Arabian

SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH BY TAYEB SALIH

A while ago I was in heated conversation with a man, a British man, about the subject of immigration and asylum, and at the end of this conversation he said something like ‘obviously coming here is better for you lot.’ It became clear to me at that point that he was under the impression that I wasn’t English. It is better for me and my kind? Better in what way, sir? ‘Nicer, not like where you came from.’ Putting aside the insignificant detail that I am actually English, the suggestion was that uprooting yourself and moving to a different country, a superior and more civilised country[!], is always an entirely positive endeavour. It is the unfortunate locals who have to put up with us – and our weird rituals, food, smell, etc. – and whose jobs we steal – that one ought to consider and sympathise with.

Perspective is a strange thing. There are some that appear incapable of seeing things through the eyes of others, who seemingly cannot comprehend that one’s cultural practices and values – i.e. what seems right and normal to you – are subjective, are related to your upbringing and experiences; and that to someone else, who has had a different upbringing and experiences, your practices and values may seem equally absurd or immoral. It strikes me that were I to have told this man – who, I am sure, wasn’t trying to offend me – that actually many people who come to England prefer their home countries, and in some cases did not want to come here at all, and that for them this – being in England – is not akin to winning the lottery, but often a sad, yet necessary event, he would not have believed me. Because, well, being a foreigner, my word is hardly the most reliable, is it?

“By the standards of the European industrial world we are poor peasants, but when I embrace my grandfather I experience a sense of richness as though I am a note in the heartbeats of the very universe.”

Tayeb Salih’s The Season of Migration to the North begins with a return, with the unnamed narrator, or partial narrator, discussing his arrival in the ’obscure’ village of his birth after seven years abroad, in England. He returned, he says, with ‘a great yearning’ for his people; he had ‘longed for them, had dreamed of them.’ At home, he re-familiarises himself with ’the room whose walls had witnessed the trivial incidents of my childhood and the onset of adolescence’ and the unique sound of the wind as it passes through palm trees. There are so many novels written from the European perspective, that focus on what it is like, as a European, to visit such a place, and the majority of them accentuate the hostility or strangeness of the landscape and people, and so it is refreshing to read something that provides an alternative point of view, one that is positive and loving. For the narrator this is where he has his roots, and where he feels once again as though he has ‘a purpose.’

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While there is much in the village that is familiar, there is one thing, a man, that is new and unknown, and, perhaps because he stands out in this way, the narrator is excessively curious about who he is and why or how he came to be there. I use the word excessively, because, at least initially, Mustafa Sa’eed does nothing to raise suspicion; he, we’re told, ‘kept himself to himself,’ and always showed extreme politeness, as one would naturally expect of someone who has moved to a new place. In this way, Salih subtly probes the concept of ’the outsider,’ for even in a village of men of the same race, religion, etc, Mustafa Sa’eed is viewed as not quite ‘one of them.’ However, one day he mentions that he has a secret, and it is this secret that provides Season of Migration to the North with one of its two compelling central storylines.

When the two men get together to discuss the secret, Mustafa Sa’eed begins by relating some details of his childhood, details that, I think, say much about his character and give strong hints as to his future behaviour. He was, he says, essentially given the freedom to do as he pleased; he had no father, and his mother was emotionally distant. Of more significance, he describes himself as emotionally distant also. When he is given a place at a school in Cairo he leaves home with little more than a shrug of the shoulders and later admits to feeling no gratitude towards those who help him. Indeed, the more the highly intelligent, but strangely cold Mustafa Sa’eed says, the more it becomes clear, long before the big reveal, that he is at least a sociopath, but probably a psychopath. In this way, the novel could have become simply another in a seemingly endless line of existential dramas focussing on intense, disturbed loners – such as Camus’ Mersault or Sabato’s Juan Pablo Castel – and their terrible crimes, and on the most basic level it is one of those, but it is also much more besides.

I flippantly said to someone the other day that Tayeb Salih must have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for magic literary powers. This, I joked, was the only explanation for what he was able to achieve in Season of Migration to the North in approximately 130 pages. However, I am going to overlook, or only briefly touch upon, many of the complex and challenging themes and ideas present in the novel, not because I am not interested in them, but simply because I have to maintain control over my work and not allow it, as I said in a previous review, to mutate into a dissertation. Therefore, although colonisation, and the effect upon those who are subjected to it, certainly underpins much of the action I am going to leave it for others to tackle, aware that this is generally what reviewers focus upon. I, on the other hand, prefer to look at the more controversial, or uncomfortable, elements of the book.

