The Adventures of Amir Hamza, complete and unabgridged by Ghalib Laknavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, translation by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (Modern Library, 948 pages, $45). Here, almost at random, is a passage from a book that is, at the very least, literally fabulous, even if it has been all but unknown in English before now: "Twelve thousand beautiful and comely jinn children carrying crystal lamps and wax and camphor candles in goblets of red glass led the procession. The attendants carried out their respective duties with diligence and alertness. Forty thousand jinns from Qaf marched with them, sniggering, making pleasantries with one another and setting off fireworks. Twenty thousand perizads arranged in two rows rode atop flying thrones singing and dancing and playing music. The Music Band of Suleiman was borne aloft by flying camels."
It is, we can see now from the first unabridged translation of an Indo-Persian classic (the first major translation from Urdu in 300 years, it's said), a spectacular and literally marvelous Islamic epic that ought to be almost as often spoken of as the "Tales of the 1,001 Nights." Always censored before this, we're told that the fabulous tales within -- while written in the late 19th century -- date from the oral tradition of at least one millennium before, and perhaps more. Its origins covering thousands of miles and a few continents are in the legends of Amir Hamza, the heroic uncle of the prophet Mohammed but by the time you're well into this world of battles, mythical creatures, beautiful royal daughters, tricksters, demons, deities, erotic encounters, slaughters and poems, you are aware, again, of the seemingly endless miracle of narrative in the world. (There is, in some views, nothing our species does better than tell stories.)
But even more than that, you have to wonder whether Westerners would have this revelatory translation of a masterpiece of world literature if it hadn't been for the literally world-rocking calamity that happened to a landmark in lower Manhattan six years ago.
Whatever it was that ended galloping Western ignorance of this teeming and riotous text, its publication is something of a milestone. Sadly, Hamid Dabashi's introduction to such a metamorphic and amazing contribution to world romance is vastly less than it should be. Swollen with extraneous bilge and far too light on simple historic facts for Western readers (see the translator's preface for those), it suggests we read it as "the Urdu version of the 'Lord of the Rings,' full of adventurous and wise humanoids -- hobbits, bandits, elves, ayyars, dwarves, viziers, wizards, orcs, ogres, the works" -- all of which is presumably populist for Western readers but a but demeaning to the thing itself which is fantastic and primal while Tolkien is secondary pastiche of (arguable) genius.
Whatever we have here is unequivocally an amazing piece of publishing history.
Paris Review Interviews: Vol. II edited by Philip Gourevitch, Introduction by Orhan Pamuk (Picador, 512 pages, $16 paper.); Rolling Stone Interviews, introduction by Jann S. Wenner (Back Bay Books, 468 pages, $17.99 paper). To say the obvious: there are great interviews in both these books. For more than a half a century, the Paris Review has defined, for the world, the Interview as Literature and for a very simple reason -- the greatest writers in the world were virtual collaborators in their composition. The Rolling Stone interviews are shorter but enabled rockers like Keith Richards to be more smart and literate than expected and mainstream entertainers like Johnny Carson to be a lot funkier and wilder than usual.
Wildly varied writers included in the Paris Review volume are: Graham Greene, James Thurber, William Faulkner, Philip Larkin, James Baldwin, William Gaddis, Harold Bloom, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Peter Carey, Stephen King, Robert Lowell, I. B. Singer, Eudora Welty, John Gardner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
In the Rolling Stone interviews, you've got everyone from Pete Townshend, Jim Morrison, Phil Spector, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Ozzy Osbourne to Truman Capote, Oriana Fallaci, George Lucas, Clint Eastwood and Leonard Bernstein.
-- Jeff Simon