The King by Kader Abdolah trans. Nancy Forest-Flier (New Directions, Sept. 2014) Reviewed by Walter Gordon

The King
by Kader Abdolah
trans. Nancy Forest-Flier
(New Directions, Sept. 2014)

Reviewed by Walter Gordon

The immense amount of stuff that writers of history somehow dredge up from the tangled abyss of the past can be simply bewildering. In The King, Persian-Dutch writer Kader Abdolah’s latest novel to be translated into English, these things might be small—easily carried in a trunk from Russia, tallied up and listed: “shoes, hats, coats, books, porcelain, appliances . . . eyeglasses, clocks, magnifying glasses . . . teapots, coffee-making devices, coffee beans, facial creams for the women.” Other times these objects can be enormous, and the meaning they carry bloats accordingly. In order to celebrate the British-aided installation of the first telegraph cable poles in Persia—and the fortification of the diplomatic relationship that the poles represent—the British embassy provided the Persian Shah with a strange gift: a large iron slide. The Shah, whose reign fell beside those of Queen Victoria and the Tsar Alexander II, receives the gift graciously, gives it a Persian name, sor-soreh, and rapidly has it installed in his vast harem. Of this gift, Abdolah writes:

Now he was standing all alone beside the massive slide. He had a number of mattresses placed at the lower end. Standing with arms akimbo he cast a glance at his sor-soreh. It was perfect. With great care he climbed to the top, sat down and slid solemnly to the bottom.

‘Fantastic!’ he said, landing gently on the mattresses.

While The King is filled with slightly surreal scenes like this one, it is not, for the most part, concerned with the moments of joy that objects like the slide can produce. Abdolah cares more about the power that objects have and the power that they represent. Far more central to the consciousness and character of the shah himself, Shah Naser Muhammad Ftali Mozafar, is his cannon, an object that, unlike the slide—which only reveals its connection to coercion once one learns it was installed as a piece of diplomacy—nakedly and centrally symbolizes power and compulsion. In The King, lush descriptions and lists of objects abound, while characters are often left at a distance. It is often the suspense that these objects create—much like Chekhov’s gun—that drives the narrative, while characters, especially the Shah, sometimes appear to listen as their own story unfolds.

Born in 1954, Kader Abdolah studied physics in Tehran before joining Iran’s emerging student resistance movement, organizing first against the Shah and later in opposition to Khomeini and his administration. It was during the Khomeini regime that Abdolah wrote his first novels, but it was not until much later—and not until he had left his country of origin—that he became well known as a writer. Under intense political pressure, Abdolah left Iran in 1985, and, in 1988, settled in the Netherlands, where he has lived since. He learned Dutch, began writing in that language, and has since become a major figure in contemporary Dutch literature. The author of more than ten novels, Abdolah has also produced a popular biography of Mohammed, often packaged with his own Dutch-language translation of the Quran.

Abdolah writes under a pseudonym—Kader and Abdolah refer to the names of two friends executed in Iran. As such, Abdolah’s use of a pseudonym does not mask his Iranian origins, as a pseudonym usually would, but rather highlights them and points towards a specific, politically active facet of that identity. A similar process of deepening by displacement occurs throughout the pages of The King, which tells the story of one Persian shah but also seems to help us understand the downfall of another.

The novel is a simply written but deceptively detailed fictional reconstruction of the life and reign of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, translated into crystalline English by Nancy Forest-Flier. Shah Naser’s reign fell between 1848 until 1896, a pivotal point in Persian history, in which “modernity” came to Persia—in the variously revolutionary forms of the telegraph, the railroad, and the European-educated student—often by way of precarious diplomatic arrangements with Russia and England. The novel depicts the Shah and his subjects as massive changes shake and threaten what was at the time one of the oldest continuously existing empires on earth. The first chapter, in fact, begins with the creation of the world—“in the beginning was the Cow, and the Cow was with God . . .”—and rushes teleologically through millennia of Persian history, before culminating, without breaking the line of succession from God, in the birth of the Shah.

After that first chapter, The King sticks to a fairly strict timeline in describing Shah Naser’s reign. A fairly timid and nebulous man for whom the rigidity and poise of leadership does not come easily, Shah Naser inherits “a ponderous legacy” from his father, the previous Shah: “the treasury was empty, the army was poorly equipped, and the population was largely illiterate and living in poverty and uncertainty.” In addition, Abdolah writes, “there was a threat of war on the border with India, where the British were in control,” while the northern border was shared with the flailing colossus that was late tsarist Russia. The story of a country “wedged between two great powers,” The King begins in uncertainty and never really levels off: there is always the feeling that Persia and Shah Naser are teetering on—or perhaps hurtling towards—the edge of catastrophe.

The novel is narrated in a style influenced by the great Persian epic poets, particularly Ferdowsi, whose Shahnameh, or “Book of Kings,” is undoubtedly the most famous example of the genre. Ferdowsi and his forbears “played fast and loose with chronology,” as Abdolah writes in his introduction to The King, with hopes of producing histories that would be “strong and colorful.” The effect of this style is to create a compulsively readable text, in which vast histories are truncated so intensely that massive events appear as fables or allegory. In this short paragraph, for example, world-historic scale background of a minor character is condensed into two short sentences:

The man was a descendant of Persians who had fled to India thirteen hundred years earlier as followers of Zarathustra when the Arabs invaded the Persian Empire. These Indian Persians were called Parsi.

The tone of the storyteller—at once flat and prophetic—can produce, as here, a kind of deadpan profundity. The overwhelming immensity of history is rather mysteriously articulated through syntactic compression. Simple sentences are packed with vast historical meaning almost to the point of farce.

