Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Arabian Nightmare by Robert Irwin

"Balian tried to see the friar's face properly before he spoke again but, having failed: 'I dream of entering a city that looks like Cairo, yet is utterly false.  I dream of leaving it or trying to, but I am impeded by two agents of Satan called the Father of Cats and Michael Vane.  I dream I am awake and I am not and I dream of a temptress, a woman called Zuleyka, who seduces me from chastity, and when I awake from these dreams my face courses with blood.'  "Page 165-166

I wish I could remember what originally brought this book to my attention.  I read about books that sound interesting, put them on my TBR list and then proceed to forget about them; often times until years later.  I like doing this.  Usually by the time I get around to reading something on my list I've completely forgotten what it is about and carry no expectation or preconceived ideas into reading the book.  Almost always when I start a book I've no idea as to what made it originally catch my eye.  All that said, The Arabian Nightmare is a particularly rare book in which immediately before reading I could have read multiple reviews or even detailed plot analysis and still not know what it was about. 

What is concretely known as an absolute truth is extremely sparse in this near three-hundred page novel.  We know the story happens in late fifteenth century Cairo; that Balian is an Englishman hired by the French king to spy on military forces abroad while presenting himself as a pilgrim.  We know that almost immediately upon his arrival in Cairo Balian begins to suffer from an unknown malady.  The Arabian Nightmare is a sleep disorder in which the afflicted can't be certain they have the condition.  Their sleep is tormented, they can't tell the difference between dreams and reality, and in Balian's case he wakes covered in his own blood.

In the beginning, while Balian is still somewhat lucid, we see him come in contact with two sets of people, both of who profess a want to help him; each of which has ulterior motives; neither of which is immediately understood.  The Father of Cats, Master of the House of Sleep and physician to the many 'patients' there and his assistant Micheal Vane claim to want to help Balian.  Balian's instinct, training in intrigue, and most of all his dreams warn him against The Father of Cats and Vane, but he inadvertently finds solace in their associates, particularly a prostitute Zuleyka in whose arms Balian finds some manner of comfort.  As he soon finds his stated intentions of being in Cairo overwhelming as his condition ever declines he seeks a visa to finish his pilgrimage to Sinai and the monastery of St Catherine, and eventually to get out of Cairo all together to save his sanity. 

There is a second party that also has a great interest in Balian seemingly solely due to his affliction: Dirty Yoll, the storyteller and eventual scribe of The Thousand and One Nights, and Jean Cornu, Master of the Order of Saint Lazarus, leprous crusader knights who are rumored to be inured to pain.  (Awesome.)  Both parties claim to want to help Balian but their motives and intentions are made anything but clear.   

We see Cairo and Irwin's characters not through Balian's eyes but much as he sees the world around him in his present physical state.  Irwin's prose clearly--powerfully even-- conveys his story while maintaining a nebulous, never concrete, dreamlike cloud of obscurity.  Cairo is vividly seen: it's multi-cultured inhabitants, unique sights and eccentricities (Laughing Dervishes, talking apes), its magic, the romance surrounding it that would allure any Westerner at the fifteenth century, and always a blatant sensuality, all while having our perception slightly obscured or distorted; never fully believing what is presented. With such minimal description it's amazing how much of the setting is actually seen: while not in first person everything is shown as if being described by one suffering from the Arabian Nightmare.

Hardly to be distinguished from the djinn were the moods {of Cairo}, most often turbulent and melancholy, which swept over the town as rapidly and unaccountable as a thunderstorm.  Dust devils too were dangerous, seeking, as they flicked about his ankles, to draw the unwary traveller off into unfamiliar paths.  It was for this reason that all rejoiced when the rains came, for the rains held the spirits down and the spiders, daughters of the rain, came out and the air, purified of old passions, smelt new again.  Page 113

Balian's health declines rapidly.  He is not sleeping.  He has lost an obscene about of blood.  He is physically weak and it would seem the entire city is chasing him.  His mental facilities are leaving him.  "The voices of people that he heard in the street it did not seem to him that he heard in the street at all but in his head."  The more abstract of an illness The Arabian Nightmare seems to become, the more concretely I started to think the narrative followed an undiagnosed schizophrenic with a severe ailment that led to hemorrhaging.

The narrative gets more tangible closer to the end and events become static, almost tangential, as Yoll dictates stories across four chapters that may or may not be allegorical, philosophically related to the text, or perhaps merely pure fantastical diversion. 
As we come to understand two artifacts of the dream world, both of which Balian has encountered, all is made clear as to Balian's importance in the eyes of so many and the even the Arabian Nightmare is somewhat understood.  My favorite interpretation of the story's events was a none too subtle reference pointing toward Dr. Frankenstein's creation escaping his control and exceeding the expectations of his wildest dreams.

I could read it again or five more times and still perhaps not be able to tell you what it's about.   It's not the largest cast of characters you'll encounter but all are of great importance.  There came a point (rather early on) when I thought I should start taking notes and the book became a bit intimidating.  There is some work involved reading The Arabian Nightmare.  It's dark, and scary in places, but it never gets uncomfortable.  It's whimsical and pure fantasy at times, and it's in those portions where the story is most substantial.  It's not always easy; following Balian around and seeing things through his eyes with his illness can disorientate and astound even the most stalwart reader.  The Arabian Nightmare is consistently entertaining and continually thrust the reader in the understanding and discovery process.

So what did I learn?  What did I understand or discover?  I haven't the slightest clue; perhaps, even, nothing, but as Balian learned what we think we are chasing and trying to understand isn't always the point of the process.        

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