“He used to say “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis” and he laughed so widely you could see the back of his throat.”

For large parts of Season of Migration to the North Tayeb Salih investigates and challenges liberal and conservative, Eastern and Western, attitudes towards sex and race; indeed, the nature of Mustafa Sa’eed’s ‘villainy’ is both sexual and racial, and even political [but, as stated, I am not going to linger over that]. When he moved to England his chief aim was to bed as many white women as possible, in the process playing up to the stereotype, and playing upon the fear of conservative white Europeans, of the savage, sex-obsessed invading African black male. Yet Salih takes this one stage further, for the women who succumb to his charms do so with his race, and the accompanying stereotypes, at the forefront of their minds, even when they believe that they are dismissing it or ‘accepting’ of it.

For example, one woman appears to be under the impression that Mustafa has just crawled out of the jungle, wearing a loincloth and smelling of mangoes. For her, this fantasy, which he encourages, adds an exotic flavour, an alien quality, something quixotic, to the proceedings. Another of the women imagines herself, and calls herself, Sa’eed’s slave, a woman who wants to be dominated, of course, and who clearly associates the subjugation of women with Arab culture. Words and phrases such as ‘savage bull’ and ‘cannibal’ are thrown around; and Jean Morris outright calls this ‘showpiece black man’ ugly. Yet, once again, Salih wasn’t satisfied with presenting only one side, for he makes it clear that Sa’eed also finds the novelty of these kind of couplings exciting [he comments on their bronze skin and the intoxicating but strange ‘European smell’]. All sexes, all cultures, all races can experience the allure of ‘the other.’ This is fascinating, thrilling stuff.

The only criticism I have to make of the novel, which is as beautifully written as it is brave, is in relation to the murder of Jean Morris, which is preposterously melodramatic, although I guess it is purposely reminiscent of the conclusion of Othello. Regardless, this act is not, for me, the most heinous in the novel, nor is this death [or Sa’eed’s fate] the most tragic. Throughout Season of Migration to the North one is led to believe that the European women, with their sexual rights and freedom to choose [even a black man], are a symbol of modernity or modern attitudes. In contrast, when the aged lothario Wad Reyyes falls in ‘love’ [which for him is the same as lust] with Hosna Bint Mahmoud, who outright refuses him, he declares, ‘She will marry me no matter what you or she says.’ In this village, he continues, men make the decisions. In short, Reyyes wants to fuck the woman, and so she will be fucked. However, when he, with great violence, attempts to take her by force, and Bint Mahmoud follows through on her promise to kill Reyyes and herself, one comes to realise that it is she who is the modern woman, not the so-called liberal, free Europeans. Why? Because Bint Mahmoud kills to make a statement, to say no when no is not permitted.

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THE BLIND OWL BY SADEQ HEDAYAT

Whenever anyone asks me why I like owls I always tell a short story, a fictional story of course, about the first man to ever see one. Imagine blithely walking through the woods, through a forest, late one night and coming upon such a creature; imagine, to be specific, coming upon a barn owl. What is it? A bird, but not really a bird, or certainly one like no other. Lion-headed; razor-clawed; black-eyed…a ghoul, in short, in a bird-like form. There is an abundance of astonishing, disconcertingly weird animal life – the spider, for example – but none of them quite have the captivating, eerie power of the owl. The reason for this is, I think, because, unlike the spider, it has a certain human quality also, but a humanity that has been horribly distorted. It looks like something you would conjure up in a nightmare or a drug-induced hallucination, where the real and familiar combines with the odd and unexpected. In this way, although owls are only briefly mentioned in the text, it is a fitting symbol for Sadeq Hedayat’s compelling Iranian novel.

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The Blind Owl begins without preamble, which is to say that Hedayat does not ease the reader into his narrative, but immediately drops you into a tale of madness and despair. The opening line, for example, describes ‘sores’ that ‘erode the mind.’ These sores are not literal, of course, but emotional or mental; they are the product of a ‘disease’ for which relief, according to the unnamed narrator, is only to be found in wine and opium. Indeed, I have come across few novels that start so intensely, with so much melodrama and hand-wringing. The world, he says, is ‘mean’ and comprised of ‘wretchedness and misery’; and people, moreover, exist only in order to cheat him. He is full of loathing, loathing for others and for himself, but is, even more so, full of self pity about his ‘poisoned’ life and ‘inconceivable suffering.’

