Wednesday 10 November 2010
Arabian Nights by Richard Burton
I love a good story, and somehow I had just never got around to reading Arabian Nights. I chose the Richard Burton version as he had travelled around the region and spent time learning the local languages. It's also one of the oldest.
Synopsis: On discovering his wife cheating, a sultan beheads her and then marries a new woman every night only to kill her the following morning. To escape this fate, Scheherazade tells her new husband a new tale every night for 1001 nights, never quite giving away the ending. Most of the stories are therefore "stories within stories".
Score: 4 out of 5
First of all, I very much enjoyed Richard Burton's translation. Although others have complained of the language being too old-fasioned, or of his practise of inventing new words, I felt that the old-fashioned-ness added to the atmosphere of the stories; the biblical language suited the grand tales. Burton's footnotes were great too - some were helpful and some were overly focused on sex, to say the least, but all were entertaining. I also enjoyed reading the introduction about Burton's life - it seems he was a real life Indiana Jones.
My favourite thing about the stories was that they just transported me to another world. After reading them all I wanted to do was walk in the desert sand, meet a genie, steal a cave full of golden treasure and take a voyage with Sinbad. Sometimes after putting the book down it was hard to return to the modern world. The more interesting stories were generally the more well-known ones; Ali-Baba and the Fourty Thieves, Aladdin and the Lamp, the Voyages of Sinbad. Some of the ones that were unfamiliar to me were very enjoyable too - the Ebony Horse was a real epic of love and adventure and the City of Brass was fantastic too.
Of course, in any collection as long as this, some of the stories were not as enjoyable as others and sometimes it felt like a slog. There was a good balance between long and short stories though, which did make reading easier. I have to admit that whilst I admire Burton's efforts to translate the original rhyming poems, I didn't enjoy these parts and felt they took away from rather than added to the stories.
Others have said the stories are sexist/colonialist/racist, but there are so many stories with so many viewpoints that you could argue just about anything. Women may be looked down upon in some stories but in others cross dressing women take on the role of sultan and in Ali Baba it's down to a clever slave woman to save his life repeatedly. I'm not a fan of over-analysing stories in this way anyway - I read them as stories and nothing more and in that sense they were wonderful.
I would recommend this collection to anyone who likes a good story, even if it's only to read a few of the more famous ones.