Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Orientalist Arabesque

The Nights of Tino of Baghdad

Else Lasker-Schüler's novela The Nights of Tino of Baghdad came to me a couple of weeks ago. It's free to anyone who subscribes to the Rixdorf Editions newsletter, and it's only in PDF. (Click the cover above to follow the link.)

The laconic text—at only 41 pages—is strangely baroque. It reminds me of the quasi-narrative prose poems of Arthur Rimbaud and of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. There are glimpses of fabled, faraway lands that immediately dissipate into smoke and dreams at any attempt to place them on a map.

The nineteen stories barely hang together; their narrative web, more a ghost structure that operates at the level of hint and suggestion. The characters, including the eponymous Tino, more ghost than flesh and blood. But the book's mood!

There's a quality of hallucination and incantation, as if the author were trying to rewrite Montesquieu's Orientalist Persian Letters or the Bible's alchemy-inflected Song of Songs, but in the stuttering, cryptic language of Wilhelmine Germany's proto-dada, proto-expressionism:
The Grand Mogul of Philippopolis is sitting in the garden of the Imperial Palace in the Sultan’s city when from out of the evening comes a foreign insect and stings him on the tip of his tongue. It is his habit to let it rest on his lower lip as he thinks. And while the physicians attach no greater import to the accident, it transpires that the illustrious master nevertheless imagines himself no longer able to speak. And he darkly refuses to entertain other means of making himself understood; the damage to the land is incalculable. Processions of flagellant priests move through the streets of Constantinople, and the Sultan is on his knees before Allah. He calls his two sons to his private chamber: ‘Lads, you must learn a trade!’
Every reason you should know the world of Lasker-Schüler is detailed in translator James J. Conway's informed Afterword. Conway gives us the perfect amount of biography and history. It's one of the best, least burdensome critical apparatuses I've read in quite a while. Conway and Rixdorf Editions should be commended for rising to the challenge of helping to recreate the worlds of Wilhelminism and the Weimar Republic.


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