Sunday, July 09, 2023

Fortnightly Book, July 9

 James Justinian Morier (1782-1849) was a member of the British diplomatic service, involved in the diplomatic mission to Iran during the Qajar dynasty. He also spent some time serving as secretary to Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ilchi during his trip to England, and tried -- futilely -- to convince Ilchi to let him translate his journal of the trip. Morier eventually published his own journals, but his tendency toward sarcasm seems to have irritated more than few Persians, including perhaps Ilchi himself, so due to Persian objections, Morier ended up being passed over for diplomatic post for which he had hoped. (His career in the diplomatic mission was fairly unimpressive, so that may also have been a factor.) It seems to have been at this time that he wrote the work with which his name has ever since been associated, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824), which will be the next fortnightly book. It is a scathing satire of Persian culture during the Qajar dynasty, and the Iranian government lodged a formal protest over the work. It wasn't an instant bestsellter in England, but it sold, and continued to sell, and was read more and more widely. It eventually became standard reading for the diplomatic mission to Iran; Westerners are particularly susceptible to the temptation of thinking that there is some text out there that when read unlocks the secret to a foreign culture. In any case, the English-speaking world loved the book. He wrote a sequel that tried to tone down the harshness of the criticism of Persian culture and give the English themselves a bit of a satirical look, but nobody seems to have been convinced and it has never been regarded as highly. 

However surprising it may be, the book had Iranian interest; some Iranians read it in French translation, and there were attempts here and there to make a translation of it into Farsi. The Persian translation was finally published by the poet Mirza Habib Isfahani (who himself had been forced to leave Iran due to satirizing government figures) in 1905. Isfahani's translation is widely seen as a work of art in itself, and it was a big hit among reformers and westernizers in Persian society, who saw in Isfahani's version of Morier's satire a thorough critique of the things that frustrated them about the Persian culture of their day. Becoming a Persian classic is an unexpected end for a book about how Persia is filled with dishonest rascals, published by a mediocre English diplomat in fit of pique against the Persian government, but such is the history of literature.

The version I am reading is from my grandfather's library. Surprisingly, it's not a Heritage Press edition; there was one, but mine is older. It's a 1937 Book-of-the-Month Club edition by Random House. The title page gives full (and justified) honors to the artist, Cyrus Le Roy Baldridge, who designed the whole book, giving it a multitude of extremely diverse illustrations. The cover is a reproduction, printed on buckram, of what looks like an oil painting. The print is English Monotype Bell on wove paper. The book also has a preface by Christopher Morley.