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April 01, 2005

The Secret of Laughter - Shusha Guppy

Posted by Douglas Murray

The Secret of Laughter: Fairytales and Folktales from Ancient Persia
by Shusha Guppy
Pp. 200. London: I. B. Tauris, 2005
Hardback, 19.95

The literary world is awash with pointless books. Fat novels which can't disguise their thin-ness of purpose; arm-breaking biographies either so dry no one can finish them, or so dumbed-down that one can barely begin them; puffed-up memoirs by people best forgotten, and perhaps worst of all books by literary types apparently written for no other reason than to get a book out that year and keep 'stock' high. In this often rather bleak literary scene, Shusha Guppy is an exception and an oasis, seeming to have known from the outset those twin truisms, that brevity is always best, and that books should only be written if they need to be written.

Guppy's memoir of her Persian childhood, The Blindfold Horse, is a case in point. That book, which has long held the status of classic, has recently been reprinted yet again, and every economical page explains why. It remains the perfect memoir, and one of the best books for acquainting readers with Persia under the Shah. A further volume of memoirs (A Girl in Paris) followed, as (in 2001), did a small travel volume Three Journeys in the Levant. Her book of classic interviews with the literary grand dames of the twentieth Century (Looking Back) hitherto completed the list of Guppy's bound work.

But now IB Tauris have brought out an addition to the Guppy oeuvre, and a more charming, alluring and unique book will not be published this - or any other - year. The Secret of Laughter is a 200-page treasury of 'Magical Tales from Classical Persia' which Guppy heard as a young girl and which she re-tells here in her own unobtrusive and entrancing words. It was her friend Ted Hughes who urged Guppy to write this book during a conversation about his renditions of Ovid, and The Secret of Laughter is indeed a kind of Metamorphosis from Persia, full of magic and strangeness.

Two of the tales Guppy selects to tell appear in Firdowsi's Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) and Rumi's Masnavi, but the rest have remained only in memory and would, as Guppy says in her foreword, "disappear if unrecorded".

What makes the tales all the more wonderful is that they are told in the easy style in which Guppy first heard them as a child - ordered and conversational, free-flowing yet structured. In her foreword, Guppy gives an intriguing glimpse of the style in which these stories would originally have been heard:

In bad weather, the naaqal (a professional story-teller) performed in the chai-khaneh [tea house] in the village Bazaar, often for no other gain than the pleasure of entertaining the clients and cheering their spirits. I once heard a naaqal in a tea house in Isfahan tell the tragic story of the great hero Rustam the Achilles of Persian mythology and Sohrab whom he killed in battle, only to discover too late that Sohrab was in fact his long-lost and only son. There were tears in every eye in the audience as he described the fatally wounded young Sohrab dying in his father's arms, extolled his purity and courage, and conjured up Rustam, the invulnerable hero before whom the strongest warriors trembled, crumbling in lamentation; and then the final redemption as the armies of both sides laid down their arms to mourn.
But if the tradition of the naaqal seems remote to us now, redolent of a more creative, pre-television, era, it is resurrected by Guppy here, complete with wry asides to the reader-listener. So in the title story we are introduced to the character of Shoja (who must find the secret of laughter for the melancholic King in order to marry his daughter) and Shoja's mother. We are told of attempts by local mothers to marry off their daughters to the attractive Shoja. Guppy tells us by way of explanation:
In those days marriages were arranged between families; it was not like today when parents are lucky if they are invited to the wedding.
Each story is filled with this kind of charm and humour, but also wisdom and profundity, all the while reminding us not just of the difference in outlook of that time, but also of the similarity of the human condition across the ages. In a time when the natural elements directed one's fate rather more than they do today, The Secret of Laughter reminds us through tales of magic and humour that the elements of the mind and the heart nevertheless remain - stubbornly and encouragingly familiar and insuperable. As Guppy says, these tales:
encourage hope and optimism about the future, and strengthen faith in Providence and in human resourcefulness, rare treasures in our doubting, uncertain times.
These tales and this book do exactly that. At a time when much fiction is mired in drudgery and grime, this book appears, appropriately, like a burst of relieving magic. During a period when so many books are interminable and forgettable, The Secret of Laughter is regrettably brief but repeatedly memorable. And, during a time when the drums of civilizational difference sometimes beat louder than necessary, Shusha Guppy's gem of a book reminds us how much our worlds have in common, recalls what they have lost, and brings us - even for a moment - fractionally closer to comprehending the essence of each other.

Douglas Murray is a bestselling author and freelance journalist. His forthcoming book - Neoconservatism: Why We Need It - will be published this autumn by the Social Affairs Unit.

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