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The Rose Garden (Gulistan) of Saadi by Saadi

The Rose Garden (Gulistan) of Saadi (1649)

by Saadi

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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I got hold of a nineteenth-century English translation facing the original Persian, not only of Būstān [بستان, The Orchard] but also of Gulistān [گلستان , The Rose Garden], the two great works by the thirteenth century Persian poet normally known in English as Saʿdī or Saadi, but referred to in my edition as spelt in my subject line above. He was an exact contemporary of Rūmī, whose work I had greatly enjoyed earlier this year, and my expectations were consequently high.

I'm sorry to say that they were not met. Unlike Rūmī, comfortable in his literate and fairly sessile urban merchant lifestyle, Saadi is obsessed by the micropolitics of the court and the caravan. The two books are somewhat different in style - Gulistān mainly very short incidents and reflections, while Būstān is generally longer pieces, in both cases gathered together in chapters on various themes of life as an upper-class medieval man. Often there is an intriguing bit of autobiographical reflection at the start of each piece, followed by some vaguely relevant philosophical rambling and a final poetic quote which may have been a real zinger in the original Persian but is lost in the English. I found Saadi's political philosophy rather unattractive, with no real ethical compass as far as I could tell other than the need to stay alive under a despotic ruler and if possible preserve one's self-respect; like Machiavelli without the humour, or indeed like Confucianism without the sense of tradition.

Oddly the one area where I did feel moved by Saadi's prose was in his occasional reflections on love, quite explicitly his own love for cute young men; there is a passionate chapter in Būstān where he imagines himself as a beggar captivated by a young prince which I found really evocative of the passion of erotic attraction, and that was simply the best of several passages. In general, lust for young men is not my own usual preference, but Saadi took me into his own world very effectively. The flip side is, sadly, that women are annoying distractions and irrelevant to the business of being manly in Saadi's world.

One other thing I did enjoy was trying to spot the rhyming schemes in the poetry. Usually it is rhyming couplets:
بنی آدم اعضای یک پیکرند
که در آفرينش ز یک گوهرند
چو عضوى به درد آورد روزگار
دگر عضوها را نماند قرار
تو کز محنت دیگران بی غمی
نشاید که نامت نهند آدمی

But sometimes there are more complex rhyming schemes. It's quite fun to try and spot these things in a language where I barely know any of the letters.

Anyway, the fault may lie with the translation - I think that Rūmī has been very well served by Coleman Banks, and perhaps Saadi simply hasn't been discovered by an English writer with the right sympathy for him yet. But I fear I would need some persuasion to try again. ( )
  nwhyte | Dec 17, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (56 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Saadiprimary authorall editionscalculated
De Bruijn, J.T.P.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gladwin, FrancisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Starink, MarjoDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 158814058X, Hardcover)

Is the Gulistan the most influential book in the Iranian world? In terms of prose, it is the model, which all writers of Persian seek to emulate. In terms of moral, philosophical or practical wisdom, it is endlessly quoted to either illustrate or prove a point. Sir John Malcolm even relates being told that it is the basis of the law of the Persians. It also traveled abroad. Voltaire, Goethe, Arnold, Longfellow, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Franklin discovered, read, and took inspiration from the work. Moreover, travelers to Iran have often point out that to understand the mind of the inhabitants, one should read the Gulistan.

Written some seven and a half centuries ago by Sa di of Shiraz the Gulistan or Rose Garden is a collection of moral stories divided into eight themes: The Conduct of Kings, The Character of Dervishes, The Superiority of Contentment, The Benefits of Silence, Love and Youth, Feebleness and Old Age, The Effects of Education, and The Art of Conversation. In each section stories are told from which the reader learns how to behave in a given situation. Sa di can be moral. Honesty gives God pleasure. I haven t seen anyone get lost on the right road. He may be practical. If you can t stand the sting, don t put your finger into a scorpion s hole. He is philosophical in these lines which are engraved at the entrance of the United Nations: The members of the human race are limbs one to another, for at creation they were of one essence. When one limb is pained by fate, the others cannot rest.

The Gulistan is considered the essence of elegant but simple Persian prose. For 600 years, it was the first book placed in the learner s hand. In Persian-speaking countries today, quotations from the Gulistan appear in every conceivable type of literature and is the source of numerous everyday proverbial statements, much as Shakespeare is in English.

This is the first complete English translation of the Gulistan in more than a century. Wheeler M. Thackston, Professor of Persian at Harvard University, has faithfully translated Sa di into clear contemporary English. To help the student, the original Persian is presented facing the English translation. A 3,600 word Persian-English and Arabic-English glossary is included to aide with the more difficult meanings.

The Gulistan is imbued with a practical wisdom of life. Sa di recognizes people for what they are. Every personality type that exists is found in the Rose Garden, the good, the bad, the weak, the strong, the pious, the impious, honest folk, and the most conniving of cheats. Hypocrites abound, foolish kings appear with their wily ministers, wise rulers vie with their malevolent courtiers, boastful young warriors turn tail and run. The beauty of Sa di s wisdom is that it is timeless. What is expressed is in a setting so close and familiar to the modern experience that it is as relevant today as it was six hundred years ago.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:52 -0400)

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