cover image The King

The King

Kader Abdolah, trans. from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier. New Directions, $24.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2373-7

The third novel from Iranian-born Dutch writer Abdolah to be published in English (after My Father’s Notebook) offers a gripping account of 19th-century Persia and the enigmatic king Shah Naser. Abdolah paints the shah’s 48-year reign, from 1848 to 1896, as a period of brutal repression, stubborn resistance to modernization, and luxury amid squalor. Cruel but weak Shah Naser is torn between the dueling influences of his reform-minded grand vizier and conniving traditionalist mother, Mahdolia. Forever anxious about any challenge to his authority, he executes his seven brothers after they rebel against him. However, even these external struggles for the throne cannot compare to the petty power games which constantly rage in the shah’s harem. Over the years, Persia tries to defend itself against invading Russians in the north, British forces in the south, and religious zealots and powerful political opponents like Jamal Khan. But while the police and army carry out ruthless reprisals against dissenters, the shah himself worries more about his daughter’s wedding and finding a suitable heir. The strength of this book lies in its vivid picture of a beleaguered society that refuses to look to the future, clings futilely to the past, and ignores modern innovations. (Sept.)