The above paragraph is also indicative of the kind of characterization that goes on in The King. Abdolah’s is not a psychological novel. There are hints of psychology, but, for the most part, the removed narrator—an epic poet, there to describe drama and upheaval, not cognitive subtleties—accounts for most actions in terms of massive historical processes, stretching back hundreds if not thousands of years. Personal history is subsumed, in short, into deep history, and the kind of story that results is one that feels inexorable in its conclusion. (There is, too, the sense that the general absence of emotion is a product of the stifling manners of high politics: soon after the narrator notes that the Shah is “overwhelmed”—emotionally, we can only assume—by an album of photographs, he responds the only way that is suitable: “ ‘We are satisfied,’ he remarked drily.” Power and politics requires, Abdolah suggests, either the extreme suppression of affect or, when appropriate, its histrionic simulation.)

As other reviewers have noted, the fable-like way in which the novel is written—in conjunction with a few genuine historical similarities—makes it easy to read The King as a sort of playful, metaphorical examination of the Iranian revolution. At the Financial Times, Azadeh Moaveni wrote in her review of the novel that “for several chapters, it almost seems like a blow-by-blow portrait of how Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s rule descended into the 1979 revolution.” She implies that Shah Naser’s reign—or at least Abdolah’s representation of it—is somehow like the reign of Shah Pahlavi’s: narratively, politically, and aesthetically. Certain themes and figures are obviously present in The King and in the final days of the “Shah of Shahs”: a push and pull between modernism and traditionalism, empowered students, powerful merchants, semi-colonial philandering, politicized religious types and sanctified political types. In statements like Moaveni’s, we find one of the uses for the study of history: the clarification of the present, or other historical moments. In this mode, historical fiction becomes a kind of activism, writing allows us to resist through the illumination of the horrors hidden by the triplicate shadows of power, progress, and propaganda, which existed then and exist now.

The similarity is clear, but Shah Naser is of course not Shah Pahlavi, and Abdolah is clearly aware of this fact. What sets The King apart, I think, is that it at once puts itself forward as a kind of political fable and asks its readers to consider deeply the utility and implications of that kind of writing and reading. The King suggests, I think, that the political fable has become—or has perhaps always been—a rather futile thing, because history—as the fable itself seems to show—is basically a series of arbitrary choices, from which one can learn nothing but the overwhelming omnipotence of accident and whim. In one of the most dramatic scenes of the novel, a protest turns into a riot, which turns into a full-blown revolutionary revolt, because, “in the chaos,” Abdolah writes, “everyone did whatever occurred to him.”

The historical dominance of urge and impulse is perfectly captured by the character of Shah Naser himself. The Shah is pure accident, a conduit through which the disembodied powers of history can reverberate—a vessel to be filled or pushed around by other figures with a slightly better idea of their own interests and beliefs. Mahdolia, the Shah’s mother, and Mirza Kabir, his vizier—to whose real-life model the novel is dedicated—are quite clearly cast as the traditionalist and modernist devil and angel on the Shah’s weary, impressionable shoulders. Though the Shah does have certain ideas about modernity and traditionalism—modern technology has its appeal for him, but he has no tolerance for the egalitarianism and watered-down nationalism of modern statecraft—which figure he choses to listen to at any given juncture is as much a product of the Shah’s unpredictable moods as anything else. One never really feels as if the Shah ever truly makes a decision: he seems, rather, to fall or trip into particular situations, into new steps in an already completed history. There is the sense, to return to an earlier image, that Shah Naser simply slides through history.

Likewise, instances of the failure of historical fables are present within the novel as well. On the eve of his ill-advised invasion of Herat, a city now in Afghanistan but which was the first city of the Aryans, the founders of the Persian Empire—much later, Shah Pahlavi would give himself the title Aryamehr, “Light of the Aryans”—the King requests the services of a storyteller. Much to the Shah’s dismay, the storyteller begins to recount the tale of Xerxes and Athens, which ends, quite famously, in a massive defeat for the Persians, “an event over which the Persians had remained silent for centuries out of shame.” On the eve of what the Shah hopes to be his greatest victory, he is confronted with a great fable of Persian failure. The Shah, though, knowing what is to come, tells the storyteller to stop before he recounts Xerxes’ infamous defeat, and, the next day, the invasion of Herat is a success. Confusion reigns, the city falls: the Shah has defeated the fable. There is no necessary connection, he learns, between past and present: history tolerates no metaphor.

Yet we can still certainly learn something about the Iranian revolution from The King, or, perhaps more accurately, we can learn slightly offbeat new ways of thinking about it. What The King tells us is that it is not the past—it is not history—that has the uncanny power in itself to illuminate and cohere the fragmented mess of other histories in other places. If that were so, than we should observe history, perhaps, purely by looking at facts and figures from the past, or even the physical, mute remnants of its material world, because these are things which we consider with less grief as Real Things, true facts of lived experience. Or, at the very least, we consider these kinds of things more real than we consider mere novels real, those deceptive collections of purportedly representative words, distant echoes of some real things—if that—shrouded and corrupted by the presence of the aesthetic. Reading The King and seeing so immediately the Iran of 1979 tells us that what illuminates the present is not history, but our imaginings of it, our often inaccurate but undoubtedly invented efforts toward understanding and reordering the aleatory mess of what has happened. As Abdolah seems to hint in the stunning conclusion to the novel, though, this reordering is a process without end: stories will always be pseudonyms for others.


Walter Gordon is a writer based in New York City.

Banner image via A. Davey. (Flickr Creative Commons 2.0 License)