Robin Yassin-Kassab

Posts Tagged ‘Marina Warner

Stranger Magic

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This review appeared in the Guardian.

The Arabian Nights (or the Thousand and One Nights, or the Arabian Nights Entertainments – there are so many versions) constitute, in Marina Warner’s words, “a polyvocal anthology of world myths, fables and fairytales.” The antecedents of these Arab-Islamic texts are Quranic, Biblical, Indian, Persian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Turkish and Egyptian. In them, oral and written traditions, poetry and prose, demotic folk tales and courtly high culture mutate and interpenetrate. In their long lifetime the Nights have influenced, amongst many others, Flaubert, Wilde, Marquez, Mahfouz, Elias Khoury, Douglas Fairbanks and the Ballets Russes.

The frame story, in which Shahrazad saves her life by telling King Shahryar tall tales, is only one such ransom. More than simple entertainment, then: throughout these stories within stories, and stories about stories, and stories metamorphosing like viruses, endlessly generative, narrative even claims for itself the power to defer death.

Although oral versions of the Nights had long percolated through Europe (elements turning up in Chaucer, Ariosto, Dante, Shakespeare), the tales were established in the mainstream of European popular and literary culture with Galland’s early 18th Century French translation. Galland purged the eroticism and homosexuality, added tales from the dictation of a Lebanese friend, and perhaps invented the two best-known and seemingly most ‘Arabian’ tales of all: Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Warner quotes Jorge Luis Borges (a guiding spirit in her book) approving the belle infidele approach to translation. “I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else.”

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November 12, 2011 at 11:08 am

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