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Michael Robbins


The Thousand and One Nights.

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.

Lyons's version of The Arabian Nights is the first complete translation of the authoritative Arabic text known as Calcutta II since Richard Burton's The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night in 1885. It joins Husain Haddawy's The Arabian Nights (1992), which offers only 35 stories, as the go-to Nights of choice for the contemporary English reader. Haddawy's translation has recently been reissued in a marvelous Norton Critical Edition that includes, along with much else, al-Mas'udi's and Ibn Nadim's discussions of the text; Edgar Allan Poe's "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade"; and essays by Hofmannsthal, Borges, and Todorov. It's a one-volume concordance to the human imagination's debt to Shahrazad.

There's not much reason to prefer either Lyons or Haddawy over the other—both translators write serviceable, occasionally plodding prose—except their different treatments of the Nights' frequent outbursts of verse. I don't know how this stuff sounds in Arabic, but, as is the case with Eliot's chapter headings in Middlemarch, I wouldn't miss it if it were cut. That's particularly true of Haddawy's Englishings, which are abominable:

You left me burdened with the weight of love,
Being too weak even a shirt to wear.
I marvel not that my soul wastes away
But that my body can your absence bear.

But that my body can your absence bear! I know not but that I'm too weak even a joke to make. I'm a poet, of course, but anyone—Haddawy's editor, for instance—should be able to hear how wretched this is. Haddawy has as much business translating poetry into English as I have starting for the Yankees.

Lyons translates the same lines as:
You loaded me with passion's heavy weight,
Although even one shirt is too much for my strength.
I am not surprised that my life should be lost;
My wonder is how, after your loss, my body can be recognized.

This is not good poetry. It is, in fact, awful—it puts me in mind of Guy Davenport on Richmond Lattimore's Odyssey: "Tone be damned, rhythm and pace be damned, idiom … be damned; this version is going to be punctiliously lexicographic." But Lyons's version has the virtue of employing recognizable English syntax.

Since Lyons also translates the complete text, he has the edge over Haddawy; but that Norton edition is splendid. Anyone interested in the Nights will want both.

Irwin observes that the Nights "should be understood as the collective dreaming of commercial folk in the great cities of the medieval Arab world." The tales teem with shopkeepers, merchants, butchers, grocers, tradesmen, and other representatives of the class from which their readership was composed ("Sindbad was not a sailor but a merchant," Irwin reminds us). The fantastic and romantic elements of the stories—princes, jinn, talking donkeys, lots and lots of sex—encode a kind of class longing, as perhaps the Avengers do in our day. Think of Walter Benjamin's remark that "The world of offices and registries, of musty, shabby, dark rooms, is Kafka's world."

Indeed, the Jewish joke that Benjamin recounts in his essay on Kafka could, with minimal tweaking, have appeared in The Thousand and One Nights. In a Hasidic village, some folks are gathered in "a shabby inn." They are all local people, except for "one person no one knew, a very poor, ragged man who was squatting in a dark corner at the back of the room." As the night wears on, someone suggests that "everyone should tell what wish he would make if one were granted him." The usual things are mentioned—money, a bride for a favored son, a new workbench, and so on—until only the beggar hasn't responded. Reluctantly, he answers:

"I wish I were a powerful king reigning over a big country. Then, some night while I was asleep in my palace, an enemy would invade my country, and by dawn his horsemen would penetrate to my castle and meet with no resistance. Roused from my sleep, I wouldn't even have time to dress and I would have to flee in my shirt. Rushing over hill and dale and through forests day and night, I would finally arrive safely right here at the bench in this corner. This is my wish."

The others are perplexed. "And what good would this wish have done you?" someone asks. "I'd have a shirt," the man replies.

So much of what we treasure in the Nights is here: the mysterious stranger; the violent reversal of fortune; the beggar-king; the grandiose deployed for the mundane; the enigmatic, parable-like lesson. And, most of all, the story told by someone in a story. Shahrazad's characters are constantly breaking into her narrative to begin stories of their own, which contain storytellers who tell stories about people who tell stories; and so on, like a Russian doll, a stack of turtles all the way down.

The funniest recurring bit in the Nights is the character who exclaims, "This is no time for a story!" For if the Nights teach us anything, it is that it's always time for a story: our appetite for stories is insatiable, and life is an affair of listening to stories told. Stories end; even Shahrazad's. The jeweler marries the vizier's sister, and they live happily together for many years, until they are "visited by the destroyer of delights and the parter of companions." While we are here, like King Shahriyar on his very first night with Shahrazad, we must be "glad at the thought of listening to a story."

Michael Robbins is the author of Alien vs. Predator (Penguin).

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