Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Story hunger

One of the things I'm loving most about The Thousand and One Nights is that everyone in them is ravenous for stories. Not just the king, who's avidly listening to Scheherezade ("By God," he says to himself at the end of the first night, "I am not going to kill her until I hear the rest of the story"), but everyone in the stories, and everyone in the stories-within-stories and so on. A genie is about to kill a man, but then three old men appear, each accompanied by various creatures, and beg the genie to listen to their stories, and if they find them "marvellous", to let the man go. He agrees and, several stories later, the man is released. A fisherman is about to be killed by another genie—but first the genie insists on telling him his story. "Tell it," says the fisherman, "but keep it short as I am at my last gasp". After he has heard the story and tricked the genie back into the bottle, he tells a cautionary tale about sparing people's lives. The genie, speaking from inside the bottle, then tries to tempt the fisherman into letting him out so he can tell yet another story. But the fisherman says no. It seems like the storytelling (and in fact the story) is at an end.

But then the fisherman feels bad and lets the genie free (empathy trumping story hunger). The second the genie gets out of the bottle he starts threatening the fisherman again, but the fisherman has only to remind him of the cautionary tale he told for the genie to decide that in fact he's going to help him.

Which he does...by leading him to a strange pool in which there are oddly-coloured fish...it will turn out that these fish, when fried, rise from the frying pan and talk to a beautiful woman who magically appears...but that's a whole nother story.

I love the idea that stories can save us, and the picture of a world in which everyone is constantly craving stories feels very true to now. But I also love the idea that as well as having a head full of stories you can use in risky situations (or just to entertain people), you can also turn whatever terrible and crazy things happen to you into a story, and the story will be extremely valuable; it could save your own life, or someone else's life, or stop a vengeful genie in his tracks.

Last week, I did a little workshopping of my very fledgling play which will involve some tropes or possibly even characters from the Nights, at the Unicorn, during which for one tiny, eerie, startling moment, actor Eric Nzaramba became a character from my own life.

I found this picture, of the cover of an edition of the Nights, via Journal of The Nights.


  1. I loved your piece in "The Observer" about the bedside bookshelf of girls. I blog about books about books and have reviewed a few writers' books about revisiting old favourites (http://nathaliefoy.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/stephanie-staals-reading-women/ and http://nathaliefoy.wordpress.com/2011/01/10/the-heroines-bookshelf/)
    Have you seen Andrei Codrescu's "Whatever Gets You Through the Night"? It's a comic retelling of 1001 Nights.

  2. Thanks so much for reading! I love Andrei Codrescu's work but I haven't read that one yet...I look forward to it hugely though.