Bottled genies

This review of Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic appeared in the Irish Times.

MARINA WARNER’S wondrous and lucid study of Arabian Nights has been two decades and more in the making. She began her research during the first Gulf War and completed the book in the midst of the Arab Spring: a story still unfinished, but one Warner hopes in the end might “give the princes and sultans of this world pause”. Stranger Magic is not exactly an argument for the present “relevance” of these venerable tales – Warner is far too subtle, curious and vagrant a reader for that – but it is an extraordinarily rich and elegant lesson in cultural involution. Edward Said, a childhood friend of Warner’s in Cairo, famously accused certain stories of frankly racist attitudes, but Warner is at pains to show how complex the traffic was between orientalist fantasies and the cultures that produced the original (and they are not all original) stories.

The tales that comprise Thousand and One Nights (as the 12th-century Arabic title has it) have no named authors and arose from no discrete milieu; the collection includes narratives from India, Persia, Iraq, Syria and Egypt. There are echoes of the Bible and Koran, as well as numerous rhymes with western folk tales. We owe the modern Nights to one Antoine Gallard, who produced a French translation in the early 18th century and most likely contrived several stories himself, including the most celebrated: the tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba. English translations came later: Edward Lane’s rather chaste edition in 1841 – in a luminous essay on the Nights, Borges calls it an “encyclopedia of evasion” – and John Payne’s in 1882. Sir Richard Burton’s, three years later, was largely based on Payne’s but lacquered the tales with fin-de-siecle exoticism: Warner calls his translation “prolix and rococo”.

What all of these versions have in common, of course, is the framing story of Shahrazad – Warner adopts the modern transliteration, formerly Scheherazade – whose nightly tale-spinning (like “an Arabian Penelope”) staves off her slaughter at the hands of the sultan Shahriyar, her husband. This is just the first such frame around a work that sometimes appears entirely composed of prologues and digressions, tales within tales. Among other tricks and treasures, the Nights bequeaths us one of the basic narrative styles of world literature: the nesting of one story inside another in a manner that André Gide (borrowing a heraldic term) called mise en abyme . It’s one of the great pleasures and longueurs of the work, this elaborate process of deferral: a convoluted narrative line that is very precisely “arabesque”.

When it comes to the tales themselves and their fantastical content, Warner is an excellent guide and a stylish storyteller in her own right: her renderings of 15 of the stories punctuate the book. The world she describes in the intervening chapters is in some ways familiar: a magical universe of princes, viziers, witches, virgins, bottled genies, flying carpets, mechanical horses and lethal automata. Among reflections on the themes of envy, lust and betrayal that animate the stories, she points out too the uncanny, inhuman nature of much of this fictional realm.Arabian Nights is a book replete with oddly animate objects, not least in the chilling The City of Brass : travellers in the Sahara discover a town arrested in time, where robots stand guard over a queen lying in state, jewelled and mummified, her eyes filled with quicksilver.

There are many later fictional counterparts to such visions – the doll Olympia, for example, in ETA Hoffmann’sThe Sandman – but perhaps the tales’ strange fixation with marionettes and machinery is also one reason they have flourished on stage and in the cinema. The story of Aladdin and the magical lamp was dramatised by the Irish actor and playwright John O’Keeffe and performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in 1788; it was a popular subject, too, for children’s toy theatres a few decades later. The Disney version of Aladdin is well known, Lotte Reiniger’s delightful animated silhouettes in The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) less so. But very early film-makers seem already to have divined a magical link between the technologies they invented and the contraptions that appear in the Nights – William Dickson, an assistant to Thomas Edison, described the latter’s revolving black studio in Brooklyn as “the air-ship of some swart Afrite”, mimicking the “fancy, straining archaisms” of Burton’s Arabian Nights .

Warner’s chapters on the filmic afterlife of the Nights remind us that her last book was Phantasmagoria , a study of ghostly and occult technologies from the magic lantern to virtual reality. In fact, even that hugely ambitious and fascinating volume now looks like a sort of footnote to the remarkable feat she has pulled off in Stranger Magic : nothing less than a history of magic, storytelling and centuries of cultural exchange between east and west. All in the guise of a book about one book, albeit an inexhaustible one. There are more dutiful histories of those subjects, just as there are scholarly studies of Arabian Nights that adequately describe its form, politics or translations but never truly fly. The product of Warner’s meticulous research is a weighty volume that feels airborne on every page.

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