OK. So I think The King is working to produce a very specific and quite interesting literary effect, and I think that work and that effect is worthwhile and important. I just didn’t enjoy it very much.
This is the story of the modernisation of Persia – modern-day Iran. Its central character is Shah Naser, a weak and unpredictable ruler whose ideologies are rooted in old ideas of the glories of Persia, smashing its enemies, kings exalted, diamonds uncounted, etc. But the world around him is changing; the telegraph and the railway are coming; news from the West is reaching the Persian people. Soon, he’s embattled by popular dissent, European politics and the march of modernisation.
The usual reviewerly disclaimers apply here: I’m white, I’m British, I know next to nothing about Iran’s history, and I am very happy to hear other opinions.
With that in mind, I think the most interesting thing about The King is how it sites its conflict between tradition and modernity in its style, which is simple, domestic in its single-minded focus on the shah, descriptive rather than demonstrative; it reads, in fact, much like a fairytale. That style very deliberately clashes with the complex international politics it needs to describe; the world of the telegraph and the railway sits within it uneasily, just as the shah has difficulties fitting a changing world with all its disparate forces, its rising democracies, into a worldview in which the king is the only person who really matters.
But Abdolah’s project isn’t really about consigning an unenlightened Shah Naser to irrelevancy; that’s far too simplistic a reading. As the introductory note to the novel attests, The King is really a nationalistic endeavour:
[The Persian poet] Ferdowsi created the hero Rostam. He had Rostam live for about nine hundred years, thereby rescuing the nation’s lost heritage from oblivion.
The teller of this story is following in that poet’s footsteps.
Abdolah’s Shah Naser is as temporally unfixed as his description of Rostam: while the shah is based on the real-life Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, other real-life references in the novel seem to suggest a reign of about a century. This disjunction, linked so explicitly to a key Persian poet, effectively reclaims a particular historical moment as specifically Iranian, despite the European pressures that are so often presented as the dominant narrative, especially in recent history.
I’m veering into territory I know little about here, so I’m actually going to stop. I didn’t enjoy reading The King all that much (which is quite possibly a Western bias rather than anything actually wrong with the book), but I have quite enjoyed thinking about it.