Thursday, September 29, 2011

It's all about the stories, dear Watson

Getting a scholarship for doing storytelling work 24/7? Best. Thing. Ever.

Finally, after doing all kinds of stuff kind of simultaneously, I am in a place where it is my full-time job and responsibility to work on my storytelling. I read about it; I write about it; I discuss it with my classmates; I hear lectures about it; I go to see storytellers perform; and I perform myself. When I am not working on my stories, I am doing research for new ones. I have been raiding the library almost on a daily basis, and I turned the Interlibrary Loan system into Skynet. Long story short, I am having a field day. A two-semester long one.

My favorite part about storytelling work (right after being on stage, of course) is background research. I got that much out of the Archeology Master's. I found out that I immensely enjoy digging into a story and seeing where it came from, and who took it over from whom. Once I get started, time ceases to exist, and then it is two in the morning and my friends in Hungary are waking up, asking me why am I not in bed yet. It is kinda hart to explain. Here is what it would sound like:

Well, there is this story that I found, it is an Algerian folktale published in an English magazine in 2001. I have been looking for the original all over the place. Finally, after Googling and JSTORing my life away, I figured out that it is actually a Berber folktale, and has been published before in a French folktale collection in Paris, in the 1940's. Here comes the Skynet, someone must have that book in America too. And, lo and behold, they do. The firt loan request bounces with a huge red warning, "THIS BOOK IS IN FRENCH", so I have to do the whole order again, and tell Skynet that yeah, I kinda figured (Contes Algériens, Paris, 1940?... No sh*t, Sherlock.) Book comes in, and then comes a whole night of painfully slow translation, word by word, sentence by sentence, and all the previous sins of Google Translate are forgotten. I read enough French just to be able to tell if the translation is A.) correct or B.) fishy. Good enough.
Moving on. Comparing the translated version to the English, I notice significant differences that do not come from the translation (extra chapter, that kind of stuff). On we go to happily Googling and JSTORing our life away. The problem? The female hero's name is Aicha, kind of a common name in that part of the world, so in addition to the tale I am actually interested in, I end up with a whole bunch of other Berber folktales where the hero is called Aicha, Aisha, or Ayesha, and three of them are daughters of merchants, so no help there either (the whole title of the French version is Aicha, the merchant's daughter). Some of these tales are actually good, so I am not complaining, but I am obsessed with that one particular story. So.
Apart from searching for the name, I also search for all the other names and places in the story. The prince's name is not helping, he is called Aslan, I could Google that till the end of days and keep ending up in Narnia. The villain, on the other hand, is pretty unique (Horath), I do have a chance there. And I do. As soon as I turn of the Hungarian autocorrect (Horvath). You know those books on GoogleBooks that don't really have a preview, but if you search for a word in them, they show a two-line long snippet with that word? Well, I manage to find a footnote in one of these snippets referring to a name and half a title. Here we go. I find the name and the full citation. Old magazine, a hundred years old, in French, archives on the Internet, God bless the Internet. Searching French archives. That are in French. Searching in French. Found it.
This is the earliest version of the tale where I have gotten so far - 1916. But I do have some very interesting leads. One is that the story from the French book is actually a mosaic: only the first part was about Aicha, the later adventures belonged to other Berber heroes, and surprisingly enough those same stories were printed in the same newspaper. Whoever chose Aicha's tale for the book (that would be the author I guess), added the latter stories to Aicha's series of adventures, maybe to make it longer or more complete. Also, there is a point in the story where the wandering Aicha meets a mysterious stranger with scras on his face, who tells her a story about his escape from an island full of strange cannibals. Hey, I know that story. I know that guy. Aicha just met Sindbad the sailor... that opens a whole new thread of clues to go on!
And this is not all. To tell the story properly, I also need to read up on Berber folktales and culture. So, back to the library to dig. The story also has an ogre. Two hours worth of research later I figure out that 'ogre' is French for 'ghoul'. Here we go. Let's see what we know about ghouls.

At some point during this investigation (a fairly late point, but oh well) it also occurred to me to actually ask a storyteller who speaks Arabic. Wouldn't that just be so much easier?! So I went online and asked the other storytellers if they knew of someone. And so I got the name of an Algerian woman who is currently compiling a folktale collection about strong women stories... waiting for her to respond to my email now.

There is no solution to this investigation. No criminal, no original story. Not one clear answer. But if you keep following the clues, and walking the path back in time as it gets thinner and thinner and splits up into many smalles threads, if you keep your eyes and mind open to details... it will take you to places so far away in time and place you would have never even dreamed of. And when you return in the end, you will have one heck of a story to tell...