Monday, March 23, 2009

On Beyond Zebra: A Thousand Nights and a Night 1

People who enjoyed "A Thousand Nights and a Night" should check out Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani's "Book of Wisdom and Lies." One of the first books to be printed in Georgia (the country, not the state), it is a collection of a hundred and fifty two folktales and anecdotes. Like "A Thousand Nights," there is a collection of allegorical teaching-stories to educate the son of a king.
The wise vizir suggests a mysterious stranger for the job, but the court eunuch does not approve of the stranger's bizarre teaching techniques, and the five characters - the king, the prince, the vizir, the tutor and the eunuch - argue and debate through fables and proverbs.

During his lifetime Orbeliani was a nobleman, courtier and diplomat, but also spent some time as a destitute monk. The stories reflect his life experiences and travels. Some of the stories are comic, others melodramatic. Many will recognize similarities between tales here and well-known Sufi tales ("What did you expect? I'm a scorpion!"). Other stories are of Georgian origin. A personal favorite is "The Man Who was Buried Alive and the Country of the Giants," a tale that reads like a fusion of the fourth voyage of Sindbad and Gulliver's Travels. A traveler in a foreign land marries a local, only to discover that it's the local custom to bury the surviving spouses with the deceased. He protests, but to no avail ("There's always been a lottery!"). After escaping from his wife's tomb, he enters a land of giants, and ends up in the mouth of a giant who, in turn, tells the story of hiding inside a huge skull (huge to the giant, mind you) from a true giant's giant. Katharine Vivian's translation is highly recommended.

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