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Long long ago I came across a listing for The Orchard, by Sheikh Musharrif ud-din Sadi, in the Norwegian Book Clubs' list of the top 100 books of all time. Less long ago, someone in Iran spotted it on my Bookmooch list and kindly sent me a very nice edition with 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.

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