The cause of the ‘agony’ he experiences is, predictably, a woman; or, to use his own words, a ‘star’, a ‘ray of sunlight’, an ‘angel’ that disappeared from his life forever, and whom he cannot forget. At this stage I am probably giving the impression that The Blind Owl is something of a Werther-esque story of unattainable sweethearts and lost love; and, in a way, it kind of is, especially the first half. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the early part of the novel repeatedly referencing the ‘extraordinary’ beauty of his beloved, with her ‘prominent’ cheekbones, ‘full’ lips, moon-like pallor, fine limbs, radiant eyes, and slender eyebrows that meet in the middle[!]; she is, he says, an ethereal misty form.

However, as the narrator comes to explain how he met the woman, and how he subsequently lost her, one realises that The Blind Owl has more in common with Poe or the [mostly French] surrealists or something like Jose Donoso’s gothic horror story The Obscene Bird of Night, than Goethe‘s famous novel. I do not, of course, want to give away the entire plot, but, in short, it involves windows that disappear, ‘dense mists’, uncanny images on pen cases [he has taken up decorating these in an effort to stupify himself or kill time, he says] and jars, black ‘skeleton thin’ horses, dismemberment, a hearse, and a great deal of blood, etc. Like The Obscene Bird of Night the timeline of these events is confused, which mirrors, of course, the mental state of the narrator, a man who, as has already been mentioned, is often drunk on wine or high on opium.

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As one would expect, then, there is much in the novel about reality and fantasy. One is invited to ask oneself how much of what you are reading is true and how much is false,  or, to be more precise, how much is real and how much is hallucination or fiction. Indeed, there are numerous references to dreams and visions throughout The Blind Owl, such as when the narrator describes himself as being in a state of mingled horror and delight akin to that produced by a ‘delicious, fearful dream.’ Moreoverhe says of opium that it puts him in a state that is like being ‘neither awake nor asleep’, and, more tellingly, or consequently, that everything he sees, thinks, and feels might be ‘entirely imaginary.’ Yet there is also the suggestion that he may, in fact, simply be making things up, for he admits at one stage that his story might not contain even ‘the slightest particle of truth.’

“I write only for my shadow which is cast on the wall in front of the light. I must introduce myself to it.”

As engaging as all this is, the most interesting element of the novel, for me, is when Hedayat writes about identity or ‘the self.’ The first hint of this is when, at the beginning of The Blind Owl, the narrator says that he wants to ‘know himself’, as though there is some part that is unknown or unknowable. He also claims to be composing the story for his shadow, which he refers to numerous times as though it is a separate, individual being. There is, furthermore, more than one instance in which people become other people, or people are switched, or there is some confusion as to who is who. For example, there is an anecdote told about the narrator’s father and uncle, and how they were locked in a room with a cobra[!] and, due to how similar in appearance they were, no one was entirely certain which one of them came out alive. The concept of multiple selves is, of course, familiar to all of us, but especially those who have an interest in mental illness. Not only are there conditions such as bipolarity, but split personalities and schizophrenia too.

It is also worth focusing, briefly, on the structure, for I was impressed by the way Hedayat brought together the two halves of his novel. The first half is, as I noted previously, a rather confusing, melodramatic story of lost love, involving a woman who may or may not have existed. The second half then goes on to explain, or give the impression of explaining, the events that take place in the first, in a more realistic, or believable, manner. Initially, this irritated me, for it felt a little like a magician performing an impressive trick, then showing you exactly how it was done. However, as I progressed further into the second half it became apparent that the explanation was, in fact, no more credible than the horror-fantasy in the first half.

“We are the children of death and it is death that rescues us from the deceptions of life.”

I want to continue, I want to write about mummy and daddy issues, Freud, and the psycho-sexual, but this is a book review, a long book review already, and it cannot, if I hope to have any readers, be allowed to mutate into a dissertation. However, before I finish I am going to touch upon the translation. I have actually tried to read The Blind Owl a number of times, abandoning it on each of these occasions somewhere around 20-30 pages in, and only recently saw it through to the end. My reservations previously were all related to the quality of the prose, specifically how overwrought it is [although I should point out that the second half is much less so].

