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“Arabian Nights” and “Dunyazadiad”

Appropriation of the “Arabian Nights”:  Comparison of the “Dunyazadiad” by John Barth and the Original Story

Sep 4, 2020 at Literature Essays

The history of literature had seen millions of works worth reading, thousands of masterpieces worth to preserve glory through centuries, and only hundreds that were powerful enough to give birth to other literary works. Considered to be eternal, the greatest writings have attracted attention of many writers and provoked or, perhaps, inspired them to create the extensions, adaptations or alternative versions of the well-knows works. The new narrations might differ from the original in terms of the plot, cultural and social perspective, religious, ethical or moral norms as they have been transferred into different timely and special settings. One of the literary masterpieces that continues to exist in various appropriative versions is the story known as The Arabian Nights. The story of the beautiful and wise girl who interceded for the people she cared of found its reflection in many works including the one entitled “Dunyazadiad”. Being a part of the book Chimera by John Barth, the story represents Sheharazade’s sister’s opinion regarding occasions of 1001 nights. “Dunyazadiad” preserves the main characters and key points of the plot, however, Barth broadens the story, and the same personages are depicted from different perspectives and are situated in different contexts that makes the old story sound in fresh voice. This subsequent version is merely the translation of the original that should be examined from the translator’s perspective. This paper addresses the essay written by Roman Jacobson in order to provide thorough analysis of the similarities and differences in the original book and Barth’s variation and establish the consequences of transition of the old story to the modern background.

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“Dunyazadiad” is based on the narrative about beautiful Sheharazade from The Arabian Nights. Barth included the major characters from the original book, namely Sheharazade, her sister Dunyazade, King Shahryar, and his brother Shah Zaman. He also preserved the general characteristics of these personages. Sheharazade is as much intelligent, gorgeous, and clever as she was in The Arabian Nights: well-read and well-bred (The Arabian Nights). In both versions, she had studied various disciplines starting with politics and ending with poetry and folklore and read thousands of books that were part of her collection. King Shahryar is depicted as heartless and cruel ruler who does not spare life of any of the young girls. He is also a firm man who keeps his word and values intelligence. Dunyazade is portrayed as having the tang of childishness and naivety as well as kind-hearted and living sister.

“Dunyazadiad” appropriates the original construction and sequence of narrative events. The novella reproduces the well-known plot about the wise girl who decides to marry the tyrant and sacrifice herself to save lives of thousands girls later as well as own one by the help of storytelling and her sister. It is not the central narrative line since the novella consists of three parts, two of which provide the extension of the plot; still, it is accurately recreated even referring to the order of the stories that Sherry was telling to the ruler in The Arabian Nights. Moreover, “Dunyazadiad” follows The Arabian Nights in employing the frame-within-frame technique. It presupposes the presence of one narration or story inside the outer or framing narrative. In Barth’s novella, the two narrators tell their own stories, within which they occasionally refer to other stories, either the life scenes or elements of the folklore. It is particularly evident in the first part where Dunyazade retells her husband several stories, which her sister were telling during some of those thousand and one nights spent with Shahryar. However, “Dunyazadiad” is merely the appropriation of the famous story about Sheharazade from The Arabian Nights, and it carries divergences from the original plot, background, and style.

Creation of a version of the specific story may be treated as the phenomenon of translation of one text into the cultural and social background of different people or times. The authors take well-known characters and interpret their fates in their own styles. However, they have different worldviews, peculiar understanding of the ethical values and set the story into the world, which the consciousness immanent to their time and place produces. It correlates with the views of famous scholar, Roman Jacobson, on the issue of linguistic translation. Barth’s work may be seen as an attempt to provide translation into further, alternative version especially the one, in which it is more fully developed (Jacobson 145). Although it practically follows the same plotline, and narration does not introduce any new subsequent events in lives of the main characters, “Dunyazadiad” eliminates the detailed description of the folklore tales and extends the ordinary book by depicting the sisters’ feelings and their reflection on the occurred occasions. It adds details that were not included in the original version and sheds the light to what was hidden in the shadows of Sherry’s library as well as uncovers the nature of the characters and relationships between them.

The first and most striking feature that differentiates Barth’s novella is related to the figure of narrator. In original The Arabian Nights, the story was organized as the third-person narrative. The narrator is omnipresent, he knows everything about all of the characters and seems to act as an objective teller of the ancient legend. The adopted text has two narrators, which tell the story from the first-person perspective. These narrators are Sherry’s sister, Dunyazade, and her husband, Shah Zaman. Each narration is separated into different chapters. Such choice of the narrative technique makes the novel sound more subjective and even intimate since two characters uncover the details of their fate and share their own feelings with the readers.

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“Dunyazadiad” uncloses the background information about the main characters of The Arabian Nights and helps readers to understand them better. The first of them is Dunyazade, Sherry’s sister. Whereas in original Nights she plays the minor role of the interrupter of her sister, here, she is one of the major characters. Barth gave Doony the right to provide her own vision of the events that preceded and accompanied the one thousand and one nights her sister spent in the bedroom of Shahryar. The first chapter is imbued with the flow of sister’s love and worrying. Thanks to Dunyazade’s openness and honesty, the readers get to know the possible version of how Sheharazade created all the stories. The second chapter is told from the viewpoint of Shah Zaman, Dunyazade’s husband. He tells about his life in Samarkand before the marriage with Doony. The readers get to know about his first marriage and sufferings caused, which the betrayal of his wife caused. The last part is dedicated to Shah Zaman’s version of the ending of the whole story.

