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Irwin, Robert

Entry updated 10 October 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1946-    ) UK academic and author whose work in Arabian studies, of importance in itself, underpins the world envisioned in his first and most famous novel, The Arabian Nightmare (1983; rev 1987), which may be the definitive rendering of its central conceit: the dream narrative whose protagonist, upon seeming to awaken, only finds himself passing through a Portal into a deeper dream [for Arabian Nightmare and Portal see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Irwin's protagonist Balian falls into a nightmare which causes infinite suffering and cannot be recollected upon awakening; each further descent embeds itself deeper into the overall structure; but there is no end to the nightmare, though the Ape of God – who in The Arabian Nightmare iterates the final instalment of Balian's ordeal – may be telling us that Balian is now in Hell. The clarity of Irwin's articulation of this story structure inspired the use of his title as a theme entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, where it links to various authors; those also with entries in this encyclopedia include Lisa Goldstein, L Ron Hubbard, Charles Nodier, Jan Potocki, Herbert Rosendorfer, Gene Wolfe and others.

Irwin's shaping gift tends to be embodied in work whose violations of mimetic assumption make much of it describable in terms of Fantastika, a short example being "Waiting for the Zaddik" in Tales of the Wandering Jew (anth 1991) ed Brian Stableford. The protagonist of his second novel, The Limits of Vision (1986), is aided by imagined helpers in her fight against Mucor, the demon of dirt and decay (see Entropy; Gods and Demons), whom she has also "imagined" – a dangerous term to use without quotes in any story by Irwin, whose plays with narrative structure constantly challenge any clear distinction between the imagined and the real. The Mysteries of Algiers (1988) effortlessly evades the mimetic implications of its initial setting, which is Algeria at the verge of independence as France is beginning to understand it has lost the Algerian War (1954-1962); the double-agent protagonist of the tale, whose name is Roussel, can be understood as reiterating the surreal dismantling of Western colonial presumptions at the heart of Raymond Roussel's Impressions of Africa (1910) and New Impressions of Africa (1932) (see Absurdist SF; Imperialism). Exquisite Corpse (1995) continues to harass the gates of Perception through a kind of Body English of the disruptions of Surrealism. Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh (1997) is as close to an Arabian Fantasy [again see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] as Irwin has allowed himself to execute. Satan Wants Me (1999) wryly fantasticates 1960s London as (in retrospect) something like (yet very unlike) a land of sorcery. In Wonders Will Never Cease (2016), a tapestry-like chronicle of the fifteenth-century War of the Roses, a kind of song of history in which the song is true, a talking head quotes H G Wells about things to come. My Life Is Like a Fairy Tale (2019) contains hints that the stories films tell intertwine with the story of the world between the two world wars; The Runes Have Been Cast (2021) contains elements of supernatural fiction, wryly . The Runes Have Been Cast (2021) contains elements of supernatural fiction, wryly exemplified by the fate of a young academic around 1960, who does not want the story of his life to turn futurewards. But inevitably, rather like an Arabian Nightmare, the future does entrap him.

Among more specialized studies, Irwin's scholarly texts include The Arabic Beast Fable (1992 chap), The Arabian Nights: A Companion (1994) and Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights (2011). The Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies (2006; vt Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents 2006) disputes Edward W Said's argument in Orientalism (1978) that "Western" creative works which attempt to inhabit or "exploit" the East are inherently Imperialist. Insofar as Fantastika can be seen as a Western way of seeing and wrestling with a world that includes Eastern modalities of apprehension, the arguments Irwin here addresses cannot be ignored, and seem increasingly integral to our apprehension of the reach of story across the world.

Irwin should not be confused with the artist Robert Irwin (1928-    ). [JC]

Robert Graham Irwin

born Guildford, Surrey: 23 August 1946


nonfiction (selected)

works as editor


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