Open the book at any point within the first thirty pages, and read a page and you will find a plethora of examples. Fearful abyss! Immense eyes! Profound darkness! Accursed trees!! The first part is so saturated with this sort of thing that it is, at times, amusing, rather than, as you would imagine was the intention, exciting or unnerving. You will notice, also, how almost every word, every noun or verb, is qualified or modified in some way with an adverb or adjective, which is something that I generally associate with bad writing. All screams are bloodcurdling, all glances are penetrating, and so on. Moreover, I was struck by how old-fashioned the language was for a book that was published in 1937, such that it almost felt like a pastiche [alas].

I did wonder whether these flaws could be attributed to a shoddy translation. The copy I own was translated by D.P. Costello, a man who was, as the name suggests, not Iranian himself, and who, I think I am right in saying, was not considered an expert in the language. With this in mind, I sought out the most recent translation by Naveed Noori, who claims, as is always the way, that his version is more accurate. Well, more accurate it might be, but it is also clunky and sometimes near unintelligible. Compare the opening paragraphs:

“There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker. It is impossible to convey a just idea of the agony which this disease can inflict. In general, people are apt to relegate such inconceivable sufferings to the category of the incredible. Any mention of them in conversation or in writing is considered in the light of current beliefs, the individual’s personal beliefs in particular, and tends to provoke a smile of incredulity and derision.” [Costello]

“In life there are wounds that, like leprosy, silently scrape at and consume the soul, in solitude—This agony can not be revealed to anyone, because they generally tend to group this incomprehensible suffering with strange and otherwise rare events, and if one speaks or writes about it, then people, by way of popular perception and their own beliefs, receive it with a doubtful and mocking smile.” [Noori]

Yes, the Costello one is archaic, suggesting a brooding 19th century count, in a dark and windy castle somewhere, contemplating the state of his soul over a snifter of brandy, but it is nevertheless poetic, smooth and readable. This is the perennial problem with modern translators, which is to say that their work tends to be faithful, on a word-by-word basis, but they have seemingly no idea about, or interest in, how English sentences are actually constructed, or how to make them pleasing to the eye or ear. Indeed, reading them is like dancing with someone who has conscientiously learnt all the steps, but lacks grace of movement. So while Costello’s melodrama isn’t perfect, and it may be a bastardised version of Hedayat’s novel, I still greatly favour it over a version that reads as though it is the product of google translate.

THE ARABIAN NIGHTS [BASED ON THE TEXT EDITED BY MUHSIN MAHDI]

[P], brow furrowed and with the hint of a tear in his eye, sat on the bed, the bed that was little more than a valley surrounded by mountains of books. He had finished the book he had been reading nearly two weeks ago and was engaged in choosing the next, although, from the outside, it appeared as though he was building himself some kind of fort. Of the high mountainous piles of books around the bed, [P] had read at least 50 pages of each, before abandoning them, Goldilocks-like, as not quite right. [P] was at the pitch of madness when he spied a spider crawling down his wall. ‘Stop!’ he screamed, and the spider looked at him, stared at him like one of Flannery O’Connor’s more under-developed characters. [P] leapt from the bed, a heap of books falling from his lap, Buckaroo-style, and made for his killing-shoe. Shoe in hand, he cautiously stepped towards the spider, raising hand and shoe in readiness for the fatal strike.

‘Wait!’ said the spider.

‘No! I must kill you!’

‘Why? What have I done to you? Why must you end my life?’

‘It’s not what you’ve done, it’s who, or what, you are. Now, be quiet and take your medicine like a man!’

‘But I’m not a man. I’m a spider; and I’m female.’

‘Arachne, is that you?’

‘What? Oh, Ovid? You do know that was just a story, don’t you?

‘But…’

‘Have you ever thought about seeking professional help, [P]?’

‘Quit stalling, spideress! It is time for you to die!’

‘Wait! Wouldn’t you like me to tell which book you ought to read next?’

‘Huh?’

‘I know what the perfect book is for you.’

‘Go on.’

The Arabian Nights is the perfect book for you right now.’

‘Fine. Now, let us finish this!’

‘Wait, wouldn’t you like to know which edition to read? There are hundreds of them out there, and you yourself have three at the last count.’

‘Go on.’

‘If you spare me tonight I will tell you.’

[P] considered the spider’s proposition and decided to accept, for the killing could wait until the following day.

The First Night

‘We meet again!’ said [P] as the spider emerged from her hiding place late the next night.

‘As planned and as foreordained, master.’

‘So, deliver on your part of the agreement, strange speaking-spider!’

‘I will.’

[THE STORY OF BURTON’S EDITION]

‘If I recall correctly you own the Burton single volume edition, published by Modern Library, and the Haddawy translation of the Mahdi edition, and the most recent Lyons translation.’

