The Thousand and One Nights – Book Review

The Thousand and One Nights

Author | Anonymous
Original Title | Alf laylah wa laylah
Original Language | Arabic
First Published | c. 850
Source | from Hazar Afsanah (A Thousand Tales)

The tales that make up the collection known to us as The Thousand and One Nights are some of the most powerful, resonant works of fiction in the history of storytelling. The tales, told over a thousand and one nights by Sheherazade to King Shahryar, include foundational narratives such as “Sinbad,” “Aladdin,” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”

These stories have an uncanny capacity to endure. But while the tales of The Thousand and One Nights are remarkable for their familiarity and their currency, perhaps their most important legacy is the concept of narrative itself that emerges from them.

It is in the Nights that an underlying, generative connection is fashioned between narrative, sex, and death—a connection that has remained at the wellspring of prose fiction ever since. King Shahryar is in the unseemly habit of deflowering and killing a virgin on a nightly basis, and the Nights opens with Sheherazade lining up to be the king’s next victim.

Determined not to meet with such a fate, Sheherazade contrives to tell the king stories; in accordance with her plan, they prove so compelling, so erotic, so luscious and provocative, that at the end of the night, he cannot bring himself to kill her. Each night ends with a tale unfinished, and each night the king grants her a stay of execution, so that he might hear the conclusion.

But the storytelling that Sheherazade invents, in order to stay alive, is a kind of storytelling that is not able to end, that never reaches a climax. Rather, the stories are inhabited by a kind of insatiable desire, an open unfinishedness that keeps us reading and panting, eager for more, just as King Shahryar listens and pants. The eroticism of the tales, their exotic, charged texture, derives from this desirousness, this endless trembling on the point both of climax, and of death.

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