The Thousand Nights and One Night
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David Walser has taken six of the best-known stories from the Arabian Nights and told them in a style which is vivid and vigorous. He is also relatively uncompromising about the violence and social cruelty of the saga. He cites as his inspiration the notorious Victorian translation by the explorer Sir Richard Burton, who revelled in the Nights’ erotica and exotica, and reputedly added lashings of his own smut and spice, claiming the time-honoured prerogative of the reteller of tales. If Walser had followed Burton too closely, this could not have been marketed as a children’s picture book, but we do get such details as Shah Zaman slicing his queen and her slave lover into four portions with a single scimitar swipe. Jan Pienkowski provides a silhouette revealing how the victims’ posture facilitated this feat, one of the 30 full page illustrations in which intricate black paper cut-outs are set against blazingly colourful backdrops suggestive of blood, fire, jewels and the silks of the Salome-like dancers who swirl through these sumptuous pages. The same technique is used in the double-spread panoramas which introduce each of the stories, including the brutal framing narrative of Shahrazade and the regal serial killer who eventually becomes her perfect husband. Elsewhere, the cut-outs stand vividly against bright blank paper, creating a starkness well befitting such episodes as Aladdin’s descent into the cave, or Sinbad’s flight with the rukh, or the spirited Morgiana’s merciless deep-frying of the forty thieves.
As in The Fairy Tales, their previous collaboration on the stories of Perrault and Grimm, Walser and Pienkowski have combined the skills of their long storytelling careers to create a volume which transmutes horror into fascinating beauty. It would be wonderful, one day, to have some of the less familiar tales presented in this manner.