Stranger Magic

This review appeared in the Guardian.

The Arabian Nights (or the Thousand and One Nights, or the Arabian Nights Entertainments – there are so many versions) constitute, in Marina Warner’s words, “a polyvocal anthology of world myths, fables and fairytales.” The antecedents of these Arab-Islamic texts are Quranic, Biblical, Indian, Persian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Turkish and Egyptian. In them, oral and written traditions, poetry and prose, demotic folk tales and courtly high culture mutate and interpenetrate. In their long lifetime the Nights have influenced, amongst many others, Flaubert, Wilde, Marquez, Mahfouz, Elias Khoury, Douglas Fairbanks and the Ballets Russes.

The frame story, in which Shahrazad saves her life by telling King Shahryar tall tales, is only one such ransom. More than simple entertainment, then: throughout these stories within stories, and stories about stories, and stories metamorphosing like viruses, endlessly generative, narrative even claims for itself the power to defer death.

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