‘That is correct,’ said [P].

‘Richard Burton’s version of The Nights has its detractors and its supporters.  It is based on a French edition by Galland, who is said to have added stories from a variety of sources, and may possibly have written some of them himself. Ali Baba, for example, is not meant to have been part of the original manuscript, but was added by the Frenchman; many of the most famous stories became part of The Nights in the same way. Burton’s original translation spanned 16 volumes, but, I think in 1932, a single volume compendium of the best stories was published. This is the volume you own. Now, as I said, the Burton translation has been heavily criticised and praised. It is praised, mostly, due to the Englishman’s [possibly insane] personality, which comes through in the text in his notes and comments and in the way that he interprets or translates the stories. Be warned, his is not a reliable edition if you want something authentic; it is very much Burton’s book. And, to some extent, this makes for an enjoyable experience. One of the main gripes one might have is that The Nights is a bunch of random stories and it is sometimes difficult to find the impetus to read it cover-to-cover; Burton side-steps this problem, because he unifies the stories, his voice brings them together and makes the book feel like a complete work. However, Burton is an acquired taste and what some enjoy about his version of The Nights is what others dislike about it. Firstly, his language is biblical and that certainly alienates certain readers. Secondly, his asides and comments are by no means politically correct, and it has been said that his work actually goes beyond being merely close-to-the-bone and could be accused of racism. Certainly there are references to…’

‘To?’ said [P] eagerly.

‘Sorry, [P] I’m getting tired. See out the window, how late it is? I need to go to bed, and so do you. If you let me live tomorrow, when the night comes I will tell you all about Burton’s racism.’

[P] was so anxious to find out what Burton had written that he allowed the spider to live.

The Second Night

On the second night the spider and [P] met up as arranged.

‘Ok, so, spider, here we are, as promised tell me what Burton wrote and then enlighten me as to which edition of The Arabian Nights I ought to read

‘Of course! Burton presents the people who populate his tales in a less than complimentary way, adding commentary about female circumcision and pederasty, and describing the moors as having big dicks. None of which is particularly palatable. At its best it is reactionary and lazy stereotyping, at its worse it is racist. Lyons’ translation is much less intrusive, although it, too, retains the tales added by Galland and taken from various sources. If you want a multi-volume edition of The Nights then I’d perhaps advise you to read that one.

[THE STORY OF HADDAWY’S EDITION]

However, if you were to ask me which edition of The Nights I favour, I would, without hesitation, point you in the direction of Haddawy’s. His version is, as I mentioned yesterday, a translation of the Mahdi edition. The Mahdi edition is based on what some claim to be the earliest surviving copy of The Nights, a Syrian manuscript dating from the 15th or 16th century which is to be found in the Bibliotheque Nationale. Of course, this Syrian manuscript, which is believed to be ancestral to all other versions of The Nights, does not…’

‘Does not what, spider?’

‘I want to tell you, my lord, but I’m afraid I’m rather sleepy.’

‘Goddamn it, spider, are you narcoleptic? You’ve only just started!’

‘I’m not sleeping very well lately.’

‘Why not?’

‘I’ve just given birth to hundreds of children.’

‘Oh, congratulations…hold on, hundreds? In my room?’

‘Er, I must turn in now. If you want to know more about the Haddawy translation you must let me live and I will tell you all I know tomorrow night.’

The Third Night

‘I hope you’re well rested, spider,’ said [P] on the third night. ‘If so, now tell me everything you know about the Haddawy translation so that I can make an educated decision as to which version of The Nights to read and then finally put you to death.’

‘Your wish is my command, sir…Galland and Burton both used the Syrian manuscript as the basis for their versions, but, as noted, they both re-worked or added stories and commentary. The Mahdi edition, however, does not  contain any stories or content that is not to be found in the original manuscript, it is therefore, for the man who wants an authentic experience of The Nights, the only version untouched by Northern and Western European influence.’

‘So, you’re saying, really, that if you want to be an Arabian Nights hipster then Haddawy’s is the translation to read?’

‘Yes, think of how superior you’ll seem if you can say oh, I see you’re reading Burton’s Arabian Nights; I, myself, prefer the original.’

‘It’s a little like going up to a kid who is playing The Best of The Smiths and telling him that, yeah, Hand in Glove sounds ok on CD, but it sounds even better on the original 7″ vinyl!’

‘Ha, indeed.’

