Right, first off, if you’re going to read this, you should do it unabridged. Let’s face it, if you don’t, you’ve not read the 1001 nights but 648, or 385, or whatever the editor decided to trim off this masterpiece. If Sheherezade can tell 1001 stories to keep herself alive, give the woman’s effort some respect and read all the tales she tells. It’s only by doing so that you can really fully appreciate this vast collection and its influence on, not only the literature of Persia and Arabia, but huge aspects of its culture too.
There’s no better way to accomplish this task than by picking up the 6 volume boxed set of the 1962 Heritage Press edition of Richard Burton’s translation with his vast collection of footnotes and 1001 beautifully simple illustrations by Valenti Angelo. This made reading it a delight for me. There’s nothing better than picking up a book that people have taken such care to create.
I was privileged to be able to borrow this edition from a friend who hadn’t read it himself and who, I think, fully expected me never to actually complete the task. It took me over a year, but complete it I did.
This is not a book you read cover to cover. Instead, you bite off small, masticable pieces and chew them over slowly. While many of the stories do involve males smitten by females they have only momentarily caught a glimpse of, I was very impressed by the sheer range of storytelling. We have everything from the comic, to adventure, romance, religion, war, political intrigue, history, mysticism, fantasy, tragedy … there really was no predictability to it at all, and I enjoyed that very much.
And while the stories themselves are enough, for the most part, to keep you occupied, if you are at all interested in the culture and / or history of this area of the world, like me you will find this edition a rich treasure-trove of knowledge. Having lived in the Middle East for over a decade of my life and for the last five years, finding out that virtually every cultural point that Burton makes in his footnotes is still part of life here was very revealing. It seems that not much has changed since he plodded around the Arabian peninsula 200 years ago nor, in fact, since the original stories were first told. Remarkable.
Now, while it is a masterpiece, this fell a tad short of entering Arukiyomi’s very sparsely populated Hall of Fame. Why so? Well, as the radar review below reveals, while the legacy and achievement of the collection cannot be questioned, it fails somewhat when it comes to characterisation and readability.
Apart from a very few characters (the historical Harun Al Rashid, for example) who either appear repeatedly or have very long tales focussed on them, most characters are simple caricatures. This is because the tales they feature in need little more than a single characteristic to make them work. That’s fine for this genre, but you are not going to come away moved to any extent by a character as you do at the end of, say, the equivalently epic Les Miserables or even the diminutive Silk.
While my readability score is high, this is heavily skewed by the fact that I read it in a beautiful edition that was simply a joy to hold in my hands (yes, I do take that into account). Had I been reading any old paperback edition, I think this would have come in somewhere around the 55% mark simply because the frame story device and the repetitive nature of some of the tales can get a tad tedious. In fact, Burton comments himself when tales contain repetitions of others. Hey, if I had to keep you amused with tales every night for three years, I’d probably repeat myself too. Some of them were pretty long winded as well. There are a couple that are over 200 pages long each and could stand as novels in themselves. I have to say I rejoiced at the end of those.
Another factor that impacted readability is the often monotonous overtones of Allahu akbar. This is an Islamic compilation, of that there is no doubt. And while the Qur’an is actually fairly lenient to the “people of the book”, i.e. Christians and Jews, this seems to have passed the storyteller by. Anyone who isn’t muslim is depicted as base until they are either killed or embrace Islam. If the latter, then they finally become worthy human beings. At least the infidels fare better than the Africans who, one and all, are lower than the low, perpetrators of hideous acts and best off dead. While you can forgive this for being a product of its time, as I said above, I was struck by how little has changed in this region since these tales were first told. Nuffsed.