Saturday 12 February 2011

Book Review: Mir Amman – A Tale of Four Dervishes

This is a translation of the famous Urdu Bagh-o-Bahar, also known as Qissa-e-Chahar Darvesh which in turn is a translation of an earlier Persian story.

The book opens with a forward by Mir Amman, thanking the British for their assistance with the translation (this translation from “high” Urdu to common Urdu came about due to the College of Fort William attempting to translate many Urdu classics). The tone of the forward feels toadying and put me off almost straight away.

A Tale of Four Dervishes is the story of the king of Turkey, who on finding himself with no heir to his throne, leaves his palace in despair and wanders his kingdom. He soon comes across four dervishes sitting in seclusion outside of the King’s city and asks them why they are there.

What follow are the stories of the Princes of China, Persia and Yemen and a rich merchant. All have been brought to the edge of ruin and have come to the Turkey following a message from a mysterious stranger who promises them that they will have what they desire once they get to Turkey.

As each story unfolds (you know there is going to be a beautiful women in each one causing all of the trouble!) we are treated to a descriptions of the colourful and rich culture, food, manners and customs of the time. It also gave me some insight to how the borders between countries were so different in the past – the Muslim world stretches across so much of the world, that someone travelling from Turkey to China, or from Persia to India has enough in common to understand each other’s customs.

The novel also ventures into the unseen and even unreal: Jinn’s, fairies, magic and strange transformations. The novel’s style of dealing with romance also reminded me of a translation of Laila Majnoon, the great Persian romantic tragedy, I read and hated. Ridiculous, flamboyant professions of love, whereby silly young men see a woman once and fall in love with her beauty to the extent they lose their senses completely.

How often do you hear me say I hate a book? Well, this is another one I really did not like. Half way through I was ready to give up and asked a friend who is an Urdu Literature graduate what she thought of the book and she raved about it. With this, I persisted and still hated the book by the time I got to the end.

Perhaps these books lose something in translation; they were certainly popular in their native language. Perhaps the modern reader is more cynical and less open to the dramatic professions of love and loss, but this novel just did not capture my imagination.

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