- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2011

THE ARABIAN NIGHTS: TALES OF 1001 NIGHTS (VOLUMES 1-3)
By Anonymous
Translated by Malcom C. and Ursula Lyons
Penguin Classics, $60, 2,778 pages (paperback)

LUKA AND THE FIRE OF LIFE
By Salman Rushdie
Random House, $25, 240 pages

Winter blahs? Ignore them and cast your lot with adventurous shahs, seductive houris and the exhilarating comforts of traveling by magic carpet. Stories are our tickets to escapes into more appealing worlds. And, I’m happy to report from the winter hinterlands, they seem to be making a comeback.

Abundant proof has arrived with the recently available first full translation of “The Arabian Nights” since the one produced in the 1880s by that tireless dynamo, Victorian adventurer and full-grown enfant terrible Sir Richard Burton (no, not Elizabeth Taylor’s ex: the other one).

Though Burton’s, uh, sexually oriented version remains the most notorious, this landmark work - which dates from the high Middle Ages (roughly, 13th through 16th centuries) and incorporates motifs and narratives from Egyptian, Persian, Turkish, Sanskrit and even classical Greek sources - has had several other distinguished predecessors. French scholar Antoine Galland’s early-18th-century translation, for example, added to the original texts such eventually key stories as those of “Aladdin and His Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” And the most recent English translation - a partial one provided by scholar-critic Husain Haddawy - has been acclaimed as the best since Galland and Burton.

The collection’s framework is as justly famous as are the individual tales. When virile King Shahriyar discovers his beautiful queen’s dalliance with a manservant, the adulterers are summarily beheaded, and the monarch develops a disturbing habit. Shahriyar possesses a different virgin each night, then has the unlucky female dispatched the following morning. Enter Scheherazade, his chief vizier’s daughter, who has read more than 1,000 books and knows exactly how to deflect her sovereign’s murderous rage. Each night she tells - but declines to finish - an enchanting new story. She is spared to finish it and does so the following night, but then she begins another and leaves it unfinished. Thus do the “thousand and one nights” of her tenure soften the king’s heart and ensure her survival.

Variety is the keynote in lively accounts of exploration and discovery, individual combat and mass battles, commercial ventures and diligent fortune-hunting, traffic with supernatural visitations and - fundamentally and emphatically - experiences of idealized love, the rituals of marriage and the heady exhilarations of infidelity. To sample the collection’s broad range, reimmerse yourself in the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor or the investigative meanderings of benign, infinitely curious Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. And do not miss the Boccaccian delights of the quite forthright tale of “The Porter and the Three Ladies.”

Almost as intriguing as these narratives are the introductions to each of the three volumes, contributed by veteran Arabic scholar (and estimable novelist) Robert Irwin. From them we learn of the collection’s provenance and transmission, its influence on later literature (ranging from Dickens to Borges to John Barth) and the vagaries of its reputation: To this day, for example, many Muslims believe “The Arabian Nights” to be blasphemous and deserving to be banned.

Cue Salman Rushdie, the still endangered author of “The Satanic Verses,” proclaimed an enemy of Islam in a fatwa pronounced by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Undaunted, the author of more masterpieces than any world-class novelist since William Faulkner (“Midnight’s Children,” “Shame,” “The Moor’s Last Sigh,” “Shalimar the Clown” and counting) has once again channeled his culture’s enduring masterpiece in the recently published sequel to his 1990 young-adult romp “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” (written for his older son).

“Luka and the Fire of Life” sends its eponymous 12-year-old protagonist (surely modeled on Mr. Rushdie’s younger son, for whom it was written) on a rumbustious epic journey. When Luka’s doting father, Rashid Khalifa, a celebrated storyteller aka “The Shah of Blah,” sinks into a sleep from which he cannot awake, the intrepid youngster travels with his animal companions Bear the Dog and Dog the Bear to the Magical World described in his father’s stories, as a fledgling Prometheus determined to steal the Fire of Life from the Mountain of Knowledge - and restore his moribund father to consciousness.

Mr. Rushdie appears to enjoy himself even more than do Luka and the designated mammals, concocting outrageous puns and inventing a rich array of trials and adversaries to test Luka’s mettle: a murderous Old Man of the River, Rashid’s meddlesome doppelganger (“Nobodaddy”), assorted Border Rats and supernatural presences (such as the stentorian Guardians of Time), not to mention Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, a cruel circus boss who’s a dead ringer for the Wizard of Oz, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ridiculously muscular avatar the Terminator.

A good time is had by all, as Luka’s courage underscores and preserves the truth his father has taught him: “Man is the storytelling animal, and … in stories are his identity, his meaning, and his lifeblood.”

Or, as both the redeemed Shahriyar and the enchantress Scheherazade have been telling us all along, stories can save your life.

Bruce Allen lives, reads and writes in the currently bleak frozen wasteland of Kittery, Maine.

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