William Dalrymple has notably hailed Kader Abdolah’s The King as fabulous in both senses of the word: a knowing fable full of charm and deceptively simple in its storytelling.
The King may indeed read like one of the late Angela Carter’s fairy tales transposed into the 19th century Qajar Persian court, told by a masterful and addictive storyteller.
Abdolah’s gift is to keep the slow fire burning in the midst of a maelstrom, to unveil a matrix of plots which simmer patiently on the back burner until their time has come, at the heart of which is Naser Muhammad Fatali Mozafar, a Persian prince born into the royal court of Tehran. The young shah has 374 iffy brothers, a mother as Machiavellian as Livia in I Claudius and a harem of 230 wives, which requires servicing beyond his stamina, continuously drained by the tendency of the modern world to encroach across the borders of his medieval kingdom to sieve his country’s subterranean resources
The King – as a sepulchral fairy tale – has many plots within plots as a stray dog has fleas, a tattered web of etiolated silk, at the centre of which is the apparently omniscient Shah Naser, kept in tune with the changing world outside by the tributary of knowledge that is his personal grand vizier, plying his trade like Arachne in the shadow of Minerva
In this constellation, each star will have its day, and though Shah Naser is introduced as a pampered crown prince, he metamorphoses into a tyrant ably disposed to severing a limb or two to save the corporeal kingdom.
Abdolah – a pen name created in memoriam to friends who died from persecution in Iran – has lived in political exile in Holland for quarter of a century, and you don’t need to tax the imagination to draw parallels between The King and the tortured history of modern Iran: the Shah is both gilded lily and despot, cat loving and trigger happy, brooding lover and blood thirsty megalomaniac, a lanceolate monarch with an ingot for a heart. But above all, as the crimson tide ebbs and flows and the cast list diminishes, a born survivor, who learns to stand on his own two feet but always, you suspect, a victim in waiting to his hubristic arrogance.
Abdolah, who joined a secret leftist party that fought against the dictatorship of the Shah and the subsequent reign of the ayatollahs, is an impeccable, almost detached writer, with the pulse of his engagement just about audible, but with The King he has unearthed the best modern fairly tale in the tradition of 1001 Nights since Craig Thompson’s Habibi.