Rushdie and Mahfouz Spin Timely, Poignant Tales

DESPITE the end of a major threat to literary freedom with the demise of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the world is still not a safe place for writers.

No one is a more famous example of this than Salman Rushdie, still living in the shadow of a death sentence pronounced on him in 1989 by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. And just this past year in Egypt, the 83-year old Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz was attacked by a knife-wielding zealot as he left his home in his native Cairo.

Some of the stories in Rushdie's latest book, ``East, West,'' reflect - albeit indirectly - the tensions of a life overshadowed by the conflicting demands of notoriety and secrecy. Almost all of the stories deal with people who are, in one way or another, caught up in the conflicts and confluences of inhabiting the borderland between two worlds.

Three of the stories, grouped under the heading, ``East,'' are set on the Indian subcontinent. There is a touch of R. K. Narayan in the social comedy of the first two, a hint of the Arabian Nights dark fairy tale in the third.

The first story deals with a beautiful Pakistani woman awaiting an emigration permit to England and an officious old fellow who offers to help her cut through the red tape. What he does not realize is that she is actually very reluctant to leave her native land. The second story portrays the boundless optimism and naivete of a young rickshaw driver who believes, against much evidence, that he is destined for movie-stardom. In the third, a rich merchant's theft of a religious relic brings a stream of bad luck on him and his family.

The middle section of stories, ``West,'' includes ``Yorick,'' a jokey, convoluted retelling of ``Hamlet'' from the lips of the disgruntled court jester, and a second look at Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella that doesn't quite come off. Also, set in modern days, ``At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers,'' offers the dispiriting spectacle of a world where the only firmly held values seem to be those of the marketplace on the one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other, as all bidders compete for a piece of Hollywood memorabilia: ``The fundamentalists have openly stated that they are interested in buying the magic footwear only in order to to burn it, and this is not, in the view of the liberal Auctioneers, a reprehensible programme. What price tolerance if the intolerant are not tolerated also?'' the story asks.

The last three stories are classified as ``East, West.'' In one, a pair of Indian diplomats who are also spies tediously play out their childhood games of TV's ``Star Trek'' as grown men in a world quite as dangerous as their boyish fantasies. In another, we meet a Welsh academic who becomes dangerously obsessed with the occult, and his Indian-born friend who is alarmed by his friend's irrationality.

Concluding the collection is ``The Courter,'' a charming, ultimately sad story of the friendship between Mary, a 60-year old servant woman from India, and a kindly porter, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, both strangers to the London where they find themselves living in the 1960s. Their poignant story is narrated by the Indian-born son of the family Mary worked for. He confesses himself to be - despite his greater sophistication - in many ways as torn between his native and adopted lands as the simpler-hearted Mary is.

First published in Arabic in 1979 and just out in English, Naguib Mahfouz's ``Arabian Nights and Days'' represents another facet of the protean talents of a writer who has not only proved himself a master of social realism, but also a venturesome experimenter in other forms of fiction. At first, the interlocking stories making up this novel seem more convoluted than the ``Yorick'' version of ``Hamlet.'' But before long, a larger pattern emerges.

Loosely based on the medieval tales told by the legendary Scheherazade (translated here as ``Shahrzad'') to divert her sultan husband from his program of wife-execution, Mahfouz's ``Arabian Nights and Days'' retains the timeless setting and miraculous atmosphere of the original while raising timely questions about crime and punishment, political reform and corruption, and the role of storytelling in the search for truth and justice.

Mahfouz's novel begins with Shahrzad's success: The sultan has renounced his evil ways, but Shahrzad is uneasy about being married to a man who has spilled so much innocent blood. The sultan, however, claims to have been enlightened and entertained by her stories. The question hanging over the ensuing tales is whether or not he will indeed be able to reform himself - and his city.

Against this background, the stories unfold: Sindbad sets off to sail the seven seas; a corrupt police chief is ordered by a good genie to kill a bad governor; a pure-hearted virgin is tormented by dreams of forbidden love sent her way by an evil genie. Secret crimes are exposed and punished. Bad rulers are assassinated by holy warriors, only to be replaced by rulers who become corrupted.

Gradually, it appears that some progress is being made, both in the city and in the newly introspective, ever more conscientious heart of the sultan. Yet the novel ends on a melancholy note, suggesting that no sooner do human beings approach happiness and rectitude than they manage to find ways of straying from the path. Mahfouz has brilliantly employed a fairy-tale format in a work that ultimately demonstrates there are no instant solutions, like magic or murder, to ethical problems that require a deeper, more lasting kind of transformation: a change of heart.

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