Sunday, January 06, 2013

Noted British explorer serves up literary appetiser

Vikram and the Vampire; Classic Hindu Tales of Adventure, Magic, and Romance
Richard Francis Burton (Author), Isabel Burton (Editor)
Fiction 134 pages

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton translated 10 volumes of the Arabian Nights proper, plus half as many volumes of supplemental material. However, his translation of Vikram and the Vampire only includes 11 of the original 25 stories. Not only is it a quicker read, its writing style is far less archaic than that of the Arabian Nights translation. Even so, it does not read like a contemporary bestseller, but, then again, it’s old stuff, but that adds to its charm.

This collection of folk tales, written in Sanskrit, and compiled in the 11th century, is the oldest known work to showcase stories collected around a framing device. As such, it predates other framed story collections, including the Arabian Nights, the Decameron, and the Canterbury Tales, by several centuries.

Perhaps King Vikram should not have given his promise to the yogi. Now it’s too late to withdraw it. He has agreed to retrieve a corpse, but there’s a catch — the corpse is possessed by a baital (or vetala) — an Indian demon or vampire. On the chosen night, Vikram and his son enter the cemetery where they find the vampire hanging upside down from a tree limb. After some effort, they capture the vampire, but it escapes. The vampire then strikes a deal with Vikram: He’ll allow himself to be carried while telling a story, but at its conclusion, a riddle will be asked. Once Vikram answers correctly, the vampire escapes. And so, story after story is told through the long night until finally Vikram is stumped for an answer.

The stories are witty, satirical and fantastic. In one, three suitors attempt to animate the remains of their intended bride. One carries her ashes, another carries her bones, and a third recites an incantation to bring her back to life. If they succeed in reviving the beauty, which suitor will marry her? Vikram knows and so will we.

In another story, a thief laughs during his execution. Why? Again, Vikram knows the answer. Yet, the vampire has another answer. Regardless, Vikram’s answer is close enough to allow the vampire to escape. Once again, Vikram must retrieve him from the tree limb in which he hangs in bat-like fashion.

In a story about a learned scholar and his three sons, ‘atheist’ receives four definitions. Of these, the most common is that an atheist is someone whose beliefs are different from one’s own. A bit of philosophical meandering follows, and then there’s a speech, “so stuffed with erudition that even the writer hardly understood it.” Such excesses of scholarship can only result in disaster. After the inevitable occurs, Vikram correctly names which of the four is the greatest fool.

The final story takes place several hundred years after Vikram’s death. Pale-skinned invaders will come from the north to conquer Vikram’s kingdom with “fire weapon(s), large and small tubes, which discharge flame and smoke, and bullets … And instead of using swords and shields, they will fix daggers to the ends of their tubes, and thrust with them like lances.” This reference to British soldiers makes one wonder if the original author, possibly Somadeva, was prophetic, or if, as N. M. Penzer claimed in 1924, Burton embellished the original with fictions of his own.

At the conclusion of the final story, the vampire allows Vikram to take him to the yogi, but not without first revealing the yogi’s evil purpose and the means of his defeat. Does Vikram defeat the yogi? You will have to read it for yourself.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to comment about this post or about any topic that interests you. Comments that don't fit a post's topic will be displayed elsewhere. I review comments prior to publication and will not publish those which contain spam or foul language.