Reviewed in this essay: Scorpion Soup, by Tahir Shah. Secretum Mundi Publishing, 2013.
Fast on the heels of his eerily timed epic, Timbuctoo, travel writer Tahir Shah delivers a fantastical new work of fiction drawn from the deepest wellsprings of human imagination. Scorpion Soup is a collection of stories-within-stories inspired by the Arabic masterpiece One Thousand and One Nights. The book employs a literary device known as “the frame story” in which one tale is recounted within another, resulting in a multi-dimensional narrative of never-ending twists and turns.
Shah, an Anglo-Afghan author living in Morocco, hails from a family steeped in an ancient tradition of eastern storytelling. In Scorpion Soup he resurrects the ancient literary device of his forebears, reminding us in the introduction that tales are a kind of magical machinery that can “alter states of mind and change the way we think.”
The book begins in a Barbary slave camp in the North African town of Oran – a setting taken straight out of Shah’s previous work. A Levantine sailor, captured by pirates and marched through the desert, finds himself chained to a wall with other brutalized captives awaiting ransom or death. Beaten and starved, the prisoner finds solace in a tale told to him in a faint whisper by the man lying beside him.
So begins the mesmerizing flight through the interwoven worlds that form the backdrop to Shah’s tales. The author upends reality by shuffling its components, reworking its very DNA, to the tune of new possibilities. The reader is led into engrossing realms featuring Da Vinci-esque machines, talking animals, doorways leading into parallel dimensions and grotesque, monstrous djinn that may be some of the most frightening in all of literature. In this strange multi-verse, time and space cease their simplistic, predictable trajectories. The reader is awash in an entirely new experience.
Though distant and alien, Scorpion Soup’s worlds are somehow reminiscent of our own. The all-too-familiar scent of human folly can be discerned wafting above the narrative’s steaming broth. In “The Singing Snakes,” a cat in search of its destiny visits the land of dogs, whose friendly denizens are possessed by an irrational fear of singing snakes – animals which they’ve never seen; in “The Man Whose Arms Grew Branches,” an Icelandic woodcutter, ignoring a dire warning from a bird, continues to wantonly chop down trees until he is transformed into a giant oak; while in “The Most Foolish of Men” an imbecile king holds a stupidity contest which is won by a clever vagabond named Yousef, whose winning display of behaviour is to hold a mirror to the king’s face.
In the same way Yousef mocks the King, Shah’s tales seem to reveal much about ourselves. And there is reason for this. Though tipping its hat to the Arabian Nights, Scorpion Soup is also an ode to a wider tradition. For over a millennium, savants in the Middle East and Central Asia (and their predecessors in other cultures) have used stories to transmit patterns of knowledge to individuals and cultures. Tradition asserts that, beyond serving an entertainment function, many such tales are in fact a refined form of technology, encapsulating elements designed to develop the mind of the reader, or listener.
For this reason, the title of Shah’s book – taken from one of its tales – is not impertinent. Readers used to straightforward narratives, clean endings, and simplistic morals will feel the sting of Scorpion Soup’s unusual structure. The book follows no conventions other than its own. Such discomfort, Shah might argue, is merely one of the more obvious impacts of the stories on the reader.
The limited print edition of Scorpion Soup, self-published and containing 10 beautiful maps taken from William Blaeu’s 17th Century Atlas Maior, is a treasure. It has the look, feel and the richness a of well-used writing journal brimming with the accoutrements of personal archaeology. To immerse oneself in its pages is to be catapulted out of the familiar, and into the furthest reaches of a foreign landscape. In this sense, Tahir Shah, now a wordsmith of fiction, remains utterly true to his travel writing roots.