Although “Dunyazadiad” preserves the major characters and recreates the same events, it is rather the reverse version of the original narration. The original discourse begins with the story about Shahryar and Shah Zaman and how the first one made the decision to marry and kill his new wives every night. The equal role is dedicated to the sisters Sheharazade and Dunyazade as well as their father. The sisters continue the dialogic plotline and introduce the tales into the story. However, in Barth's version, Shahryar and girls' father, the vizier, are lacking any dynamic actions. Moreover, whereas in The Arabian Nights there were Sheharazade and Shahryar who played the major roles, Barth made their sister and brother to become dynamic characters and provided their opinions and feelings.

Apart from multiplicity of narrators, another distinctive feature that deviates from the original and turns “Dunyazadiad” into a piece of post-modern meta-fiction is the presence of the author in the text of literary work. Introducing the personage of Genie, Barth himself enters the novel. It is obvious from the very first acquaintance with this character when Dunyazade gives his description: “a light-skinned fellow of forty or so, smooth-shaven and bald as a roc’s egg … he was tall and healthy and pleasant enough in appearance, except for queer lenses that he wore in a frame over his eyes” (Barth 137). Some personal facts about Genie’s passion to The Arabian Nights follow the apparent resemblance of the physical appearance and leave no doubts about the fact that it is Barth who crossed time and space and was talking to the sisters in the library.

The new character of Genie first of all contributes to the extension of the plot. “Dunyazadiad” acquires the new details regarding the sources of Sheharazade’s stories. It becomes known that it is actually Genie who told Sheharazade the stories that she later retold to Shahryar. Genie travels to Sherry when she is still looking for the way to stop inhuman murders of young girls and advices her to use folklore tales to excite the king’s curiosity and interrupt each story before the ending in order to prevent him from killing the storyteller. Using the book The Arabian Nights that already exists on paper in Genie’s time, he tells Sheharazade the stories in the exact order they are written there and helps to achieve her aim.

In Barth’s novella, owing to the new character, The Arabian Nights are placed in trans-time and trans-cultural location where the modernity meets the ancient world. It introduces the modern time and Western culture in the narrative that was originally East-oriented. The mystical personage of Genie represents the transition between two different time spaces. It generally changes the overall context of the old story as it adds the modern viewpoint on the various important issues and topics that were touched in Nights. The conversations between the sisters and Genie represent the dialogues between the epochs where they both reflect their own values and argue about concepts related either to relationships or art. In such a way, the novella demonstrates the contrast between two times and two worldviews. However, it is interesting to note that it was the common vision of the value of literary work “the key to the treasure was the treasure” that enabled Genie to shift in time and actually meet his adored heroine (Barth 139). In this sense, Barth’s novella surpasses the original since it apart from the well-known plot enables the readers to compare two worlds and two cultures in order to notice the common and distinctive features of ethics, moral, and general outlook.

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The employment of characters from two different cultural traditions inevitably leads to the issues, which Jacobson defines as the untranslatability, and provokes the clash of cultures. The essay “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation” refers to this phenomenon regarding the ordinary translation of lexical items stating that “facts are unlike to speakers whose background provides for unlike formulation of them” (Jacobson 146). The same idea may be used regarding the attempts to combine the ancient plot with modern style and characters. Being modified by the person grown up with another values and worldview, the story of The Arabian Nights has the elements that show the contrast between two cultures: Ancient Eastern and Modern Western. It is demonstrated in the episode when Sheharazade discusses with the mysterious Genie the nature of relationships. In Ancient East, it was normal to have intimate relationships with several people, and Sheharazade offers herself as the reward for the help in storytelling. Barth depicts her great surprise when Genie rejects this offer and emphasizes that her cultural background does not allow her to perceive the possibility and actual value of monogamous relationships. In Arabic culture, it was normal and commonly accepted to share bed with different people, and Sherry did not see anything sinful or immoral in her offer. She is rejected because Genie loves another woman and wishes nothing but to keep this feeling till the end of his days. He claims that if he had a chance to meet another jinn and make three wishes, one of them would be “that he might die before his young friend and he ever ceased to treasure each other as they did currently in their salt-marsh retreat” (Barth 140). Typical of Western cultural and moral traditions, Genie values the love of a single woman and does not have a desire to enjoy the others’.

The same contrast of ethics was manifested regarding the understanding of personal freedom. In the original book, only single moral code immanent to the Eastern world was represented. Based on Arabic cultural and religious traditions, it was accepted to live in male-dominant society where women were nothing but the slaves of their husbands. It was allowed for men to be with different women, and females, in turn, allowed themselves to enter intimate relationships with different men although it was officially forbidden to them. Moreover, the Arabic society used to follow extremely strict laws and had cruel system of punishment: any misbehavior could lead to the death penalty. Whereas Sheharazade considers the society weaved of slaves and masters to be normal, the Western guest claims that in his space there are “no slaves, no concubines”, and each person is free to decide how and with whom to live (Barth 140). This ancient moral is strange and obscure to Genie, and he seems to be amazed seeing how ordinary his new acquaintances are talking about the cruelness, slavery, and betrayals.

To conclude, John Barth’s “Dunyazadiad” represents skillful and innovative transformation of the well-known plot. Preserving the old characters and major events, it is either translation of the ancient fable into the modern settings. Barth employs new style of narrative and extends the story by adding the comments of Sherry’s sister and Shahryar’s brother. It might be seen as a reverse version of the original since here the minor characters play the major role. Introducing himself as one of the characters, Barth changes the overall form of the original book and attaches different context to the story. In “Dunyazadiad”, Arabic world meets the Western culture and ethics, and by making this encounter possible the author builds the bridge between epochs and nations.

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