The Persian-Dutch writer Kader Abdolah was an opponent of the regimes of both the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini, ultimately fleeing to the Netherlands as a political refugee in 1988. He has a degree in Physics, was Writer in Residence at Leiden University in 2006, and has written a large number of novels. The King (“De koning” in Dutch) was originally published in 2011, and translated from Dutch in 2015 by Nancy Forest-Flier.
Enter the court of Shah Naser: a breeding ground for political intrigue, envy and dazzling extravagance, a court that is caught between medievalism and modernity. Shah Naser is generally presented as a vain, whimsical and overall incompetent figure. This unflattering depiction is unsurprising considering Abdolah’s political stance. Characterisation is probably the strongest part of the novel. The Shah is not vilified: rather, he is an individual who became the ruler of a country without sufficient preparation and had too many advisors and acquaintances bent on self-aggrandisement. He has his moments of tenderness and compassion, but this is often overshadowed by his sullenness and refusal to comply with his vizier’s suggested reforms to modernise the country.
As with most historical novels, the plot is rooted in fact, but the narrative is often rendered in a sensationalist manner. For instance, the vizier Mirza Kabir was in fact sent to Kashan under duress, and executed six weeks later. In the novel, he is dramatically whisked away in a Nacht-und-Nebel directive after reciting “the words you recite [from the Qur’an] when you are certain that death is near.” Some readers might object to this dramatised version, but arguably, the reason for this delivery is that The King is written in the tradition of the fairy or folk tale – 1.001 Nights comes to mind. This is supported by the final chapter which, to some extent, invites the reader to create their own ending. Another aspect of the novel that speaks in favour of this view is that the writing style is quite simple. Sentences are generally very short and sometimes tend to explain slightly more than is necessary: “The king was thunderstruck by this ‘demon child’ and ordered a servant to kill him. But the servant did not kill him.” As with the added drama, this might prove jarring for some readers, although it does make the novel extremely easy to read. Coupled with the complexity of the historical events, this means The King is a page-turner.
However, some technical aspects cannot be explained away by saying they belong in the trope of a fairy tale. For instance, at one point we read “In the middle of the garden was a large pond filled with colourful fish and surrounded by wooden divans. Majestic carpets were scattered everywhere, and everything was decorated in fine, colourful silk.” The overabundance of adjectives can be said to represent the affluence of Shah Naser’s court, or even to complement the form of the fairy tale. However, the repetition of rather non-descript adjectives such as “colourful” in two subsequent sentences is a stylistic faux-pas. It is of course possible that this particular example was overlooked during the editing process, or that the desired effect was lost in translation, but similar instances are littered throughout the book and probably should have been avoided.
The King is fun to read, and compelling because Persian history provides all the back-stabbing and glamour one could wish for. Perhaps it is for this reason that the extra embellishments seem somewhat out of place, even though they serve to illustrate the Shah’s decadence. Moreover, the simple writing style can appear dull after the vizier’s death. However, it is perhaps a demonstration of Abdolah’s writing prowess that it feels like the novel ends after the demise of Mirza Kabir, to whom the novel is dedicated.