inventing Aladdin and Ali Baba himself.) I see no reason Martian colonists, centuries from now, shouldn't gather up a few of their own dusty tales and insert them into the book.

I wish I'd read the Nights when I was a child, but I didn't get around to them (or some of them—the recent Penguin Classics edition runs to about a million words) until I was almost forty. I assume most readers are familiar with the basic frame of the Nights: betrayed by his wife, whose execution he orders, the Persian king Shahriyar begins to marry and bed a virgin every night, having her killed in the morning, before she too has a chance to shame him. When virgins start getting scarce, Shahrazad, daughter of the king's vizier, offers herself. The first night, she tells the king a story to pass the time, and is still telling it when the sun comes up. Enraptured, eager to find out how the story ends, he decides to spare her life one more night. The next night, she finishes it but, of course, begins a new one, which is interrupted by the dawn … Thus her life comes to depend upon her ability to produce compelling fictions night after night (it's never been clear to me when anyone gets any sleep).

Eavesdropping on the king's bedchamber, I began to hear echoes of more familiar voices. As Borges learns to recognize Kafka's influence on Zeno and the 9th-century writer Han Yu, I felt how deeply Kafka and Borges himself had impressed the anonymous writers of The Arabian Nights with their labyrinths and parables. Forget Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote: postmodernism begins here.

Their origins lost in clouds, Shahrazad's stories themselves swim with mysterious confusions of identity—doublings and disguises, forgeries and frauds. The tale of "the second caliph" anticipates Paul Auster and Philip Roth: the caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, and his trusted vizier, Ja'far, are in the habit of disguising themselves to walk among the people of the capital at night. One evening, they see a magnificent barge lighted by lanterns sailing down the Tigris, carrying a beautiful young man on a red gold throne surrounded by slaves and attendants. It is, they are told, the caliph and his vizier, who sail the Tigris every night warning people to stay off the river.

"Stories are best told at night," Robert Irwin writes in his superb introduction to Malcolm Lyons's three-volume translation for Penguin Classics, published in 2008. "The night cloaks many mysteries." The lamps and torches of the Nights reveal a world governed by caprice and ambiguity:

The Arabic for "mystery" or "secret" is sirr, but sirr is one of those numerous Arabic words which also comprehend [their] opposite meaning, so that sirr also means "a thing that is revealed, appears or [is] made manifest." Many stories open strangely and they will only close when that strangeness is resolved and the truth "appears or is made manifest."

Sometimes, in fact, the seeming resolution is as strange as the original mystery. It turns out that the second caliph is Muhammad 'Ali, a jeweler who has been spurned by the Lady Dunya, his wealthy lover (and, in a characteristic coincidence, Ja'far's sister), after he disobeyed her order to stay in the house while she went to the baths. She kicked him out, and he sold his shop, using the proceeds to purchase a grand boat and hundreds of slaves:

I called myself the caliph and I arranged that each one of my servants should duplicate the roles played by the caliph's own followers, seeing to it that they looked like them. I had it proclaimed that if anyone cruised on the Tigris, I would immediately have him executed. I have been doing this for a whole year now, but I have heard no news of the Lady Dunya, nor have I found any trace of her.

This is the entire explanation, which the real caliph accepts, impressed by "the passionate intensity of Muhammad's love." He arranges to have Muhammad reunited with his lady, as if it might occur to anyone, afflicted by heartsickness, to impersonate a political leader and forbid river traffic.

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