The Arabian nightmare
by Steve Penn
[ bookreviews ]
Here is a re-release of a classic. Irwin's Arabian Nightmare dates from 1983, and was on Dedalus' first ever release schedule. Now it is unleashed upon a new generation, and the same words will lurk in all reviews. As before, as quoted gleefully at the beginning of the book, several will describe it as a "Chinese puzzle", more will mention its similarity to the 1001 Nights, and lots will try to impress the reader by linking it to Borges. I shall pointedly not do any of these things, instead preferring to draw the reader's interest to the fact that it is absolutely fantastic, in all senses of the term.
Here we have a book about dreams that tears the veil between sleep and waking, ripping a new gash in the fabric with each chapter. Structure seems to disintegrate in its own complexity, time twists like the silk wrapping the sinewy limbs of Zuleyka the street-girl of Cairo. In this book the truth of the land of dreams, the Alam al-Mithal (where effects have more than one cause) is realised. It all gets a little baffling, but that is part of the joy of the work: one can sit back and marvel at its overall beauty or one can admire each detail. The brilliance and creativity of Irwin's book is best summed up by the Nightmare itself, a terrible dream of infinite suffering that can never be remembered once one is awake. The affliction lurks in the back of the tale, creeping invisibly around, untraceable, and unconscious. Try to work out who has it by the middle page, I dare you. As the narrator tries to avoid implying, there's no real reason you might not have it too. Trace the snail-trails of experience - does the mysterious Father of Cats force his way into people's dreams every time he appears in them, or do they dream him? What is the test that separates the dream from the real, or is there no distinction? What does Shikk look like from the other side? What is the Zone of the Pebble, the final dark and infinitely small part of the dream, like? Who has the Arabian Nightmare? Why do there seem to be so many answers to all the riddles?
If this makes the book sound confusing, it is. But it is also utterly captivating, by turns philosophical, erotic, religious, pulp and romance. Certain images run through the cloth, holding its fragments together, steadily playing with the reader's understanding of the characters and their places in the unravelling plotlines. This is a truly great work, an easily-read masterpiece of late Modern storytelling. I tend to shy from the phrase "I couldn't put it down", as it always makes me think the book must be oozing glue as Saatih oozes his body around the Alam al-Mithal. The Arabian Nightmare is one of those books you can put down, but the tale runs in your head like a worm until you pick it up again. This one is brilliant.