‘Cool. I’ll read the Haddawy translation.’

[P] picked up his killing-shoe.

‘So, I’ll try and make this quick.’

‘Wait! Don’t you want to know if the content and style will suit you?’

‘I know what the content is and what the style is like, everyone does,’ said [P] impatiently.

‘But I’ve told you that the Mahdi edition lacks most of the really famous stories, which are probably the only stories you would know in advance. In any case, you are on record as not really liking short stories; don’t you want to know what you’re letting yourself in for?’

‘Ah, yes. Proceed.’                     

[THE STORY OF THE STORIES-WITHIN-STORIES]

‘The stories in Haddawy’s translation of The Nights are less well-known, but for me this works in its favour. Ali Baba, Alladin, Sindbad etc, are all so much a part of popular culture that one could feel as though reading the stories is actually pretty pointless. Haddawy’s Nights is fresher, more surprising, although, of course, it still features demons and magical events, princes and princesses and so on. Crucially, every story in his edition is of the highest quality. Seriously! Burton’s and Galland’s and Lyons’ versions are so long that the quality is bound to be uneven; Haddawy’s is roughly 450 pages, which is about half the size of the single volume of Burton published by Modern Library and not even a quarter of the length of Lyons’ version. All the stories are taken from the same source too, so they work together, are less jarring. Indeed, the book, in this edition, reads like a complete work, not as a seemingly never-ending compendium of short stories tied tenuously together. Some of my favourites include the hunchback who died in one house, is taken and left on the stairs of another, and is then subsequently passed from house to house as each man who finds him thinks he has killed him; then there is the story of the three girls who invite some men into their home but on the condition that they will not ask questions about the strange things they will see.’

‘What did they see?’

‘I’d like to tell you, O impatient one. But, I’m rather exhausted. If you promise not to kill me tonight I will tell you about the three girls tomorrow.’

The Fourth Night

At nightfall [P] and the spider reconvened. [P] said, ‘no more delays, tell me what happens in the house with the girls.’

‘My pleasure,’said the spider. ‘The girls invite into their home a porter, three one-eyed dervishes, and a king and his adviser. During the night one of the girls brings out two black dogs, and begins to beat them until they faint. At the end of the beating the girl weeps over the animals and the animals weep with her.’

‘Why did she beat the animals and then weep over them?’

‘If I tell you it will spoil the story.’

‘What about the dervishes? All one-eyed, you say? What happened to them?’

‘This too is revealed in the book, for the king calls the dervishes and the girls to his palace the next morning for explanations. Each dervish has a wonderful story to tell.’

‘So, within each story there are other stories?’

‘Oh, yes. I see your arm there, that matryoshka doll tattoo of yours; the stories in The Nights are like one of those dolls; within each story there are other stories. Just like life! With the advent of every incident in your life, other incidents have taken place in order to bring it about. Indeed, I would say that the most satisfying thing about reading this version of The Nights is how sophisticated and complex the stories are in structure. Some of the main narratives can last for 40-50 pages, containing within that framework another 6-7 stories. Not only that, but the content of the stories often mirrors the structure, in that they are concerned with labyrinths and secret rooms and rooms-within-rooms, surprise revelations, etc.’

‘I like that, spider, I really like that! Say, all of this sounds like Calvino; Borges too maybe.’

The Nights is very much like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but better, master, so much better. Why? Because all the stories contained within it are superior to those in Calvino’s book. It is also similar to, and superior to, Rousell and Perec and a whole host of others. As for Borges, well, I know you love him; I, too, rate him very highly. I wouldn’t want to say that The Nights is better than Borges’ best work, but it is the equal of it, certainly. Borges himself, actually, was a massive fan, he even wrote his own stories about it.’

‘I must not have read those stories. Tell me one.’

‘My lord, I would be happy to do so, but I am unable to keep my eyes open.’

‘You’ve got lots of eyes, I’m sure you can keep a couple of them open long enough to tell me!’

‘I’m afraid that isn’t possible. But if you spare me tonight I will tell you tomorrow evening.’

The Fifth Night

With the coming of evening [P] said to his eight-legged companion:

‘I’m anxious, spider, to hear what you have to say, so reveal to me Borges’ story.’

‘As you wish, sir,’ said the spider.

[THE STORY OF BORGES’ STORY]

‘In one of Borges’ stories Shahrazad tells the king the story of a girl who must tell her king stories to keep him from killing her.’

