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the Complete Review
the complete review - letters

A European Experience
of the Mughal Orient:

The I'Jaz-i Arsalani
(Persian Letters, 1773-1779)

Antoine-Louis Henri Polier

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To purchase A European Experience of the Mughal Orient

Title: A European Experience of the Mughal Orient
Author: Antoine-Louis Henri Polier
Genre: Letters
Written: 1773-9
Length: 390 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: A European Experience of the Mughal Orient - US
A European Experience of the Mughal Orient - UK
A European Experience of the Mughal Orient - Canada
  • Translated, edited, and with an Introduction by Muzaffar Alam and Seema Alavi
  • Includes two maps and numerous illustrations
  • Includes a Glossary
  • This edition first published in 2001

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Our Assessment:

-- : an attractive and often interesting volume, though primarily for a specialist audience (and oh those translation issues ...)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 27/9/2002 William Dalrymple

  From the Reviews:
  • "His large volume of Persian correspondence (...) documents this process of cultural cross-over magnificently. (...) Alam and Alavi deserve to be warmly applauded for bringing the world of Antoine Polier back to life." - William Dalrymple, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       A European Experience of the Mughal Orient collects letters written by Antoine-Louis Henri Polier at the end of the 18th century while he was an agent of the East India Company. An important cog in the bureaucratic machinery of the day, Polier also became a significant collector of manuscripts, miniatures, and books. It seems he was involved -- and interested -- in practically everything: he was both extremely active and enterprising, an interesting character in the middle of interesting times.
       In their broad introduction Muzaffar Alam and Seema Alavi present all the necessary background information about the man, this particular work, and the historical context. The I'Jaz-i Arsalani is an unusual document: a collection of letters by a foreigner, written in Persian. The editors explain that: "In its style and diction the I'Jaz represents the eighteenth-century Persian Insha" -- a collection of documents, papers, and letter, presented in an elaborate ("verbose and hyperbolic") style.
       Polier did also write in French: the editors note that his "major work was a book entitled Mythologie des Indous". This collection, was, however, his authentic Indian testament. Rather than offer translated versions in some sort of French survey or collection, Polier's collection is completely within the Eastern tradition -- inaccessible (until now), in fact, to almost all Europeans.
       There are hundreds of letters collected here. Many are just brief notes, responses, and acknowledgements. Unfortunately, only Polier's letters are presented, making for a completely one-sided dialogue. Polier corresponded with a great many people -- from highest nobility to tradespeople -- which makes for an often odd mix of concerns and commands. From battle plans and preparations to the purchase of all varieties of goods, Polier's busy life and far reach lead to missives on almost all conceivable subjects. Most of what he writes, however, is of a very practical (rather than theoretical) nature: there is little airy philosophizing or casual chit-chat.
       The volume offers insight into much of the life in those times in Mughal India. Of particular interest are the many mundane matters: the goods sent back and forth, the requests and entreaties and threats, the politicking. Still, much is difficult to fully appreciate (despite the editors best efforts) so far removed from its context.
       The I'Jaz-i Arsalani is hardly a volume to be read: there is a great deal of detail, and after a while it can be numbing to try to follow it. Still, it is hard to let go: there are always fascinating bits to be found, and Polier -- sometimes cajoling, sometimes commanding -- remains an interesting voice.

       A European Experience of the Mughal Orient is a beautifully presented book. The illustrations are stunning. The extensive glossary is useful (and essential).
       The excellent introduction is, almost, worth the price of the book alone too, providing the necessary background information in a clear fashion.

       Alas, one fault does diminish the value of the work -- perhaps fatally so. At the end of their introduction Alam and Alavi offer a note on their translation. It is an admirably clear explanation of what they have done, and why. But their approach .....
       Alam and Alavi note:

This is not a word to word translation. We have preferred a summary translation of the text without ignoring any substantive part of its contents. But the exclusion of the adjectives and embellishments of the Persian text have not been done at the cost of clarity or compromise with the substance of its contents.
       So they say. To their credit they offer examples of literal translations compared to their summary translations -- showing how dramatically different the results. Throughout the book, where there is an excess of "figurative and grandiose language, we have preferred to give only a synoptic rendering" -- and boy does it show. Their version of Polier's letters are certainly to the point -- but, of course, the originals weren't.
       This is, for some reason, the popular approach to Persian (and often Arabic) writing, translators somehow believing English-language readers couldn't possibly stand all this largely empty pomp and circumstance. Maybe many can't, but we're sticklers for authenticity and find the dry compressed text -- substantive though it still may be -- to be only a pale shadow of the original. Their radical cuts mean Alam and Alavi present a text that has been almost entirely divested of its literary merit (whatever that may have been): all that is left is the often grocery list-like contents. The embellishments that have been cut away were, no doubt, also often empty (and repetitious): nevertheless, we would have preferred the opportunity to dismiss (or embrace) them for ourselves, rather than have that decision made for us.

       A European Experience of the Mughal Orient is a fascinating volume (at least for those interested in Mughal India, and the meeting of East and West), though unfortunately not quite what Polier had in mind. Still, the supporting documentation -- from the introduction to the illustrations -- is excellent, and Polier's letters, even in this form, of considerable curiosity value.

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A European Experience of the Mughal Orient: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Antoine-Louis Henri Polier (1741-1795) was born in Switzerland and lived for much of his life in India.

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© 2002-2021 the complete review

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