Saturday, July 22, 2023

James Morier, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan


Opening Passage:

My father, Kerbelai Hassan, was one of the most celebrated barbers of Ispahan. He was married, when only seventeen years of age, to the daughter of a chandler, who lived in the neighbourhood of his shop; but the connexion was not fortunate, for his wife brought him no offspring, and he, in consequence, neglected her. His dexterity in the use of the razor had gained for him, together with no little renown, such great custom, particularly among merchants, that after twenty years' industry, he found he could afford to add a second wife to his harem; and succeeded in obtaining the daugther of a rich moneychanger, whose head he had shaved, during that period, with so much success, that he made no difficulty in granting his daughter to my father. In order to get rid, for a while, of the importunities and jealousy of his first wife, and also to acquire the good opinion of his father-in-law (who, althoguh noted for clipping moeny, and passing it for lawful, affected to be a saint), he undertook a pilgrimage to the tomb of Hosein, at Kerbelah. He took his new wife with him, and she was delivered of me on the road. Before the journey took place he was generally known, simply as 'Hassan the barber'; but ever after he was hnooured by the epithet of Kerbelai; and I, to please my mother, who spoilt me, was call Hajji or the pilgrim, a name which has stuck to me through life, and procured fro me a great deal of unmerited respect; because, in fact, that honoured title is seldom conferred on any but those who have made the great pilgrimage to the tomb of the blessed Prophet of Mecca. (pp. 5-6)

Summary: Born on the road, it is unsurprising that Hajji Baba spends his life is a life of restless motion. Having learned the barber's trade from his father, as well as all the jokes and stories one might learn in a barber's shop in Ispahan, Hajji Baba attracts the attention of a Turkish merchant, Osman Agha, and goes on the road with him. Their caravan is attacked by bandits, however; some are killed, Osman Agha and others are sold off as slaves, and Hajji Baba's life is only spared because of his talent as a barber. The bandits themselves are eventually attacked by an armed guard for a Persian prince, and Hajji Baba is captured. He eventually ends up in Meshed, where he becomes a water vendor, selling dirty water to pilgrims with a sales patter that promises that it is holy water. He does well enough that he is able to upgrade his business to become a tobacconist, selling tobacco leaf heavily adulterated with dung; he has a knack for reading a man, so he does very well in being able to assess whether a man is connoisseur enough to tell the difference, and so he manages to last a bit longer than one might expect. Through this trade, he meets the Dervish Sefer, and is able to learn an even more lucrative trade, providing spiritual guidance and assistance, and occasionally manufacturing miracles, for the gullible. However, his actions as a tobacconist lead to punishment and a need to leave the city.

Heading for Teheran, Hajji Baba meets with a courier; he steals the courier's horse and arrives in Teheran, delivering the messages as if he himself were the courier. This puts him into a position where he gains the favor of the court physician, which in turn puts him in a position to become the Shah's executioner. Both of these positions were important and prestigious ones, but they were both unpaid -- the expectation being that the clever man will not need to be paid to fill the position because he will find ways to use the position to get money. Hajji Baba does well enough, but it does not take very long before he gets into some trouble over one of the Shah's harem girls, and has to flee to the holy city of Koom. There his dervish training becomes useful, and by luck it even resolves his outstanding problem with the Shah when the Shah makes a pilgrimage to the holy city and circumstances lead to Hajji Baba being pardoned.

Back in Ispahan, Hajji Baba discovers that his father has died; it takes some doing to get it, but his inheritance from his father helps him to set himself up as a scribe. This leads to his meeting Mollah Nadan; the mullah is setting up a marriage market and needs a clever man to run it. Islamic law technically allows for temporary marriages; in orthodox Islamic law itself, the conditions for this are quite restrictive, but where there is a law, there are people using it as cover for a scam. Mollah Nadan's marriage market is illegal, but it allows people to do illegal things with just enough covering of technicalities to prevent them from immediately looking like they are illegal. The marriage market is potentially very lucrative, but it requires a delicate balance and a bit of cunning. Hajji Baba discovers that all of the women he is given to supervise as a marriage broker are ugly, and one is the former wife of the court physician. At around this time, he ends up meeting Osman Agha again, and with a bit of luck and ingenuity finds a way to trick him into marrying one of the women.

The marriage brokering career ends, too, however, when Mollah Nadan falls from grace and has to leave the city with Hajji Baba. Hajji Baba sneaks back into the city to see if any of Mollah Nadan's property can be salvaged, but discovers Mollah Bashi, who had been a key player in Mollah Nadan's fall, dead in his bath (apparently by ordinary accident). He is afraid that he will be charged with murder, but also sees an opportunity and seizes it -- he takes the mullah's clothes and goes around collecting money owed to Mollah Bashi. Mollah Nadan eventually discovers what he is doing, and makes Hajji Baba trade clothes. Hajji Baba's luck has held again, because Mollah Nadan is seized, arrested, and charged with the murder of Mollah Bashi. Hajji Baba, now flush with cash, decides to become a merchant. Things get dicey when people realize that he is one of the suspects for Mollah Bashi's murder, but he is saved again when bandits attack the caravan. He escapes to Baghdad, where he meets Osman Agha again. Together they invest in the pipe-stick trade.

Hajji Baba has in the meantime convinced a wealthy widow to marry him, and done so by pretending his expected future profits were wealth already in hand; this inevitably will end badly. However, he happens to fall in with the Persian ambassador, who, having found him useful in a bit of espionage against the English and French diplomatic delegations, arranges to have Hajji Baba receive a position in a diplomatic mission to England, as a mizra or secretary. Thus Mizra Hajji Baba returns to Ispahan to prepare for his mission, an important man on his way to wealth, his life as a con man having perfectly fitted him to be a diplomat.

 I tend not to like picaresque on its own. In a picaresque novel, of course, the inevitable assumption is that you are either a con artist or a gullible mark, or, as often happens both, and this is not an exception. It mostly rides on Hajji Baba's ability to con the reader as well as he cons his marks. And it's common (and this work is also no exception) that such novels are highly episodic. It's very difficult to care much about the overall story of Hajji Baba, in part because you never really get what the overall story is until one discovers at the end that it's all an origin story explaining how a man becomes a diplomat. That itself is a good joke, and gives additional meaning to everything that has happened to the protagonist, but it's a light frame. Hajji Baba is often charming, though, and there are many amusing episodes, so it was interesting to read. 

Favorite Passage: There are several sub-stories in the work, and one of them in the middle of the work, is set off by itself as its own story, "The Story of the Baked Head", told by a dervish friend of Hajji Baba; in the edition I have, it has different-colored pages and its own distinct page numbers.

I have much curtailed the story, particularly where Mansouri proceeds to relate to teh Sultan the fate of the head, because, had I given it with all the details the dervish did, it would have been over long. Indeed I have confined myself as much as possible to the outline; for to have swelled the narrative with the innumerable digressions of my companion a whole volume would not have contained it. The art of a story-teller (and it is that which marks a man of genius) is to make his tale interminable, and still to interest his audience. So the dervish assured me; and added, that with the materials of the onewhich I have attempted to repeat, he would bind himself to keep talking for a whole moon, and still have something to say. ("The Story of the Baked Head" p. 13)

Recommendation: Recommended; I found it a bit uneven, but there are excellent parts.


James Morier, The Adventures of Hajji Baba, Random House Inc. (New York: 1937).