‘Very droll. I am satisfied, spider. And how early it is! You can’t be tired already, so tonight will be the night that you perish, as you have no more to tell me!’

‘But, my lord, wouldn’t you like to know if The Nights is sexist, if women are relentlessly mistreated, if there are numerous rapes? Don’t forget, you regularly complain about the frequency with which you encounter this kind of thing in books, how, indeed, it actually compromises your enjoyment.’

‘That is true. Tell me then, O weaver of webs, for it is so early that you can complete your task and I will still have plenty of time to end your existence.’

‘[Hoarsely] Master, nothing would make me happier, but I’m afraid I have a sore throat and cannot speak for much longer without losing my voice entirely. A good night’s rest will cure me of this ailment and tomorrow night I will be able to reveal all.

‘Very well, till tomorrow then.’

The Sixth Night

‘Hear me, my black-backed foe! Come forth and tell me, in fine voice, whether The Arabian Nights will depress me with tales of abuse and rape.’

‘My lord, my voice has recovered so I am able to do your bidding.

[THE STORY OF THE FEMALE HERO]

So often I have read that The Nights is sexist and yet I don’t agree; or, it is, in some versions, certainly in Burton’s edition, but that is not the case with Haddawy’s version. Yes, there are adulterous women, but there are an equal number of adulterous men; yes, the women are often portrayed as manipulative, but is that any more insulting than the men they dupe who are portrayed as idiots? Some women are ill-treated physically, but as far as I remember none are raped. But, then, men too are physically ill-treated, so where is the sexism? Women are killed at the drop of a hat, but so are men. Furthermore, women are shown to be very interested in sex and are shown to enjoy it. The only real basis for complaint would be how women are kept veiled and not allowed outdoors, which is an odd complaint considering that it is an accurate representation of the times and culture. Not only that, but Shahrazad, a woman, is the strongest-willed, most admirable, and heroic, character in the entire book! As everyone knows, the framing narrative of the work is that a king, who has a bad experience with a woman, decides to take a new wife every night and kill her in the morning. Shahrazad, against her father’s wishes, offers to marry the king, who himself advises against it due to his vow to dispose of all of his wives within 24 hours. She insists though, stating that she will put an end to these deaths or die herself trying. By telling the king stories every night she saves her own life and eventually the king softens and gives up his vow. Her bravery and resourcefulness is what saves the day.’

‘Wonderful! You have put my mind at ease. Now, say your final prayers.’

‘But, master, what is the moral of the story of Shahrazad and the king? What do you think it may be telling you vis-a-vis you and I?’

‘Not to be rash, not to be blood-thirsty, and not to be unkind to an innocent? That we ought to live together, peacefully and happily?’

‘Precisely!’

‘Yes, I see that. Accept my humble apologies, spider. You have my permission to live here; this is your home too now. Go and fetch your children and bring them to me so I can bless them all. But first one last question.’

‘Anything, O benevolent master!’

‘Is there a word limit for a review on wordpress?’

‘What? I don’t know.’

‘No matter then; bring me those lovely children of yours!’

The spider merrily departed and returned in haste with her offspring. [P] gazed at them in turn and then, from behind his back, produced his killing-shoe and took care of each and every one. Next, he turned on the articulate arachnid and administered a most brutal and fatal squashing. After cleaning up the mess he’d made he pulled from his bookshelves Haddawy’s translation of the Mahdi edition of The Arabian Nights and took it with him to his bed, laid down and began to read. And it was good.

PALACE WALK [THE CAIRO TRILOGY PT. 1] BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ

I do wonder sometimes why certain people bother to read foreign literature, as they seem intolerant of, or are at least irritated by, cultural differences. I was browsing some reviews of a Japanese novel the other day and I came across a couple which suggested that the book in question, and Japanese literature as a whole, is troubling, and ultimately unenjoyable, because the female characters are infantilised. Well, gee, really? First of all, I don’t agree; I think that Japanese literature of a certain age does often feature quiet, submissive female characters, but I’m not entirely sure how that equates to child-like. Nor do I believe that submissive women is specifically a Japanese issue [there are a shit-tonne in English literature, for example. Persuasion anyone?]. Furthermore, there are strong, active female characters in many Japanese novels, like Taeko in The Makioka Sisters. Thirdly, and more pertinently in terms of the book under review here, why are submissive female characters a problem? Do submissive women not exist? Perhaps Japanese women are or were at one time largely submissive, and these Japanese books are merely a reflection of their society. I mean, I dunno about you, but part of the reason I read, part of my enjoyment, is to learn about, to be immersed in, other cultures, rather than to [negatively] judge them against my own.

