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This article is taken from PN Review 230, Volume 42 Number 6, July - August 2016.

Pictures from a Library

27: The Horse and the Nobel Laureate
Stella Halkyard
The Horse and the Nobel Laureate

Image: Rylands Persian Manuscript 9, the fire-ordeal of Siyâvash, folio 115b © the University of Manchester

Layers of snow muffle Deansgate in downy-whiteness on a winter’s morning in Manchester in 1984. They suffuse the gloom of the John Rylands Library with pearly opalescence. Manuscripts written in over fifty languages line a room from floor to ceiling in ordered silence. Ferdawsi’s Shahnama, the longest epic poem written by a single author, sits on its shelf. Pressed between its paper pages, ‘sized and polished with a finish made of egg white and starch’, resides a riot of adventures, battles, and marvels that tell the history of Persia down to the Arab conquest. The image above captures a decisive moment in the story of the prince Siyâvash. Having rebuffed the seductions of his stepmother, Siyâvash is malevolently accused by her of assault and is compelled to undergo a fire-ordeal in order to prove his innocence. Proudly proving his master’s probity, Siyâvash’s horse prances through florets of flame, his eyes ablaze, his red nostrils flared, slit in the manner of Ottoman horses. ‘It was a horse that I’d seen so often in other books in other illustrations that I knew it’d been drawn by rote without the miniaturist’s stopping to give it any consideration at all.’

Meanwhile, around the corner, in the dishevelled elegance of the refreshment room of Victoria Railway Station, a young man hunches over a manuscript of his own. Like a calligrapher in an old story he intently reworks ...

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