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Andrew Killeen’s blog

Taking a leak in old Baghdad

One of the biggest problems for a historical novelist is language change; and the more distant your setting from the reader, the greater the challenge. If you are trying to mimic the authentic English of your period, then you can only go back as far as the mid-nineteenth century before comprehension starts to become a real issue. Although we can still read and understand Shakespeare, it would be a brave novelist who attempted to write in his style. And once you get beyond Caxton and the standardisation brought in by printing, English fractures into a mosaic of regional dialects. (Compare, for example, the works of Chaucer and the Gawain poet, writing around the same time but with huge variations in vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation.)

Geographical distance is as problematic as chronological. The Translation Convention applies of course, a set of rules understood unconsciously by readers in which the main language of the characters is accepted to transform magically into the language of the reader. Robert Graves makes cunning use of this in I, Claudius; he tells us that Claudius’s memoir was written in Greek, and this allows him to explain and translate Latin words. The convention is fragile though, and it is easy to jolt the reader out of their immersion with a single ill-chosen word.

I was blithely unaware of these challenges when I set about compounding them by writing two novels set in Baghdad in the 8th and 9th centuries. My characters speak mainly Arabic, but also Latin, Greek, Chinese, Sinhala, and a variety of other tongues. Even if I wanted to render their speech in the English of the period, I couldn’t; because at the time, the English language itself was only a twinkle in the eye of its Anglo-Saxon and Norman French parents.

As soon as I began to grapple with the issue, I decided I didn’t want my characters pritheeing and forsoothing all over the place. One of the ideas that interested me was that we are more united by our humanity than we are divided by cultural and religious differences, and I wanted my characters to feel and talk like contemporary people. On the other hand, I also wanted to create a setting which was exotically, even intoxicatingly different from the one we know, and didn’t want jarring modern language to break the spell.

The process was not always under my conscious control. It is impossible not to pick up elements of style from your sources, and I was influenced in my vocabulary choices by C.E. Bosworth’s translation of al-Tabari’s History, as well as the Mardrus/ Mathers version of The Thousand and One Nights, which gave me the marvellous word “zabb” for the male member.

In time I developed two rules to guide me. One was that any word first attested by the OED prior to 1914 was probably fair game. This rule was subordinate to the second, which I thought of as “no digital watches”: no references to any technology or artefact which was anachronistic or culturally inappropriate. English, as I discovered, is riddled with the terminology of theatre: people “wait in the wings”, before “taking the stage” to “play their part”. Medieval Islam, although familiar with storytelling and puppet shows, had no tradition of theatre, and would have found it alien and baffling, so all those metaphors had to be ruthlessly expunged. Little details such as these seemed important to me in developing a feel of authenticity.

Despite all my efforts though, I still fell foul of the stern eye of Eric at Dedalus, and “too modern” was a familiar marking on my manuscripts. Generally I changed the offending words without demur, but matters came to a head over an act of micturition.

In The Khalifah’s Mirror, one character complained to another: “If I so much as take a leak, he knows about it before I can shake off the drops.” Too modern and American sounding, came the comment. But Eric, I protested, it’s in Shakespeare! Henry IV Part 1, Act 2, scene 1: “Why, they will allow us ne’er a jordan, and then we leak in your chimney, and your chamber-lye breeds fleas like a loach.” My protests were in vain. Defiant, I clung to my leak throughout the lengthy process of editing, during which the novel went through countless drafts, restructuring and retitling; but the leak remained.

In the end though, in the final revision before the book went to be typeset, I changed it. Why? Because to the reader, it doesn’t matter how old the word is; all that matters is how old it sounds. Fiction is the art of creating a wonderful illusion, like stage magic, with which it shares some techniques of showmanship and misdirection. To paraphrase Bob Monkhouse, it’s authenticity that counts; if you can fake that, you can fake anything. And so, ultimately, the leak had to go.

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