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Ancient tale of Sinbad frame latest Barth novel

THE LAST VOYAGE

OF SOMEBODY THE SAILOR

By John Barth.

Little, Brown and Co., 573 pp., $22.95.

By MARK WEBSTER

OF THOSE AUTHORS loosely grouped as "postmodernists," John Barth has, more than most, explored stylistic and structural literary variations in the spirit of authors such as Joyce and Kafka, who are loosely grouped under the modern heading. Some of his explorations have taken the form of melding literature with tape recordings to produce something close to a theatrical presentation.

Mostly, however, Barth has produced new styles by returning to the past. He is interested in the storytelling art as it has evolved down through the ages. Even his experiments with tape evoke a more modern version of the storyteller seated before a fire, mesmerizing his listeners with tales of faraway lands and heroic deeds.

Barth also returns to the beginnings of literature. In previous works, he adapted the forms used when the novel was new or even yet to be born. His novel The Sot-Weed Factor is written in a 17th century style. Letters is in the form of an epistolary novel, a type of novel that was popular during the beginnings of Western literature.

Barth is not simply mimicking these novels of yesterday, but rather is mixing these older forms of literature with modern topics, viewpoints and styles to create a new form. His most recent interests extend further into the history of literature to the time of Scheherazade and the frame tale. A Thousand and One Nights, where one story forms the frame for others, which in turn can form the frame for still others, is a good example of the frame tale.

That massive collection of stories, particularly the tales of the seven voyages of Sindbad the Sailor, forms the basis for Barth's newest novel, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. The main plot concerns a middle-aged pauper who shows up on Sindbad's doorstep in medieval Baghdad shortly before the sailor's departure on his seventh voyage. The beggar manages to get himself invited to Sindbad's dinner table and convinces him to exchange stories, Sindbad's famous six (so far) for Somebody's (as he calls himself) more obscure ones about his own six voyages. The deal is struck, and over the next six days and nights, the tales are told.

Somebody's tales concern on Simon Behler, travel writer, from Behler's younger days in the fictional town of Dorset on the Chaptico River on the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland in pre- and post-war America, to his travels around the world, and through his life as he finds success in his career and failure in his marriage. Eventually, the tale relates how Simon Behler becomes Somebody the Sailor and ends up on Sindbad's doorstep in the "present" place and time. There are various interludes interspersed between the tales that explain the real history of Sindbad the Sailor, the background of his household, including his daughter Yasmin and her relationship with Somebody, the intrigues that are going on in the house at the time, and Sindbad's stories.

Not having read the Sindbad tales, I can only assume that the stories that Sindbad tells are the real ones. Barth retells them with wit, and in later interludes, reveals that some of them have figurative rather than literal meaning.

Barth writes with a lyrical but sometimes convoluted style. His mastery of the language is obvious in the way he weaves sentences that surprise with their structure as well as their content. His writing is infused with playfulness, particularly in his numerous descriptions of sex and sex play. He can also invoke suspense with action sequences that leave one gasping for air, particularly in the description of a near-drowning.

Barth brings ancient Baghdad to life in his pungent descriptions of the customs and setting of Sindbad's banquet table and the life of an Arabian sailor. He gives a lively sense of the labyrinthine maneuvering of Arabic merchants and the pervasive influence of Islam. In a neat turnabout on literary criticism and the ultimate meaninglessness of labels, one of Sindbad's guests, after listening to a seemingly incomprehensible tale of 20th century America, pompously expounds, "The high ground of traditional realism, brothers, is where I stand! Give me familiar substantial stuff: rocs and rhinoceri, ifrits and genies and flying carpets. . . . Let no outlander imagine that such crazed fabrications as machines that mark the hour or roll themselves down the road will ever take the place of our homely Islamic realism."

By the end, the plot is somewhat confusing, and you may not be sure if all the various loose ends have been tied up. But the voyage, not its ending, is the thing, and Barth makes this trip delightful and intriguing.