Monday, June 3, 2013
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
Yes, it is one of my odd habits to draw your attention sometimes to obscure and forgotten books, which get the nod now only from specialists and dedicated antiquarian bibliophiles.
James Morier’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan is clearly a case in point. It has enough staying power to be re-published every so often. I recently saw a newish edition of it for sale on Amazon. But I bought my own copy (complete with illustrations and a somewhat pompous introduction by one Charles E. Beckett), very cheaply, some years ago from a second-hand bookshop. It was printed by The Gresham Publishing Company, apparently in the 1890s. And that, really, is how I now think of this book – something old, to be sought in obscure places.
Some background. James Morier (1780-1849) was a British diplomat and trader of Swiss parentage. He spent much of his life in those countries that were then called quaintly “The Levant” and that now, with dubious accuracy, are more likely to be called, by Europeans, The Middle East. During and just after the Napoleonic Wars, these were countries in which British and French and Russian interests vied for dominance. Among other things, Morier had visited Persia (Iran) a number of times, and he accompanied back to Britain the first Persian ambassador to the English court. He turned to writing in early middle age, and scored a big hit. When it was first published in 1823, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan was a massive bestseller, quickly pirated and translated into a number of European languages. It was even translated for Persian readers, who took some offence at it. For a while, Morier’s fame and popularity rivalled those of Scott. He wrote a sequel to Hajji Baba and a number of other novels before his fame faded.
So to the novel.
This is a determinedly picaresque affair. Set in contemporary times (the early nineteenth century), it recounts the adventures of a Persian rogue – a true picaro - from the time he leaves the home of his barber-father until he reaches the rank of assistant ambassador about to go on a mission to England. (The novel’s sequel – which I have not read – recounts his adventures in England).
It is difficult to provide a comprehensive account of a book that is so episodic and that really has only one main character – the eponymous hero-narrator.
Hajji (so-called because he was born while his parents were on a religious haj) is bored with his training as a barber. He travels with a Turkish merchant’s caravan, but the caravan is attacked by Turcoman bandits, who enslave Hajji. While he is a slave, and having very few scruples, he acts as a guide to the bandits when they raid his hometown of Ispahan. Then he escapes from the bandits (unscrupulously stealing a fellow prisoner’s money before he goes) and is for a time attached to the household of the Shah’s favourite poet. He becomes a tobacco merchant – or rather a “seller of smoke”, charging people in the marketplace for the privilege of puffing on his hookah. Later he acts as assistant to a Persian doctor who resents all the new-fangled ideas of “Frank” (i.e. European) medicine. He falls in love with the Kurdish slave-girl Zeenah, but she is taken from him to be part of the Shah’s harem. She later dies a bloody death trying to flee the harem.
Hajji is attached to the public executioner for some months. He takes part in an expedition against the Russians, and comes into contact with the Armenian Yusuf, who tells a long tale of persecution at the hands of the Persians. Hajji himself takes part in a cowardly expedition against Russian civilians. When he returns to his hometown after his father’s death, he is cheated out of his inheritance by relatives who are just as unscrupulous as he.
Fleeing to Teheran, he is for a while assistant to a marriage broker who zealously upholds the Shi’ite variety of Islam. Hajji joins him in an expedition, which persecutes Armenian Christian peasants. When his new master dies unexpectedly, Hajji steals some of his wealth and his finest horse and heads for Turkish territory to escape suspicion of having killed the man. He cuts a dash in Baghdad and gets to see the splendours of Constantinople. He impresses his social betters. A society lady, the widow of a wealthy emir, agrees to marry him. But her brothers annul the marriage when Hajji’s lowly origins are discovered.
It all ends with Hajji returning to his hometown to show off his new finery before he joins the ambassador going to England.
Have you got the picture by now? There is no continuous or developing plot here. Individual episodes in this ramble are lively and interesting and certainly written in a far less pompous style than Scott ever managed, so I would not underestimate this novel’s entertainment value. But it does become a little wearisome when there is no thread to follow, despite a few minor recurring characters.
Hajji Baba does not change. He is an unscrupulous rogue who cheats other people out of their goods and possessions at least four times in the novel, before elaborately justifying himself in his first-person narrative. He passes easily from profession to profession in order to show us as wide a panorama of Persian life as possible.