For me, some people bring a weird form of cultural arrogance to their reading; and this arrogance appears to result in a short-sighted, lazy kind of relationship with the texts in question. Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk focuses on a family which is dominated by its patriarch. The wife [Amina] is not allowed outdoors, the daughters are married off without having much of a say in the matter etc. Cue: lots of hand-wringing and overly PC criticism. Yet the people who criticise the work as sexist completely miss the point. Mahfouz clearly intended this family to show Egyptian, and Muslim, society at its most strict, or old-fashioned; it is a family out of step with the times. This is made abundantly clear on numerous occasions if you bother to pay attention. While the central family are ruled by a tyrant, other families, other patriarchs, are far more relaxed; indeed, many characters comment on al-Sayyid Ahmad’s unyielding behaviour; they even chide him for it. Not only that, but he is shown to be a man who is losing his grip on his family; his daughters and sons and, most shockingly for him, his wife all rebel against his iron rule at certain pivotal stages of the narrative. The new relationships formed by his daughters with their husbands show they have, in one case, more freedom and, in the other, absolute control. I really cannot fathom what some readers find to get upset about.

Palace Walk is only the first part of what is commonly known as The Cairo Trilogy. It is a domestic drama, with, as stated, an overriding theme of change. Like the aforementioned The Makioka Sisters, we are introduced to a society evolving, one on the cusp of a new identity, or way of living; some characters are happy or at least willing to go with the flow, and yet one is categorically not. I find this kind of thing fascinating; it’s like watching a dodo trying to drive a car. However, change is not Mahfouz’s only concern; he has a lot of interesting things to say about family dynamics, about hypocrisy, and politics and love. On hypocrisy: I think one of the things that so enrages some readers is that while al-Sayyid Ahmad demands exemplary behaviour, and compliance, from his wife and children, he seeks to please himself, is himself a boozer and a womaniser. I would again cite cultural, not to mention temporal, differences here as a reason not to criticise the work; and I would also point people to the fact, and it is mentioned in the text, that al-Sayyid Ahmad would be well within his rights to actually take more than one wife, and yet he doesn’t, believing, admirably, that one wife, one set of children, creates a better, more stable environment for his family.

Indeed, it would be a gross misrepresentation of the work to give the impression that the characters are all one-dimensional, that al-Sayyid Ahmad is merely the oppressor, and his wife and daughters the abused and oppressed. The length and the relatively slow pace of the novel actually allows Mahfouz to fully develop his characters, in a way that one doesn’t find in contemporary literature. al-Sayyid Ahmed is thrillingly complex, thrillingly human; so, while he has his ways, of course, it is clear that he loves his family, that he cares deeply about them. He does, however, also care about his image, about his reputation. He is inconsistent, yes, but so am I, so are most people. His wife, too, obviously loves her husband and, generally speaking, is happy to serve him. I guess some people might say that it is wrong for Mahfouz, as a man, to show a woman who is happy to serve her husband, but, again, I think they would misunderstand the book; at no point does the author judge any of his characters or ask you to judge them; this lack of judgement is, actually, one of its most pleasing features.

Yet my favourite aspect of the novel is how close Mahfouz allows you to get to his characters. Palace Walk is an engagingly, charmingly intimate portrayal of an average Muslim family. We are given access to their most mundane actions or rituals, such as how each member of the family eats their breakfast, how make-up is applied; we read about their good-natured piss-taking of each other, their petty squabbles, their most basic hopes and fears. The kind of intimate access you have to them ultimately makes you [or me, at least] care about them; it, in fact, creates a kind of relationship between you and the family, so that you almost feel part of it. Indeed, when Amina hurts herself late in the novel I found myself wishing she would get better. This is in contrast to my usual experiences where I generally hope for nothing but disaster to befall the people I’m reading about [it’s just more exciting, y’know].

One last thing: Mahfouz did, of course, win the Nobel Prize [it says so on the cover of the book, just in case you were in any doubt]. One would anticipate on that basis that his prose would be top drawer. However, while his novel is a fine achievement, and there are some aspects of his writing that are impressive, on the whole it didn’t give me a raging hard-on. I don’t speak or read Arabic, but apparently it is very difficult to translate into English. So, I’m inclined to believe, or am at least prepared to believe, that this is a translation issue rather than a true reflection of Mahfouz’s ability as a prose stylist.