Other Non-European Literature

The Epic of Gilgamesh
 [ca. 2500/1200 BC]
      This ancient Mesopotamian story is the first surviving significant literary narrative, and still one of the best. Many of the central themes of later literature — the joys of love and friendship, the pains of separation and death — are already treated here in a moving and powerful manner. The historical king Gilgamesh lived around 2800 BC. Sumerian texts about him turn up a few centuries later, followed by variant versions in several other languages, culminating in the “Standard Version” in Akkadian ca. 1200 BC. N.K. Sandars’s prose translation is probably the best place to start. The more recent edition by Andrew George gives a more literal translation, incorporating newly discovered fragments and including lots of fascinating background information.
      [Rexroth essay on Gilgamesh]

The Mahabharata  [ca. 3rd century BC]
      This is one of the world’s greatest epics. It is so immense (eight times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined!) and so full of digressive interpolations that few Western readers are ever likely to read the whole thing. I recommend William Buck’s abridged prose translation, which confines itself to the main story line.
      [Rexroth essay on The Mahabharata]

The Ramayana  [ca. 3rd century BC]
      This is the other great epic of India. While The Mahabharata, like The Iliad, is primarily a story of war, The Ramayana is a more “folkloristic” adventure, full of monsters and enchantments but also with more elaborate and subtle scenes of domestic life, and thus might be considered somewhat analogous to The Odyssey. But there are far more differences than similarities, as one might expect from such different cultures. Again, I recommend William Buck’s abridged prose version.

Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat  [11th century]
      The Sufis have tried to claim Omar Khayyam as one of their own, but it is more likely that these poems are just what they seem to be: the expression of a very skeptical, unorthodox and worldly-wise individual. Savor the classic Edward FitzGerald translation, then if you’re interested compare it with one of the more modern and literal versions.

Arabian Nights [The Thousand and One Nights]  [ca. 14th century]
      For sheer wealth and variety of escapist entertainment, this is one of the greatest collections of stories ever put together. It incorporates more than a thousand years of tales from all over the Middle East and in some cases even from India. The stories are far more “adult” (in both senses of the word) than you might suppose if you read only a children’s version of Aladdin or Ali Baba. Be sure to get an unexpurgated edition. The two volumes of selections translated by Husain Haddawy are the most accurate. The Arabian Nights: Norton Critical Edition includes most of those Haddawy translations plus a lot of interesting essays. If you want more, you can delve into one of the complete editions. Richard Burton’s, the most widely reproduced, is vigorous but sometimes rather eccentric. (Burton’s own life, incidentally, was also a series of incredible adventures — see Edward Rice’s biography, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton.)

Albert Cossery, Novels  [1913-2008]
      This remarkable Egyptian author moved to France and wrote in French, but his eight short novels all take place in the Middle East. Perfectly narrated with wry irony, they mostly concern the submerged multitude, beggars, thieves, prostitutes, itinerant artisans, small-time merchants, living out their lives in the slums and markets of Cairo. The first and still one of the best is Men God Forgot. Occasionally, most notably in The Jokers (La violence et la dérision) and A Splendid Conspiracy, a few of the characters concoct subtle pranks to play on the ruling powers. But for the most part they just hang out. The Lazy Ones is in fact about a family of which most of the members do almost literally nothing whatsoever. Scarcely more active are the protagonists of Proud Beggars or the inhabitants of The House of Certain Death, an ancient tenement which is liable to collapse at any moment and which is clearly a symbol of the old social order, rotten to the core and ready to fall if the perennial “wretched of the earth” ever really revolt. The seventh novel (the only one that has not been translated), Une ambition dans le désert, takes place in a Gulf oil sheikdom. The last one, The Colors of Infamy, which returns to the usual Cairo setting, is distinctly shorter than the others and was probably brought to a premature conclusion due to Cossery’s terminal illness.

B. Traven, The Death Ship  [1934]
      Traven was such a secretive person that until recent years it was not known who he really was. Extensive research finally revealed that he was originally a German anarchist who escaped from Germany following the repression of the post-World War I revolutionary movements. After some wanderings he ended up in Mexico, where he lived the rest of his life in seclusion, using an amusingly large number of different assumed names. (This is the view presented in Will Wyatt’s The Secret of the Sierra Madre: The Man Who Was B. Traven. I believe that this view is now generally accepted, although other books and articles have espoused somewhat different theories.) The Death Ship is a superb hard-boiled narrative about a down-and-out American sailor, stranded in the ports of Europe, who is shanghaied onto a death ship — i.e. a dilapidated old ship that the owners plan to sink in order to collect the insurance. Only the officers are let in on the secret. In order to make it look like an accident, the crew must be kept in the dark (and will thus go down with the ship). . . .
      Most of Traven’s other novels are based on Mexican revolutionary history (particularly in Chiapas, which was already a hotbed of revolt over a century ago). Try The Rebellion of the Hanged or General from the Jungle. Another excellent but more apolitical novel is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude  [1967]
      A fascinating novel, generally considered the masterpiece of Latin American “magical realism.”


Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms (Ken Knabb, 2004).

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