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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh

Robert Irwin

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To purchase Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh

Title: Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh
Author: Robert Irwin
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997
Length: 140 pages
Availability: Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh - US
Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh - UK
Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh - Canada
Les coussins de prière de la chair - France
Der Prinz im Garten der Lust - Deutschland
El harén sublime - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Dedalus

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good, playfully exotic-erotic fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Libération . 16/12/1999 A.Iommi-Amunategui
Sunday Times . 26/10/1997 Trevor Lewis

  From the Reviews:
  • "Irwin l'orientaliste nous tient commodément en haleine avec ce récit, une haleine qu'il a préalablement chargée de fumées bizarres et d'épices. Le cul et la philo y fricotent comme dans un boudoir. La langue est riche elle aussi, on l'imagine épaissie d'avoir trop mariné dans sa geôle miniature. Alors les mots viennent de plus loin, plus longtemps, et laissent une traînée salement brillante. Ça schnouffe le renfermé génial. A lire les Coussins de prière de la chair, on se sent tel le voyeur qui assiste à un chef-d'oeuvre d'excitation. On se sent bien." - Antonin Iommi-Amunategui, Libération

  • "(A) wryly subversive and darkly erotic fable. (...) Irwin's mind-boggling ingenuity and tongue-in-cheek irreverence turn a slight, faintly risible novel into a truly exotic oddity." - Trevor Lewis, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh is an amusing send-up of the traditional 'Oriental'-exotic tale, set largely in a grand Imperial Harem.
       Orkhan is a prince, but for fifteen years -- since he was just five -- he has been locked, together with the empire's other princes -- seven others, when the novel opens --, in what is known as the Cage. Cut off from the rest of world, attended to only by some eunuchs, release from the Cage can have only one of two outcomes: sovereignty or death. The prince who is allowed out is destined either to become the next Sultan of this vast empire or perhaps be appointed a governor of one of its territories -- or he is to quickly be killed.
       When the novel opens, Orkhan is the second-oldest prince in residence. He has spent most of his conscious lifetime in this isolated waiting room -- dreaming, much of the time, of the nearby Harem, from which the voices of the women there sometimes carried to the Cage. He can only imagine that place -- "For an inhabitant of the Cage, thinking about women was a branch of speculative philosophy, since no woman had ever set foot in the accursed place" -- and await his fate.
       Just a week earlier one of the princes, Barak, had been released. It's unclear what might have happened to him: perhaps Sultan Selim had died, and Barak had been appointed his successor; perhaps Selim had become convinced Barak might be a threat and ordered him executed. Orkhan has no way of knowing .....
       Now, just a week after the door had opened for Barak, the door opens for Orkhan.
       He learns that Sultan Selim has, indeed, passed away -- though not what happened to Barak. He is, apparently, the most powerful man in the empire now -- and, he thinks, free. But as the Vizier who leads him out observes:

     Who has said that you were free ? You are not free. The Sultan is the least free of all mortals, being burdened with the cares of justice and government. The good sultan will always be a slave to his subject.
       The Vizier also notes that:
     You are master of the Empire from the Euphrates to the Danube and there is certainly much to do, but first you must be master of your Harem, for a man who cannot master his Harem cannot master himself, much less an empire.
       And, while Orkhan is certainly eager to ... sample the goods, becoming master of this particular harem, where the women have built up their own little world, is not as easy as it might sound. It's very quickly clear that he is also in way over his head. The world unto its own that is the Harem is a lot for Orkhan to take on, and the women there very much have their own ideas about doing things. Orkhan is easily but not necessarily happily seduced: as the Vizier also points out: "In this pllce promises are always kept. Alas, that they are almost never kept in the way one is expecting". Orkhan soon gets a lot of that .....
       The temptations now before Orkhan also poses dangers -- specifically, that from the sect of the Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh, which sees women as: " spirits, friendly demons of a kind" -- and where: "Women are men's prayer-cushions and intercourse with them prepares man for Mystical Union with the Divinity". The Vizier warns that such sex makes for: "the total destruction and remaking" of the man involved, for example.
       Orkhan is quite taken by the fantasy-land he finds himself in: it's:
as if the Harem had been conjured up out of the fantasies of the Princes in the Cage. It was as if the Harem was built of nothing more substantial than sexual dreams of the men who were its prisoners.
       Things -- and people -- here are, however not always what they seem, and Orkhan struggles to find his way, as he finds himself the plaything, in a variety of ways, of the Harem-women. As he eventually learns, so much here is: "just part of our charade".
       Ultimately, Orkhan is able to turn the tables, at least to some extent. As seductive as this "fairyland of silk, silver and porphyry" is, it too proves just another cage he wants to escape -- though preferably not via the divine climax the Harem-women want to foist on him.
       Irwin does allow him a happy ending of sorts, too, though it involves neither the life (or death) he was expecting when he was summoned from the Cage.
       Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh plays amusingly with 'Oriental' tropes, making for a very colorful novel. In particular, Irwin goes all-in with the carnal, the story practically convulsing in lust; there are also sexual acts galore. If much of the novel involves mind-games, a lot of that has to do with the physical, too, as Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh is a very explicitly erotic novel. (One that's not for the faint of heart or prudish, one might emphasize, too.)
       Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh is a fun take and tease on how the Orient was once seen, a novel dripping with sex -- well-handled by Irwin --but also nicely sustaining the air of mystery of the exotic other. It's not your usual Arabian Nights-variation, but is a very entertaining one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 May 2022

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Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh: Reviews: Robert Irwin: Other books by Robert Irwin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Robert Irwin was born in 1946.

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© 2022 the complete review

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