Presumably James Morier intended to use his diplomatic experience to educate post-Regency England about Persia. He succeeds to a considerable degree. After all, through the adventures of Hajji, he manages to advise his readers of the mutual distaste of Persian Shi’ites and Turkish Sunni; the tensions on the Russian border; the persecution of Sufis; and the status of minority Kurds, Turcomans and Armenians. But, Hajji being the character he is, much of the documentary inevitably gets mired in caricature. That Hajji passes so easily from profession to profession partakes of the merely fantastic. I reversed the nationalities of author and main character and thought – it is as if one were to write of a “typical” Englishman who survives Eton, joins the Royal Navy, sees service at Trafalgar, becomes a Beefeater in the Tower of London, collects rents off Irish peasants and evicts some, assists the Royal College of Surgeons, lectures at Oxford etc. etc. This is not really the stuff of grown-up fiction.
Yet there are some delightful passages, especially when Hajji encounters “Frank” (European) customs. In these cases, I am not sure of Morier’s intentions. I think he means us to laugh at Hajji’s naïvete in misapprehending the modern. In fact, at this distance from 1823, we often laugh with Hajji as he interprets European customs as alien and barbarous, or when he refers to the pope as “the Caliph of the Franks” and Christian monks as “dervishes”. I am reminded irresistibly of once visiting an art exhibition in Wellington in the 1990s – a collection of paintings loaned from the royal collection and marketed as “The Queen’s Pictures”. One of them was an early nineteenth century painting, which showed a European gentleman and an Oriental servant both inspecting a giraffe. To our eyes, the costumes of both gentleman and oriental now look equally alien. Top-hat and frock-coat have no right to snigger at turban and cloak.
You will note that I have nowhere accused James Morier of “Orientalism”, that dreaded cultural crime for which Edward Said and his ilk so readily condemn any European who wrote about whatever is East of Suez. There is no doubt that books like Morier’s helped set off the 19th century European fashion for fantasies set in harems (George Meredith’s The Shaving of Shagpat etc.) just as Richard Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights did. But, even if he carried some of his nation’s prejudices with him (as all travellers do) Morier did at least know the countries he described from his own observations of them. Not that this excuses him of his racial stereotyping.
Some pungent quotations to close.
It fascinated me that, in Chapter 45 (yes, this is a book of many and short chapters) there is a footnote telling us that, “The kebab shops of Constantinople are eating houses where, at a moment’s notice, a dish of roast meat, and small bits of meat done on skewers, are served up to whoever asks for them.” How impressive this must have seemed to Europeans (and Americans) two centuries ago, before the concept of “fast food” became ubiquitous.
Then there is this delightful description of Europeans, given by a Persian court doctor in Chapter 19:
“Their manners and customs are totally different from ours… and you may form some idea of them when I tell you that, instead of shaving their heads and letting their beards grow, as we do, they do the very contrary; for not a vestige of hair is to be seen on their chins, and their hair is as thick on their heads as if they had made a vow never to cut it off; then they sit on little platforms, whilst we squat on the ground; they take up their food with claws made of iron, whilst we use our fingers; they are always walking about, we keep seated; they wear tight clothes, we loose ones; they write from left to right, we from right to left; they never pray, we pray five times a day – in short there is no end to what might be related of them. But most certain it is, that they are the most filthy people on the earth, for they hold nothing to be unclean; they eat all sorts of animals, from a pig to a tortoise, without the least scruple and that without first cutting their throats; they will dissect a dead body without requiring any purification after it, and perform all the brute functions of their nature, without ever thinking it necessary to go to the hot bath, or even rubbing themselves with sand after them.”
And in Chapter 75, there is this briefing on the English, which Hajji Baba is given:
“How can you or I understand the humours of such madmen? They have a shah, ‘tis true; but it is a farce to call him by that title. They feed, clothe and lodge him, give him a yearly income, surround him by all the state and form of a throne, and mock him with as fine words and with as high-sounding titles as we give our sovereigns…. Then they have certain houses full of madmen, who meet half the year round for the purpose of quarrelling. If one set says white, the other cries black; and they throw more words away in settling a common question than would suffice one of our muftis during a whole reign. In short, nothing can be settled in the state, be it only whether a rebellious aga is to have his head cut off and his property confiscated, or some such trifle, until these people have wrangled. Then what are we to believe? Allah, the Almighty and All-wise, to some nations giveth wisdom, and to others folly. Let us bless Him and our Prophet that we are not born to eat the miseries of the poor English infidels, but can smoke our pipes in quiet on the shores of our own peaceful Bosphorus!”
I won’t say that this is irony of the highest order, but it is a pretty fair description of the English monarchy and parliament. And it does show that, with a little more focus and wit, Morier could easily have written the type of satirical foreigner’s-eye account of Europe that Montesquieu had made in his sly Persian Letters one century before him.