Jorge Luis Borges and the Arabian Nights

351—352 The rich man who lost and then regained his money

From an earlier recap, where I tried to stick a pin in a certain structural style shared by many of the stories in The Arabian Nights:

Almost all of them include some kind of surprise: A twist in the tale, a moment of irony, or some clever thinking … [an] out-of-the-box moment

I might also have quoted Adam Roberts, who, in comparing the structure of science fiction to that of a joke, writes that

The structure of a joke is a knight’s move: it leads you along a particular narrative trajectory only to finish with a conjurer’s flourish of the unexpected.

Before reading The Arabian Nights I would also have used the word ‘Borgesian.’ The short stories of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) often exhibit precisely the quirky quality I am trying to describe. But of course these tales I am reading pre-date Borges by hundreds of years, so it is certainly more accurate to say that one can perceive the blueprints for his stories in The Arabian Nights.

On Night 351, this is explicitly revealed, when we are presented with a short tale of an unnamed Baghdadi. After losing his money, he is told in a dream that he will find his fortune in Cairo. The man makes a journey there, but while visiting the mosque he is mistakenly assumed to be part of a band of robbers and brought before the wali. Protesting his innocence, the man explains that he is in Cairo on the instructions of a dream. The wali replies:

‘You foolish fellow, thrice in a dream I heard of a voice telling me that in such-and-such quarter of Baghdad there is a house of such-and-such description where at the bottom end of a garden court there is a fountain beneath which there is a huge sum of money. The voice told me to go to Baghdad to fetch the money, but I did not go whereas in your folly you went from one place to another because of some foolish dream that you saw.’

The Baghdadi recognises the wali’s description as his own house, so he returns home and digs up the treasure. He did find his fortune in Cairo after all… sort of.

This tale is replicated and embellished by Borges in his story ‘The Tale of the Two Dreamers’ in A Universal History of Iniquity (1935). He switches Baghdad to Cairo and Cairo to Isfahan (in Persia), but it is otherwise the same. The Alchemist by Paulo Cohelo carries the same essential plot at novel length, and Cohelo credits the Borges story (rather than Night 351) as having inspired it.

I just looked again at The Universal History of Iniquity and note that Borges also reproduces the story of ‘The Chamber of Statues’ found on Night 272. That too exhibits the Borgesian sensibility—the mystery of the locked room can only be discovered when the curious king sacrifices his kingdom.

Some might object to these appropriations. It’s cheating, isn’t it? Not really. For one thing, everything is a remix and artists ‘steal’ or borrow all the time. But more pertinently, the idea—or rather this practice—of appropriating and adding stories is inherent to The Arabian Nights. According to Robert Irwin’s introduction to Volume II of the Lyons translation, a core set of tales migrated from India, through Persia to what we now know as the Middle East. Those stories were translated, ‘Arabised’ and Islamised, and figures such as Harun al-Rashid and Ja’far (who now play such a large role in the collection) were added. Perhaps the written forms were turned into stories delivered orally, that were then heard by others and written down afresh.

Moreover, this organic, iterative process is not just something that happened to the stories ‘over there’ in the Middle East, but in Europe too. As I noted when I recapped Ursula Lyons’ translation of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,’ Antoine Galland’s presentation of the stories were clearly edited and enhanced for his audience, and the so-called ‘orphan’ stories exist only in his French retelling and not in Arabic. Reviewing Marina Warner’s book Stranger Magic (2012) in the TLS, Wendy Doniger puts it very well:

The chronological and cultural strata of the Nights are like the layers of a nested Russian doll: you pull off the twentieth century (Salman Rushdie in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Walt Disney, Errol Flynn) and then the nineteenth and eighteenth century (Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Jean Antoine Galland, Richard Francis Burton, Edward W. Lane); and finally you get to the Arabic sources, and you think you’ve hit pay dirt. But then you sense, behind the Arabic, Homer and the Mahabharata, and the Bible, and you see that there is no there there. It’s not an artichoke – peel away the leaves of the later, accreted, interpolated layers until you find the original centre – but an onion: peel away the leaves and at the centre you find – nothing. Or, perhaps, everything; lacking a birthplace, the Nights also lack a grave: “The book cannot ever be read to its conclusion”, says Warner: “it is still being written”.

Borges, with his obsession with the idea of infinity, would surely have embraced this notion. There are plenty of his stories that read like they should be part of The Arabian Nights. I think particularly of ‘The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths’ which is written in the Shahrazad style, right down to the final glorification to Allah. Borges himself (in a 1952 afterword to The Aleph, the collection in which that story appeared) suggests that it might be “interpolated into the 1001 Nights by the copyists yet passed over by the prudent Galland.”

But I also think of ‘The Secret Miracle’ in which a condemned man finds that, at the moment of his execution, time has been frozen so that he might complete a play in his head: a dark twist on Shahrazad’s need to keep talking in order to stay alive.

There is also the wonderful story ‘The Circular Ruins’ about a man who sits in a ruined temple and, as a form of meditation, imagines another man in his entirety. First the organs, veins and sinews, then moving on to movement, thoughts and feelings. At the end of the story the dreamer realises that he too is the product of someone else’s imagination. The structural parallels are obvious: this dream within a dream within a dream would not have existed without The Arabian Nights.

Since I am already an admirer of Borges’ work, it is hard to resist the mental tendency to read him back into The Arabian Nights, as if it were he who were influencing them, rather than the other way around. A recurring theme for Borges was the idea of codes and translation, and the insight that any pattern or language can be interpreted in any way, so long as you know the ‘key’ that will unlock the code. Borges discusses this in ‘The God’s Script’ (1949) and the glorious ‘Library of Babel’ (1941), and I fancy I spotted traces of that same idea in the bizarre sign language of the Daughter of Delilah the Wily (Nights 112 to 128). I’m sure that was not a direct inspiration for Borges’ stories, but it’s nevertheless interesting to imagine that such themes, latent and secondary in one piece of writing, could be subconsciously absorbed and then given full expression by another writer.

A final Borges story I want to mention is ‘A Survey Of The Works of Herbert Quain’ (1941) in which he imagines the ouvre of an author who experiments with structure and form. In one avant-guarde book, several chapters of plot are presented, and can be arranged into different types of story depending on how the reader chooses to bolt them together. The Arabian Nights does something similar: tropes are deployed over and over, combined with others to produce different plots. I imagine that re-reading the stories in a different order would likely produce a different literary experience.

Of the imagined Herbert Quain, Borges writes:

He also believed that the aesthetic act must contain some element of surprise, shock, astonishment …

That’s a perfect description of the ‘Borgesian quirkiness’ I mentioned above, inspired in no small part by The Arabian Nights.


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