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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The King

Kader Abdolah

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To purchase The King

Title: The King
Author: Kader Abdolah
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 383 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The King - US
The King - UK
The King - Canada
The King - India
Der König - Deutschland
Il re - Italia
  • Dutch title: De koning
  • Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier

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Our Assessment:

B : light, quick, engaging bit of semi-historical fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 28/2/2014 Azadeh Moaveni
The Independent . 24/1/2014 Jane Jakeman
The Times . 1/2/2014 Kate Saunders

  From the Reviews:
  • "The King spans a transformative era during which Iran was opening up to the world, warding off the competing interests of Britain and Russia as the struggle between tradition and modernity took shape. It could also be read as a fable of contemporary Iran, so chronic are the political ills that it describes (.....) Though there are some clichés and infelicities in the English translation, the story is rich with subtle touches" - Azadeh Moaveni, Financial Times

  • "The unadorned ‘barebones’ style of telling exposes serious historical themes, including the rise of new religious movements as well as political struggle." - Jane Jakeman, The Independent

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The King of the title is Shah Naser, a lightly fictionalized version of Naser al-Din Shah (1831-1896), the Qajar ruler of Persia (modern-day Iran) from 1848 to his death. In sixty-four fairly short chapters Abdolah presents both major and minor episodes of his life and reign, imagining how the shah lived and came to take the actions and decisions he did. While the time the book is set in is easily identified from the historical events and general circumstances (state of technology, etc.), Abdolah makes it a sort of timeless tale by avoiding any fixation on specific dates, as is often common in historical fiction. It is all the more effective here, because many of the shah's errors and ways, and the actions and reactions of other parties -- foreign powers, ayatollahs -- are eerily similar to the goings-on in twentieth- and now twenty-first-century Persia and Iran.
       The vizier, Mirza Kabir (based on the historical Amir Kabir), who had: "instructed the shah in the ways of the world" in his youth is also his first adviser and, as vizier, the country's prime minister, the wise administrator handed down from the shah's father. The vizier knows that the shah -- still a teenager when he takes over the throne -- is perhaps not ideally suited to lead:

The shah was his father's son: weak. But he was also his mother's son: vindictive, hungry for power, obstinate and headstrong.
       With the shah's mother, Mahdolia, still in the picture, the shah is also torn between the advice of these two people who think they know best. The vizier is a progressive reformer, looking towards the European example of industrialization and the embrace of international trade as the only way forward for this backwater nation that is threatened by neighboring Russia and the British. The petty Mahdolia's concerns are more personal -- and she tries to undermine the vizier at every step. It comes as no surprise who wins that battle.
       Among Mahdolia and the shah's ambitions are a restoration of some of Persia's glory with the reconquest of Herat -- a poor choice of priorities, especially since the Persian's have long neglected their far more valuable coastline (which will prove increasingly valuable as the usefulness of the oil that is found in so much of the country becomes more apparent). The vizier counsels against a focus on retaking Herat but is overruled; the campaign was an almost entirely Pyrrhic victory (and as far as victories went, very short-lived).
       The two powerful outside forces -- Britain and Russia -- both had designs of sorts on Persia, and the shah wasn't entirely able to play them off each other. The British, in particular, forced themselves on Persia, extracting notable concessions though the country did remain independent. Many of the conflicts that are described, such as the uproar over the granting of the tobacco concession to the British and the reaction to that, are, in their broad strokes, accurate.
       The shah also travels to Europe, the first Persian ruler to do so (and a rare foreign trip for a Persian ruler that was not one just of conquest), though Abdolah does not describe much of the months-long trip itself. The shah's relationships -- with his beloved daughter, Taj; his cat, Sharmin; the boy who comes to replace his cat as his pet, Malijak; his vast harem -- are also important parts of the novel, suggesting the personality behind the person (and displaying, repeatedly, his unfitness to rule).
       There are advancements during his reign -- the telegraph, the beginnings of electrification -- but Shah Naser's reign is more marked by its failures, and by how they set the stage for Persia and the Iran's future, with so many lessons not learned and similar mistakes repeated. The King is an entertaining novel of an overmatched country that remains very much a pawn in the the greater global games and economy, with a ruler unable and unwilling to take the steps necessary to make the nation he is meant to lead truly independent, competitive, and strong. Much of what still ails contemporary Iran is already prominently on display here, often in only slightly different form.
       In skipping along through nineteenth-century Persian history, Abdolah provides an interesting if limited glimpse of the country's history and development. The short chapters serve the story well, as Abdolah -- leaning on older Persian epics -- has a nice way of recounting various adventures and episodes, from the domestic to the international. His focus here is very personal, too, on the shah -- an odd and somewhat frustrating sort of character -- though Abdolah is less successful in creating a larger picture of court life (outside of perhaps the harem), in part because so many of the encounters are structured one on one, the characters' interactions with the shah generally individual -- and then replaced by the next person to come on stage. So, while the shah genuinely seems to have a good relationship with his beloved daughter, there is little sense of a larger family life here -- she just appears and then disappears in his life, as needed.
       Breezily entertaining, The King is a bit of an odd hybrid, neither entirely convincing as historical fiction (Abdolah consciously taking too many liberties for it to pass for that), nor as just an invented tale. Still, it's a fine introduction to modern Persia, and an entertaining story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 October 2014

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The King: Reviews: Other books by Kader Abdolah under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       'Kader Abdolah' is the pen name of an author born in Iran in 1954. He moved to the Netherlands in 1988 and now writes in Dutch.

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© 2014-2021 the complete review

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