21 February 2006

Arabian Nights and Days

It's difficult to review a book that one doesn't really have a fixed opinion about.
Naguib Mahfouz's Arabian Nights and Days is a curious work. The text reworks and interweaves the stories of 1001 Nights, but without quite creating a whole. There is a sort of framing device; the moral education of the sultan Shahriyar (husband of Scheherzade), but to see the whole book in this guise is somehow unsatisfying. It reads like a collection of tales - perhaps intended as a further nod to the original - that are loosely connected, in that they concern the inhabitants of one city, and characters reappear throughout. Furthermore, the stories are connected thematically - they all basically revolve around questions of good and evil. The basic template is that an ordinary person encounters the supernatural somehow, and this generally leads to evil-doing. There is a didactic character to these tales, but it seems rather shallow. In many cases, the character seems to basically get screwed over through no fault of his own, so the moral lesson kind of falls flat. And the stories that seem intended to provide a positive model aren't particularly compelling either.
The text is oddly flat - one would expect luscious descriptions (or maybe that's just my hidden orientalism?), but the tone is rather dry and monotone throughout. But it seems to me that for the supernatural element to be fully actualized, one needs a sense of wonder of some kind - levitation, for instance, is generally a pretty cool phenomenon, and worthy of a note of awe. Another theme throughout is the blurring of the division between dream and reality, but that somehow doesn't really work either. I guess this is the problem with the book, for me - a major theme throughout are these various dichotomies, dream/reality, reality/supernatural, sanity/insanity, good/evil, etc, but the tone throughout is so flat that it almost levels out the difference. I read the book for the class that I'm TAing for, and the professor suggested that the book wants to suggest there is something essentially human about these dichotomies and their instability, as though this dialectic is somehow what keeps people going, and while I like the idea, I don't think that the text really bears it out.
It's a difficult book to get a grip on. I was left feeling as though I must have missed something - I want to believe that there are some fascinating things buried within the novel, but I can't seem to find them. I guess I expected the text to be more self-conscious somehow, and question itself. Perhaps the idea is to leave this work for the reader, but it doesn't give you that much to go on. It's frustratingly opaque, but I'm not entirely convinced that it actually has the depth that I want to attribute to it. Ultimately, I can't seem to decide if it's much more complex than it seems to be, or much less. Unfortunately, the narrative itself isn't so gripping that I expect to lose sleep puzzling over it.


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