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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Haft Paykar


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To purchase Haft Paykar

Title: Haft Paykar
Author: Nizami
Genre: Poem
Written: 1197
Length: 304 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: Haft Paykar - US
Haft Paykar - UK
Haft Paykar - Canada
  • A Medieval Persian Romance
  • Persian title: هفت‌پیکر
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Julie Scott Meisami
  • Previously also translated into English as The Haft Paikar (The Seven Beauties) (1924) and The Story of the Seven Princesses (1976)

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Our Assessment:

B : well-presented book, a classic work of literature, but a problematic translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 1/12/1995 Orhan Pamuk

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The complete review's Review:

       Nizami was one of the greatest Persian poets, the Haft Paykar perhaps his greatest work. Translated twice before into English during the 20th century it was not entirely unknown (as is, unfortunately, still the case with some of Nizami's other works). Its inclusion in the Oxford World Classics series, however, makes it (and Nizami) accessible to a much larger audience.
       The book, consisting of about 5,000 rhyming couplets, recounts the life of the Sassanian ruler Bahram V Gur, who led the Sassanian empire from 421 to 439. The book mixes fact and fiction, with fiction predominating. It is the story of a great leader, telling of the adventures he lives through and the lessons he learns, cleverly weaving together these two strands.
       Central to the book are seven chapters relating seven tales having to do with love. A palace with seven domes is built for Bahram's seven brides, and he goes from one to the next, hearing the princesses' tales. Distinct tales, they also show different aspects of life and, especially, love, and they could stand independently of the rest of the book.
       Nizami has, however, created a complex, larger work that is best enjoyed in its complete form. Meisami is to be commended for presenting the entire text, including the opening chapters that include an Invocation, a chapter "On the Cause of the Work's Composition,", and "The Poet's Advice to his Son." The story proper only begins in the ninth chapter.
       There are, towards the end of the book, also seven more tales which Bahram hears upon his return to his kingdom. He find that his vizier has acted unjustly and ruled badly, and he hears from seven victims all the things that have gone wrong.
       Bahram is a noble, exemplary ruler, and he also finds a fitting end. It is a fine tale from beginning to end, with many entertaining stories told along the way, and the moralizing not intruding too much on the enjoyment of the text.
       The presentation of the book is also exemplary. Meisami's introduction is an excellent introduction to Nizami himself, as well as to this specific work. Meisami provides a useful summary of the story, and she also provides helpful endnotes.
       The big problem with this edition is the translation. Bravely Meisami decided to present the poem in rhyming octosyllabic couplets. She wrote:

The present translation seeks to present Nizami's poem, as befits its importance in the Persian romance tradition, as a work of poetry first and foremost, and in a style approximating that of European romances.
       Try as she might she can't find enough rhymes to fit ("a far more difficult task in English", she correctly points out), leaving that part of the scheme oddly unbalanced. Worse is the forced metre, forcing a density and brevity (and often contorted presentation) that does the work no good. Sometimes the text bounces along lightly enough, but too often it does not. Translation rarely allows for contraction and simplification (compare H. Wilberforce Clarke's expansive translation of the Sikandar Nama (see our review)). To go for the tightest fit -- eight syllables per line -- is to put demands on the translator that only a true poet could possibly deal with. Meisami is no such poet.
       Reactions to the translation may vary. We never got a good feel for it, and suspect that far too much was lost along the way. Nevertheless, the Haft Paykar is such a strong story that it can take a lot of manhandling.
       Not the type of translation we like, the book's introduction and notes do provide enough to make it worthwhile for these alone. And it is a classic, which one should be glad to read in any form, even a translation such as this one.

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Haft Paykar: Other books by Nizami under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Nizami (or Nizami Ganjavi; نظامی گنجوی‎) is the pen-name of Abu Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Zaki Mu'ayyad. He was born in Ganja (in what is now Azerbaijan) around 1141, and he lived there until his death, around 1209. He is author of a number of significant works, including five masnavis collected as the Khamsa ('Quintet') or the Panj Ganj ('Five Treasures').

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