Book review: The Arabian Nightmare

The Arabian NightmareThe Arabian Nightmare by Robert Irwin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’d been meaning to read this for a long time. When I first began to read some stranger fiction – the first time I discovered the Dedalus imprint, I think – I saw The Arabian Nightmare recommended highly. It’s one of those books which has attained cult status – and pretty reasonably, too, given that it’s part sex manual, part spy story, part meditation on dreams and part talking-animal tale, all wrapped in the patterned carpets of Orientalism and stuffed inside a shaggy dog.

I suspect it’s one of those books which, by dint of the enormously evocative descriptions and obviously well-researched background – Irwin is a scholar and Cairo is certainly in his bailiwick – dazzles readers and seems, like the rope trick, to be something more than it is.

It is enjoyable. I can’t deny that. The beginning of the work creates atmosphere as quickly as anything I’ve read. But it doesn’t maintain interest as well as the narrative seems to think it does. Storytelling and the unreliability of narration – as well as the structure of the work echoing the loss of stability felt by the lead characters – is a big element. It’s just unfortunate the action seems less of a concern than the setting.

Library Journal suggested “the novel’s intricacy is likely to put off the general reader” but I don’t think the general reader is the only one put off by a narrative that doesn’t know what to do with itself. I’ve read plenty of odd-structured fiction, so I’m OK with experimentation. But here, unlike the studied confusion of Potocki’s The Manuscript Found In Saragossa – a book Irwin modelled this work on – there’s not really a feeling of unification.

The amount of reviews calling Irwin’s text a mind-boggler or somehow otherwise transcendental are a bit off the mark. Yes, it is an unusual book. Yes, it does capture a setting, a point in time particularly well. Yes, it does the Eco/Calvino shaggy-dog thing. But other books do this better. Irwin’s research is excellent, his writing isn’t full of the gimlet-eyed mysticism which haunts some other psychogeographical writers – but the book is ultimately less satisfying than, say, Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars. This book aims to be a puzzle box, and it is puzzling though perhaps not in the way the author intended.

An excellent addition to the text are the illustrations of ‘the Scottish Canaletto’, David Roberts. They’re excellently evocative, and provide a real sense of location for the narrative, albeit an Orientalist take.

The Arabian Nightmare is a story of searching, and a search for a story. I can’t help but like it, though – the audacity of its ramshackle construction is appealing, if not completely understandable.

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