In his best-known writings, The Orchard and The Rose Garden, Saՙdi is clearly working within a long and distinguished tradition, an Eastern tradition of didactic literature wherein the poet is also a teacher. Drawing on both literary and folk sources, and forming a symbiotic relationship with religion, this tradition usually brings forth a conventional product. Such is not the case with Saՙdi. He is entertaining because he is able to draw on an additional source, his own nomadic experiences that he somehow survived. Thus, Saՙdi is able to infuse his conventional wisdom with lively examples. At the same time, there is this danger involved: The examples set up a tension with the conventional wisdom, sometimes undercutting it and resulting not in morality but in expediency. The same result can be observed in his language and tone, which occasionally verge on parody, Saՙdi getting carried away and letting a devilish streak emerge.

In his writing as well as in his travels, Saՙdi liked to live dangerously. He obviously managed to satisfy the conventional expectations of his contemporaries, but for the modern reader the tension between the pious and the politic Saՙdi forms the main attraction of his work.

The Orchard

Written in epic meter throughout, The Orchard is divided into ten sections. Each section illustrates a particular public or private virtue—for example, good government, generosity, humility, resignation, contentment, gratitude—through a collection of brief stories, mostly exempla but occasionally parables and fables. Otherwise disconnected, the stories do provide a variety of content, including the author’s own purported experiences.

In the few stories where he figures, Saՙdi does not hesitate to make himself a hero. For example, at a dinner put on by a cadi (a Muslim judge), Saՙdi is forced to sit among the inferior guests because of his impoverished appearance. In the legal disputations that follow, Saՙdi dominates, and the cadi takes off his fine turban, offers it to Saՙdi, and invites Saՙdi to sit among the lawyers and other guests of honor. Saՙdi turns down both offers and leaves, telling the cadi that it is what one has inside one’s head rather than what one wears on it that matters. There is a further irony, directed at himself, in Saՙdi’s references to the cadi’s big head, for Saՙdi was not modest about his own gifts; in the tag on a story advocating reticence (one of his favorite virtues), he advises the reader either to speak like Saՙdi or to remain silent.

Even Saՙdi opens his mouth once too often in another story set in India. In the midst of a temple crowd worshiping an idol, Saՙdi comments to a friend concerning the crowd’s naïve superstition. The friend, however, proves to be a true believer himself, and he angrily denounces Saՙdi to the assembly. The crowd falls on Saՙdi, and he saves himself only through fast talking and dissimulation. Pleading that he is an ignorant foreigner, he asks to be initiated into the true meaning of the worship. The chief Brahmin forces him to spend the night weeping, praying, and kissing the statue. In the morning, the statue rewards him and other worshipers by raising its hand. Several days later, when he is trusted, Saՙdi goes into the temple, slips behind the scenes, and discovers the chief Brahmin working the levers that operate the statue’s hands. Saՙdi then kills the Brahmin by throwing him down a well and dropping a rock onto his head. The moral is: Once one exposes a villain, one must destroy him; if not, he will destroy you.

Similar advice is available for dealing with one’s enemies. The general drift of Saՙdi’s urgings is to remain quiet and not to make enemies, especially of people with power or wagging tongues. If, despite all one’s caution, an enemy arises, one should take the first good opportunity to dash out his brains; such dealings improve not only one’s predicament but also one’s disposition. Saՙdi does warn, however, against lowering oneself to the level of one’s enemy. Lastly, if a dangerous enemy is too powerful to handle, one should flee.

A number of Saՙdi’s stories contain not only irony but also what would today be called black humor. The fortunes of a rich man and a beggar are reversed; a doctor who predicts a patient’s imminent death dies himself instead, and the patient lives to a ripe old age; a haughty prince is...

(The entire section is 1839 words.)