The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

As good as riding a camel

LALLA ROOKH: An Oriental Romance (Rupa, Rs 195) by Thomas Moore is born out of the Romantic movement’s fascination with the East. From Purchas to Tavernier, accounts of travels in the Orient would be devoured, and all of them fed into works like Lalla Rookh, since none of the poets had direct knowledge of the East. Moore himself relates how, Colonel W—s (“the historian of British India”), when told that the poet of Lalla Rookh “had never been in the East”, remarked: “That shows me that reading over D’Herbelot is as good as riding on the back of a camel.” The claims to authenticity are very much in evidence: while Coleridge’s Abyssinian maid plays on the dulcimer, Moore’s “little Persian maid” sings sweetly to the vina. Only the grandeur and scale of Oriental courts could be commensurate with the high narrative ambitions of the poet.

The Enchanted Isles (Hesperus, £ 5.99) by Herman Melville is a series of sketches written after Melville’s 1841 tour of the Galapagos islands — incidentally, a year after Darwin’s visit. The islands, a cross between Prospero’s island and the Bermuda Triangle, are described as “Darke, dolefull, dreary, like a greedy grave/ That still for carrion carcasses doth crave”. But not without a dash of humour: “...tortoises...are of such a make that if you but put them on their backs you thereby expose their bright sides...Enjoy the bright, keep it turned up perpetually if you can, but be honest, and don’t deny the black.”

The Alchemist (HarperCollins, Rs 195) by Paulo Coelho is a modern fable, in the manner of The Little Prince and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The hero is Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who dreams of travelling in distant lands. He sets out from his home in Spain and, following the omens as the King had asked him to do, journeys to Tangiers and Egypt. It is in the deserts of Egypt that he meets the alchemist. “The story teaches us” — no points for guessing — about “listening to our hearts, learning to read omens strewn along life’s path and above all, following our dreams.”


The Golden Cage (Sterling, Price not mentioned) compiled by Safia Siddiqi translates 12 Urdu short stories by Asian women in Britain. The writers range from organic chemistry postgraduates to employees of BBC’s Urdu Service. Some of the stories give sensitive portrayals of expatriate life. But most are the women’s magazine fare. The illustrations, redundant as they are, resemble badly executed Hindi film posters.

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