The King by Kader Abdolah; book review

 

Jane Jakeman
Friday 24 January 2014 01:00
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A boy enters a palace of a hundred rooms where an assassin may lurk behind every door and shadowy figures are reflected in a Hall of Mirrors. An astonishing treasure lies at its heart, but powerful enemies are at the gates.

This is the inheritance of Shah Naser of Persia, an almost exact contemporary of Queen Victoria, fourth ruler of the Qajar dynasty, a family of imperial longings and violent death. At first he has a vizier for guidance, but the real power is his wily mother, Mahdolia, the ‘sublime cradle’, and soon the vizier’s hat is found behind a curtain, while its wearer has vanished. The power-struggle is reflected in the outside world, where Britain, France and Russia are waiting to carve up Persian territory, yet the young heir must somehow keep his throne and continue his line.

How he did so is told in a simple yet gripping style based on the great epic history of early Persia, the 'Shahnameh' written by Firdawsi about a thousand years ago. It proves a very effective model for this dramatic tale of a later ruler and his heroic, if often brutal, battles. As in the 'Shahnameh', lyrical passages celebrating Persia break up the harsh history, and episodes such as the pursuit of a mysterious gazelle reflect the semi-magical nature of Persian miniatures and a world which in many ways was still medieval: the unhappy child-princess, the sheikh whose cave is hung with snake teeth and wolf paws.

Shah Naser himself was a moderniser, a keen fan of photography, interested in European factories and technology, sometimes producing odd combinations of ancient and modern – electric light was installed in the harem. This duality becomes a fascinating theme of the book, as now the Germans try to woo him with a tour of Krupps, now the British through installing the latest in telegraph systems. The unadorned ‘barebones’ style of telling exposes serious historical themes, including the rise of new religious movements as well as political struggle.

Abdolah is the pen-name of Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani, who was opposed to the rule of the last Shah and that of the ayatollahs who followed. He now lives in Holland and writes in Dutch so it’s good to have this fluent English version of a modern epic. Incidentally, in case readers want to follow up the reference, Edward Granville Browne’s famous travel book is ‘A Year Amongst the Persians,’ not ‘Two years …’ as mentioned by Abdolah.

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