When the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid suffered from sleeplessness, which was all too often, he did what any sensible caliph would do: he summoned Masrur, his favourite executioner. As readers of The Thousand and One Nights know, Masrur was handy not only with the headsman’s sword but with a wide array of diversions. His most successful stratagem was to seek out storytellers, usually of dubious reputation. Their narratives, the more fantastic the better, astounded the caliph and somehow lulled him to sleep; perhaps their very implausibility simply exhausted his attention. When reading the tales in this bizarre collection, we all become little caliphs of the moment, avid for the next preposterous episode and delighted in spite of ourselves at each impudent affront to credibility. As Robert Irwin notes in his excellent introduction, the stories in Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange may be seen as ‘very early and impressive examples of pulp fiction’. That said, they can scarcely be recommended as remedies for insomnia.
The tales are contained in a unicum manuscript discovered in the 1930s in the Aya Sofia library in Istanbul by the great German scholar Hellmut Ritter, a fabled discoverer of lost works in the vast Turkish repositories. The manuscript, written in Arabic and identified only as Hikayat (‘stories’), is incomplete; the eighteen tales here collected come from the surviving first part, which was probably copied in the early 16th century (though the stories themselves date from at least the 10th century), thus making it, in Irwin’s words, ‘the oldest of all story collections in Arabic that survive’ – earlier by almost a century than the extant manuscripts of The Thousand and One Nights. This is noteworthy enough, but in fact the stories themselves command attention: they are more conspicuously ‘literary’ than those in the Nights and they play consciously on several well-established genres in the classical Arabic literary tradition. Moreover, the very outrageousness of their content and what Irwin calls their ‘proto-surrealist imagery’ make them compelling reading.
The translation by Malcolm Lyons, translator of the definitive version of The Thousand and One Nights (Penguin Classics, 2008), is superb. Lyons follows the tonal shifts and stylistic modulations of the original with unfailing suavity and precision; though the Arabic text is often riddled with lacunae, which he duly notes, he achieves an impression of seamlessness. In addition, the narratives are often confusing – characters come and go, change names (and bodies), the narrator digresses capriciously – and yet these magical swerves are clear and easy to follow in Lyons’s version. His translation, like Irwin’s introduction, rests on impeccable scholarship, but this is never obtrusive; unavoidable references and explanatory notes are discreetly incorporated in the narrative. There is a useful glossary of names and terms, in which I noted only one error: the details of the Abbasid caliph al-Amin, who was beheaded in 813, are given under the listing for his brother al-Ma’mun (who had him beheaded) and who died in 833.
The tales are pretty much impossible to summarise. They revel in gory episodes. A prince in exile has both hands and feet lopped off at the command of a scheming rival (only to have them later fully restored by divine intervention). A mermaid is brutally raped. Beheadings abound, with heads impaled on spikes and bodies tossed into the sea. One hapless fellow, through no fault of his own, has his lips and his penis cut off; yet another is blinded, still another crippled. Most of those mangled or disfigured are dupes, victims of the machinations of the powerful, and they don’t inspire pity; in fact, their miseries provide amusement. In ‘The Story of the Six Men’, each tale of ghastly mutilation provokes hearty laughter in the king who hears them. As Irwin remarks, in these tales ‘political incorrectness has gone mad’.
The jinn, beings created from a ‘smokeless fire’ (as the Koran informs us), crop up repeatedly in helpful or, more usually, terrifying manifestations. Indeed, the Tales serves as a sort of ‘rough guide’ to the jinn and their various subspecies. Here, for example, from ‘The Story of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle’, is a description of a gathering of these eerie fellows:
When night fell a large and noisy company of jinn arrived. When I looked I saw amongst them a huge one in human shape riding on a snake as big as a towering palm-tree with another great snake wound around his head as a turban. When he opened his mouth fire came from his throat, and everyone else in his company, who were smaller than him, were mounted on snakes.
A bizarre sense of humour animates certain tales. One of the best of these, ‘The Story of Abu Disa, Nicknamed the Bird, and the Marvels of His Strange and Comical Story’, tells of an illiterate weaver who, goaded by his ambitious wife, sets up as an astrologer. Through a series of misunderstandings he succeeds beyond his wildest expectations, ending up as the king’s ‘boon companion’. Some of the humour of the tale lies in the fact that weavers (along with tanners and dyers) were members of professions considered disreputable. The tale jovially lampoons the learned court astrologers by elevating an ignorant weaver, over his own strenuous objections, into their ranks.
Little strokes throughout the Tales reveal the literary aspirations of the anonymous author. A character is described as ‘restless as a grain of corn in a frying pan’, and we read of mermaids that ‘their skins had the roughness of small shells’. But these brilliant touches, along with deliberate echoes of established literary genres, don’t lift the work to the level of The Thousand and One Nights. The absence of an overarching frame-story diminishes what coherence is apparent. The Thousand and One Nights (in which four of these tales also appear) is transformed by its structure. The voice of Scheherazade, spinning out her tales under threat of death, imparts a poignantly human accent to the cruellest of them. No such voice sweetens these tales.