Voices of the Desert: A novel


From one of Brazil’s most beloved writers, a magical tale of lust, power, betrayal, and forgiveness set in the royal court of thirteenth-century Baghdad: a sumptuous retelling of the legend of Scheherazade that illuminates her character as never before. In exquisite prose, Nélida Piñon transports us from the Caliph’s private sanctum to the crowded streets of the forbidden marketplace, to the high seas of imagination, and to Scheherazade’s innermost life, as she weaves her tales ...
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From one of Brazil’s most beloved writers, a magical tale of lust, power, betrayal, and forgiveness set in the royal court of thirteenth-century Baghdad: a sumptuous retelling of the legend of Scheherazade that illuminates her character as never before. In exquisite prose, Nélida Piñon transports us from the Caliph’s private sanctum to the crowded streets of the forbidden marketplace, to the high seas of imagination, and to Scheherazade’s innermost life, as she weaves her tales night after night.

As the novel opens, the Caliph, betrayed by the Sultana, vows to take his revenge on the women of his kingdom by marrying a different virgin each night and executing her at dawn. Born into privilege, a daughter of the Vizier, Scheherazade decides to risk her life by marrying the Caliph, in an effort to save the women of Baghdad.

Every evening, in an amorous battle devoid of love, Scheherazade succumbs to the Caliph’s advances, and every night, with the help of her devoted sister Dinazarda and her loyal slave Jasmine, she entices the Caliph with her storytelling, unfurling accounts from the desert, the tundra, the bazaar, the golden-domed mosques. Scheherazade gives herself entirely to her characters, speaking as both man and woman, capturing the call of the muezzin, the speech of the caravans, the voices of the scattered tribes from the Red Sea to Damascus. The Caliph, unable to sate his curiosity, prolongs her life each day, desperate to hear how her stories will end. As Scheherazade brings him the tales of his people, he begins to question his cruel mandate and his own hardened heart, until, finally, Scheherazade discovers how to live out her story in a way that not even she could have imagined.

Here, for the first time, is the story of One Thousand and One Nights told from Scheherazade’s perspective, giving us the full breadth and depth of her longings and desires, her jealousies and resentments. Voices of the Desert is the ancient story reinvented—as a woman’s story, an erotic allegory, a haunting meditation on the power of storytelling.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Brazilian author Piñon (Caetana’s Sweet Song) returns with a new interpretation of Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights, this time told from Scheherazade’s point of view. In ancient Baghdad, with the cuckolded caliph avenging his wife’s betrayal by marrying a new virgin daily and beheading her the following morning, the young high-born Scheherazade plans to end this violent cycle. After ceding to the caliph’s methodical advances on their wedding night, Scheherazade asks permission to tell him a story. With her sister Dinazarda and the slave girls Djauara and Jasmine complicit in the scheme, Scheherazade tells her magnificent tales, each cliffhanger buying her another day. Instead of narrating the tales themselves, Piñon’s elegantly translated prose focuses on her characters’ passions, desires and obsessions in a world where the veiled females are powerful and powerless, demure yet erotic. Emphasizing the paradoxical nature of this existence, Piñon’s treatment of sexuality is at once clinical and kinky, and her frequent inversion of sexual power structures serves as the psychoanalytic motivation for her divergent rendering of the legend’s conclusion. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Piñon (The Republic of Dreams) here retells One Thousand and One Nights from Scheherezade's point of view. First isolated in her father's palace, then in that of the Caliph, Scheherezade surrounds herself with people who have access to the outside world. A magical storyteller from childhood, she weaves what she's heard of 13th-century Baghdad with travelers' tales from around the world to create her own enchanted stories. We see Scheherezade as a courageous young woman who, with her sister and the slave Jasmine, uses creativity against a very real threat of impending death. Veils, clothes, and gossip all feed the nightly labyrinthine tales amid a background of intrigue, lust, and power. VERDICT This is more than a story, of course; it's as much a meditation on feminism, eroticism, and the art of narrative. Most appealing to readers looking not for a quick and entertaining read but a novel of ideas. —Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, Or
Kirkus Reviews
Brazilian novelist Pi-on (Caetana's Sweet Song, 1992, etc.) forcefully brings out the erotic element in Scheherazade's difficult and delicate situation as she spins the stories of One Thousand and One Nights to the Caliph of Baghdad. The Caliph, it seems, found his wife in flagrante delicto with a slave and had her executed. Then he began to serially bed young women and have them killed immediately thereafter. Scheherazade, younger daughter of the Vizier, sets herself the task of breaking the chain of evil the Caliph has started. As we all know, her plan involves spinning out tales that catch his jaded imagination, tales so cunning and creative that he'll keep her alive for another night, and another, and yet another. Of necessity Scheherazade "perfects the art of overlapping stories" and becomes "master of meager time." Part of the price she pays, however, is the sex she must have every night with the Caliph, joyless couplings that disclose the state of his ennui. Joining Scheherazade at the Caliph's palace, and at times colluding with her, are her older sister Dinazarda, whose emotions exist somewhere in the zone between envy and resentment, and their slave Jasmine, who intrigues to rise in the hierarchy of kitchen and stables. Both women discreetly withdraw when the nocturnal moment of sexual reckoning arrives. Ultimately, of course, Scheherazade becomes an allegory of the artist, spinning webs of words to capture the imagination. Toward the end of her storytelling tenure, Scheherazade grows weary and orchestrates a substitute bedmate for the Caliph, the first step on her road to freedom, though she has to find a substitute for her narrative art as well. Along the way she wonderswhether it might not be preferable for the Caliph, "as a personal favor, to decree her death as a way to free herself from her destitute life."Emphasizing the teller rather than the tales, the author weaves an intricate narrative of aesthetics and sexual politics.
The Barnes & Noble Review
The re-imagining of fictional characters as a literary trope has given us startling new perspectives on a host of supporting players. For instance, as protagonist in Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette trumps her successor, Jane Eyre, as a sensitive woman buffeted by circumstance and convention. Now Scheherazade takes her own sinuous turn in the spotlight in the pages of Nélida Piñon's seductive and accomplished Voices of the Desert. Scheherazade's tales of romance, adventure, and intrigue have captivated imaginations for centuries, but not much is known about the woman behind those thousand and one nights of storytelling. Piñon deftly lifts this veil of obscurity and presents a portrait of a gifted young girl whose generosity will birth legends. As the privileged daughter of one of the Caliph's most trusted advisors, Scheherazade witnesses the incredible cruelty of the cuckolded ruler firsthand as he exacts revenge on his cheating wife by killing her, as well as an ensuing daily succession of young virgins brought to his bed. Determined to save more girls from this fate, Scheherazade bets on the power of her stories and offers herself next. Though the caliph is incapable of love, he's mesmerized by the silken whispers of Scheherazade that command the voices of slaves, genies, nomads, and thieves. This, coupled with dramatic descriptions of Baghdad's bazaars, the desert, and the world beyond, allows the caliph to experience and understand his realm, its subjects, and, ultimately, himself -- without ever leaving the palace. Piñon's hypnotic prose employs the repetition and cadence of storytellers in the oral tradition. By peeling back layer after layer of Scheherazade's psyche, Voices of the Desert transcends the social landscape of 13th-century Persia to reveal timeless lessons about the tensile strength of the human heart and the art of soulful narrative. --Lydia Dishman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307266675
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/4/2009
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.94 (w) x 8.66 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Nélida Piñon is a native of Rio de Janeiro, where she still lives. A former professor at the University of Miami, she has also been a visiting writer at Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, and Johns Hopkins. The recipient of numerous literary awards, in 1996 she became the first woman elected president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters.
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