It is 1870 in Tehran as aromas of tobacco, chai, spices, and naan waft through the air amid the bustle of daily business at the grand bazaar. Above merchants’ tents run tall wooden poles connected by cables carrying electronic messages from the provinces - and from the capital all the way to England. Persia, now Iran, is a country full of contradictions as she struggles to cope with changes occurring in the world she is surrounded by, and her ruler, the man at the center of it all, Naser al-din Shah, is quite possibly the most conflicted of all.
This is the situation presented in Persian-Dutch writer and poet Kader Abdolah’s historical fiction, The King. Abdolah, the pen name of Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani, is Iranian by birth and a graduate the University of Tehran. He fled to the Netherlands in 1988 as a political refugee – his pseudonym reflects the names of two executed friends. He has since written 16 books and won several literary awards. The King was originally published in Dutch in 2011, before being translated into English by essayist and freelance translator Nancy Forest-Flier. The historical fiction can more accurately be described as a modern day revival of the age-old Persian tradition of storytelling to provide accounts of the ancient kings. However, instead of glorifying the feats of kings, such as those found in the Shahnameh, The King is a sobering account of a man burdened with the task of maintaining the idea of that glorious past in a world where the figure of an all-powerful ruler is quickly disappearing.
The King provides a historic interpretation of the reign of Naser al-din Shah told mainly from the Shah’s perspective as fictionalized by Abdolah. He is a king caught in the middle of the struggle between tradition and progress. He is sandwiched between Tsarist Russia and the ever-expanding British Empire. His favor is the object of competition between his grand vizier, Mirza Kabir, more commonly known as Amir Kabir, who desperately wants to advance his homeland through industrialization and education, and his mother, Mahdolia, who pushes her son to be the “king of kings” of Persian legend. Throughout the Shah’s reign, he tends to be one step behind the 19th century progression of technology and thought. He stubbornly pushes back against the demand by his constituency for qanun, majles, edalatkhaneh – constitution, parliament, court of justice – and insists on reserving technological advance, such as electricity, for himself. He deems literacy as a trait unnecessary for the populace and believes matters of government to be beyond their capability. While his citizenry is struggling to feed themselves, the shah is continuously expanding his harem.
On the other hand, Abdolah provides a depiction of the Shah one cannot help but to have empathy for. He is an insecure man unsure of his ability to rule, who is even apprehensive in leaving Iran to tour the European countries. He has a passion for writing poetry and painting, skills he is quite talented in, and a great interest in the novel art of photography – activities that further represent the juxtaposition of tradition and progress inherent throughout the story. He has a great reverence for his mother and eldest daughter, is distraught by the disappearance of his cat, and loathes himself for the execution of Amir Kabir that he orders himself. It seems as though Naser al-din Shah was born into a role he was unfit to occupy - an artist forced to be a king.
The King is a tale worth reading for those interested in exploring different perspectives on history and those just looking for a good story to read. It imagines the plight of a figure caught up in tumultuous times and vividly describes the challenges he faced. The story provides a character that will fill the reader with anger due to the frustrating nature of the Naser al-din Shah’s actions and compassion because of the impossible situation he found himself in. All in all, Kader Abdolah provides a riveting narrative with interesting insight into the interpretation of history and the sometimes-troubling nature of those adorned with great fortune, but also entrusted with great responsibility.