Iranian-Dutch author Kader Abdolah’s latest novel The King, is at once ensconced in the heaviness of intrigue-laden historical fiction – think of the large oeuvre dedicated to the Tudors – and the deceptive light-footedness of a bedtime story. Translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier and set in 19th-century Persia in the lavish court of Shah Naser, who is modelled upon the real-life Persian ruler Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar (1831-1896), Abdolah’s book levelly depicts the convictions and controversies of an ancient kingdom on the cusp of modernisation and Westernisation.
When his father dies, Shah Naser not only inherits the crown, but a Persia of poverty and illiteracy – a land on the brink of war, backed by alliances with England and Russia that are shaky at best. As one character puts it, the kingdom is “an ancient labyrinth of hidden power struggles, ancient resentments […] and powerful women who pull the strings behind closed doors.” The Shah must navigate this labyrinth if he wants to secure his country’s future; even as his path and his morals, become less and less clear.
Written in the third person and comprised of 64 terse chapters, The King oscillates, whip-fast, between settings and viewpoints. From the Shah’s palace rendezvous – with his meddling mother, his harem, a nefarious vizier, and countless other officials and associates – to his people’s uprisings in pursuit of democracy and industry, what Abdolah lays out on the table can, at times, be dizzying to absorb.
Though it would be easy to assume that the author’s compact, no-frills language would lend itself well to a tale that reflects upon the nature of storytelling, Abdolah’s sentences in their simplicity, begin to feel tedious even before the novel’s halfway point. Of course, part of the issue might stem from the translation. Perhaps a common phrase such as ‘slap in the face’ rings more poetically in Dutch.
That is not to say, however, that The King lacks eloquence altogether, or that the book suffers from a pervasive dryness. One of Abdolah’s strong points is his manipulation of poetry and classical texts, including the Quran. The Shah enjoys reading and writing verse, and as Forest-Flier states in her translator’s note, one of his poems is based upon the medieval work The Gulistan of Saadi. To see Shah Naser compose poems adds a sheen of vulnerability to a character who is often stubborn and egoistic.
Abdolah, in postcolonial/historical revisionist fashion, also excels in drawing upon the names and politics of British figures for whom he harbours affection. For example, in real life, Edward Granville Browne was a British Orientalist with a passion for Persian history and literature. The character who bears Browne’s name in the novel shares the same interests and acts as an interpreter for the British embassy.
Grand in scope, The King succeeds in encapsulating a tumultuous moment in Persian history, even if the journey to modernity, as told by Abdolah, lacks momentum.