Sunday, July 16, 2006

What's Better than the Thousand Nights and a Night?

It's hard to describe how amazing the Thousand Nights and One Night are.

I first took a stab at them following along the snobby recursive post-modern path, reading too much Borges and Barth, both of whom were smitten, and so I figured I should take a stab at it.

The only edition I own is a four-volume Powys Mathers translation of an intermediate French text. If you're interested in questions of authorship, translation, blah blah blah, it's hard to compete with a work of stories within stories within stories assembled over centuries by many unknown authors, translated well and poorly over the years and finally translated into English from a source that is not only not original but with additional text inserted. I can't remember exactly which bit (flying snakes? diamond valleys? golden deserts guarded by ants the size of foxes?), but I recognized a story from Herodotus (or rather that Herodotus heard) in there.

And after that, you get a work that, Bach-like, both defines the rules of the game and takes liberties with them.

One of the things I've always been obsessed with (along with everybody?) is firsts: first story, first life, first cause, etc. For a while I thought I was looking for a first story by reading things like the bible, Homer, myths of all sorts, but I think I have to be content with the idea that these kinds of primal stories are not founded on some perfect pillar of a first story but that the "primal stories" are inevitable and illustrative of the wiring of the average individual then and today. What first story could be satisfying?

Anyway, all I'd intended to write was that a particular book fulla stories was teh neato, and I've blabbed on and on to the apparent conclusion that given a bunch of stories you get a map of a person's brain. Way to go Mr. Obvious. The most jaw-dropping part of the book to me is the verse, which is all cleverly rhymed and metered, from Arabic to French to English. Baffling and awe-inspiring. But I'm too lazy to type it. So consider the following for flavour, from Polish to English, from polymathic Stanislaw Lem to wizardly Michael Kandel, in which two inventors are arguing about a poetry-writing machine:

"Have it compose a poem--a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism and in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter s!!"

"And why not throw in a full exposition of the general theory of nonlinear automata while you're at it?" growled Trurl. "You can't give it such idiotic--"

But he didn't finish. A melodious voice filled the hall with the following:

Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed.
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.

~ from The Cyberiad, originally written in Polish and translated by Michael Kandel into English
Valiant and unlazy typing stolen from here.

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