Narrative in Arabian Nights

Nice article by Hugh Kennedy in last Friday’s AFR review reprinted from the New Statesman here reviewing a new translation of Arabian Nights.  In particular, this section caught my eye:

What distinguishes the Nights and, despite its great length, stops it from becoming tedious, is the different registers of story – comic, romantic, sad, adventurous. It is impossible to predict the twists and turns, and, embarking on any of the stories or cycles of stories, the reader can have no idea where he or she is going to end up.

The most typical narrative device is, of course, the story within the story, in which the lead story of the sequence is repeatedly interrupted as the hero meets people (or animals or jinns) who have their own tales to tell, or when people staying awake at night begin to tell the stories of their lives. No one is ever told to shut up in the Nights: if there are eight brothers, each with a story to tell, they must all have their say. Equally intriguing is the way in which the narrative, after wandering serendipitously in many different directions, gradually brings you back to the main thread and the reader feels that little jolt of recognition: “So that’s how we got there.”

I must admit when I recollect some scenes from my own time in Arabia this feeling of everyone needing to have their say and tell their own story.  The importance here is having the time (which is often so short and punctuated in Western business) to have these conversations and allow people to have their say.  The art of the facilitator is, of course, tied to getting the story back on track after going on tangents but being left with the feeling that those tangents have been important to the overall story rather than meaningless sidetracks.


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