“The Black Book of One Thousand and One Nights”: Sir Richard Burton’s Erotic “Nights”

“The Black Book of One Thousand and One Nights. Notes on the manners and customs of the Orient” (The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night), by Sir Richard Francis Burton, translated and annotated by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, preceded by “All the ways of being a man that men know”, by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, Le Cherche Midi, 480 p., €22.90, digital €16.

He was, it is said, one of the models of the Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). With the dark crotch of his long mustache, his cheeks punctured by a Somali spear, his Tartar cheekbones and the darting fury of his cannon-mouthed gaze, the explorer, soldier, diplomat, linguist and writer Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890 ) was in any case one of the living myths of the Victorian era. An incredible monster of intellectual voracity, erotic ardor and exploratory fury, who left at his death thirty-nine travelogues, from India to Utah, fourteen translations including those, complete, of Thousand and one NightKama-sutra or poems by Luis de Camoes, five scholarly editions, including therose garden of Saadi, and a bayonet combat manual which the Prussian general staff hastened to have translated.

From the incredible bibliography of this “devil of a man”, title of the excellent biography by Fawn Brodie (Libretto, 2011), were only available until now a few mediocre transpositions of his travels. That is to say that we all stand up for this One Thousand and One Nights Black Booksulphurous essay that the novelist and archaeologist Jean-Marie Blas de Robles offers us in a complete and perfect version, both for its inspired translation and for its erudite introduction.

Discovery of Mecca

Started in Torquay (Devon), where he was born to an officer father and an aristocratic mother, concluded by a cardiac arrest in Trieste where the British crown had ended up storing the one who had lived “all the ways of being a man that men know” (Borges), the sixty-nine years of earthly life of Richard Francis Burton were an attempt to exhaust the human wealth of the planet. After a cramped childhood in the Loire Valley, where his aberrant capacity for linguistic assimilation already appears – at his death, he will speak thirty-five languages! – he spent his adolescence in Naples – he was prevented there in extremis from descending in a basket into the crater of Vesuvius – and in Pisa, where he transformed the brothels into boxing rings. Father reprimands him – might as well go up the straps to a cataract – and tries to educate him by sending him to Oxford to study theology. It is, alas, Arabic that interests him, a language ignored by the house programs. No matter, he learns it alone, inventing his own system of transposition.

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“The Black Book of One Thousand and One Nights”: Sir Richard Burton’s Erotic “Nights”