Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Arabian Nights

Since I'm averaging about one tale/day, it may take me 1001 days to finish these three volumes, at which time I will have likely forgotten the earlier tales.

So I'll start writing about them now - even though I expect to be periodically diverted into other books (as has already happened).

The first thing that surprised me was the flagrant racism towards Africans.

The worst -- the very worst -- thing that could happen to a man was to be cuckolded by a black slave.

This event first happens to Shah Zaman on page one of the overall framing story that will explain why Sheherazade must continue to tell him stories every night to avoid his misognynist rage.

And then -- it continues to happen within several of the early stories.

Being a slave, the African, of course, has no choice in the matter -- so the real fear concerns the sexual preferences of women.

The second thing that surprised me was the emphasis on fabulous, ostentatious wealth that is a component of almost every story.

And thirdly, I was surprised by the cunning, willfulness, and strength of several female characters - especially the villianess in the epic story that stretches for 100 nights beginning with #45.

Dhat al-Dawahi, the Christian, outwits her poor Muslim male adversaries at every turn, and is only defeated on the very last page through the treachery of her adult great grandson. (so how old does that make her? 80 ? ) She is a master of martial arts as well as disguise -- i.e. she's something of a Ninja.

I am so used to Chinese story telling -- where women are often demons-in-disguise, but not serious opponents on their own.


Finally having finished Volume 1 (through Nights 294), I can agree with Robert Irwin's introductory remarks about its origins in the commercial quarters of arab cities.

Most of the characters are merchants, and manufacturing these tall tales was a likely way to pass time while waiting for customers in the souk.

Befitting stories designed for fools, the protagonist is usually gullible

The target audience is seeking relief from boredom rather than an opportunity for reflection- so only the most basic kinds of motivations drive the story: wealth, lust, greed, and jealousy.

And decorative flourish is more appreciated than narrative logic.

Why does the bandit chief send Ali Baba's clever servant, Marjana, to draw oil from his barrels, all but one of which contain one of his concealed henchmen?

And how can she use a pot full of oil to boil each one of them alive without attracting the attention of all the others?

There were two long sequences in the first 294 nights - one with a Christian villain, mentioned above, and the other with a Zoroastrian villain (nights 249-271)

The above movie poster reminds us that the above kind of scene never happens in the original version - i.e. there is never a sword swinging hero saving a damsel in distress.

The typical Arabian nights protagonist is a Walter Mitty type, like Ali Baba or Aladdin or the fisherman who finds a genie.

Women are typically depicted as quite voluptuous - but usually they are making trouble rather than the victim of it. (and one of their most beautiful features is a very large bottom)

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Faulkner: As I Lay Dying

Taking a break from Middle Eastern studies, I've book-traveled a bit closer to home - although Faulkner's mountain people of northeastern Mississippi are as foreign to me as anyone I've met through literature.

And I think they were a bit foreign to Faulkner, too, as lowlander that he was, he invites his readers to share his contempt for their uncivilized ways.

Their religion is hokum - i.e. the more they've got, the blinder they are. Like the pious Cora who is the quintessential unreliable narrator, or the bungling Anse who believes that God has chosen him, just like the Jews, in order to afflict him with bad luck or his ever-dying wife who was screwed by the pastor of New Hope church.

They don't care about their wives and children - except as work horses, to be replaced when broken or worn out.

And most importantly - for a Southern Gentleman like Faulkner - they have no honor. Both of the women in the piteous Bundren family have had sex outside of marriage with men who disrespected them.

So there they are - lazy dad, his pregnant daughter, and his crippled or crazy sons borrowing a cart to haul the stinking corpse of the dead mother, while the rivers rage, barns burn, and a flock of buzzards follows them from above.

"Who's your real father?" is a question all too familiar to such folk -- as well as -- "where can I get an abortion?"

Which makes this story a bit cartoonish -- as a darker version of "Snuffy Smith" or "Lil' Abner"

But the writing is often as delicious as Shakespeare, and the characters do tend to wax philosophical - often about issues of language - so this curious novel has entered the canon of great English literature.

And it's also a lot of fun to read --- if only to figure out what the hell is going on as the author has tried to disappear and let his crazy or inarticulate characters do all the talking.

It's hard to believe it ever got published in the first place -- back before Faulkner was Faulkner, and before one could surf the internet to find explanations written for the tortured school children who are required to read it.

Did Darl really suffer from PTSD as a result of combat in World War I? That would certainly explain a lot about him -- but nobody mentions that fact. (one more proof that mountain people lack honor. Townsfolk, like Faulkner himself, would let everyone know about their heroic wartime experiences, even if there weren't any)

The problem here is that the central character -- the mother who dies -- hates her own life, and therefore everyone else as well. Curiously, this has made her a proto-feminist heroine, especially as she rejects the language made by men to keep women down and deny her some kind of true companionship.

But this life-hater could never have been a true companion to anyone - even her bastard son, Jewel, who breaks her heart by showing enough independence to acquire a magnificent horse.

She reminds me of Eileen Chang's Yindi in Rouge of the North - as another woman with a very bad attitude, but one who hardly had been forced into a life of misery.

She chose it --- she got it --- she shared it.

But unlike Chang, Faulkner let's all his characters tell the story - so the tone of the book is not dark and depressing. Indeed -- it feels humorous, at least to me.

This is a book that demands multiple readings since each re-reading makes sense of yet another inscrutable passage - and there are always a few left that defy understanding.

But how much more attention does this miserable family deserve?

Thank God the library would not let me renew it for a third time - but now I am curious about how the author wrote about his own kind of people, so I may come back to him later.

BTW - I chose to read this book because my mother was reading it - and as it turns it out -- it was one of the last books she read before she lay dying herself.

But I'm not going to haul her coffin around!