Book Reviews
The Arabian Nightmare: Robert Irwin
16th Mar 2010Posted in: Book Reviews Comments Off on The Arabian Nightmare: Robert Irwin
The Arabian Nightmare: Robert Irwin

A book of stories in stories in stories, dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams, reversals and sleights of hand, The Arabian Nightmare managed by some magic to hold this reader in a constant state of curiosity and fascination, coming at times dangerously close to short-circuiting my brain altogether.

Balian is a pilgrim, travelling in the late fifteenth century to St. Catherine’s shrine in the Sinai Desert and on to the Holy Land, having been commissioned to do a little spying along the way. On reaching Cairo one of his travelling companions (a painter), is violently arrested, he’s unable to sleep without waking with his nostrils spouting blood, and his dreams take on a dreadful reality. He fears he may be suffering from something called the Arabian Nightmare, a disease in which the afflicted suffer horrendous pain in their dreams but wake to total oblivion and ignorance of the fact. How anyone would know about the disease if this were the case is never explained, but don’t allow this to worry you. The book’s like that, and Robert Irwin writes so engagingly that the constant twists and turns, the scholastic references that one makes mental notes of, feeling that they must be incredibly important, only to have them swim away like fishes, all combine to create a work of amazing originality and surprise.

The book is peopled with extraordinary characters; a sleep magician, women with bizarre sexual desires, a female serial killer, Laughing Dervishes, leper knights and more, and a talking ape plays an enigmatic game of hide-and-seek with the reader, morphing into – well I’d better not spoil too many surprises. Interestingly, the phrase ‘Ape of God’ – a Renaissance term for an artist who had reached the height of his powers – kept pushing to the forefront of my mind throughout the book – whether this phrase actually appeared I can’t remember, but it seemed like a key at the time. Many of the characters have some historical basis, and almost certainly work on different levels. The novel is simultaneously a multi-layered puzzle, an allegory (or a series of allegories), a cure for insomnia, a stimulus to dream, maybe even a Gnostic Mystery. I can imagine that if the world were to end tomorrow and mankind all but eliminated that The Arabian Nightmare could, in a future world, be looked on as a sort of bible to be studied and argued over. And there’s almost certainly material enough for a dissertation in it. Dare I whisper that it could even be the author’s joke at the readers’ expense, although I’d imagine that few enough people possess the level of scholarship required to expose it as one.

But for me, it’s enough that Robert Irwin kept me turning the pages, fascinated, puzzled amused and horrified by turns. Maybe he’s Scheherazade’s dark animus, reincarnated to retell One Thousand and One Nights – more likely he’s simply a brilliant storyteller.

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