SHAHRZAD & THE ANGRY KING
By Nahid Kazemi
Angry kings storm through literature. In “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the earliest extant poem that has come down to us, the people of Uruk entreat the gods to save them from their ruler’s raping and plundering. In “The Thousand and One Nights,” Sultan Shahryar takes a virgin every night and kills her in the morning. And in many classic fairy tales, ogres and Bluebeards are undone by the cleverness and courage of young protagonists. “Shahrzad & the Angry King” takes its cue from this tradition.
A gentle and beguiling picture book with a spirited child heroine at its heart, it’s a fable for our troubled times. Shahrzad is a scrap of a girl, with round currant bun eyes, heavy brows and a wild Afro-style mop of hair, but she is also a reincarnation of her famous precursor, Scheherazade. We are invited to follow this enterprising urchin, in a sprigged greeny-blue tunic, striped shorts and flip-flops, as she scoots blithely on her own through an unnamed, generic contemporary metropolis.
The artist-writer Nahid Kazemi is Iranian, went to art school in Tehran, where she began her career, and now lives in Canada; the theme of cultural loss colors some of her earlier works, such as “The Orange House” (2016). Kazemi doesn’t specify the place, the time or the ethnicity of her angry king — dark-haired and bearded, his trousers tucked into his boots, he looks vaguely Central Asian — but it’s clear that, like many mythic and fairy-tale tyrants, he stands in for rulers everywhere who, in history and in the present day, will do any amount of harm to their own people rather than relinquish power. He’s a stock villain, almost a cartoon figure, except that so many world leaders have made cartoonishness all too real.
Kazemi’s plotline adopts the premise of “The Thousand and One Nights”: the conversion of the tyrant. In the Arabic classic, Sultan Shahryar finds himself listening with rapt attention to the stories Scheherazade tells him night after night, and spares her day after day — until, after the 1,001st night, he repents of his ways. This type of narrative is a ransom tale: Scheherazade’s stories save her life, her sister’s life, all women’s lives. Over the folk tale’s long duration, we see its arc bend toward justice and mercy.
Shahrzad’s tale is very short, the story simple; its words are sparse, its drawings disarmingly naïve. But this seeming artlessness skillfully blends many kinds of storytelling, from observation to fantasy. Shahrzad “fell in love with stories,” we’re told, “long before she could read or write.” When she makes her first appearance in the book, she already has pen and notebook in hand. We follow her as she listens in on conversations — some among adults, some among kids her own age: “She found stories everywhere — in people’s faces and gestures, in shops and cafes and throughout the city’s streets.” Here she’s acting like a journalist (think the boy reporter Tintin), a witness, even a child spy. “She listened to every story she came upon, with a smile from ear to ear.”
The resourceful Shahrzad stores up what she has learned. We see her mulling her material as she sits on the toilet (a scene that’s sure to elicit gasps and laughs) and as she takes a shower (still wearing her underpants). Then she starts to “regale others” with stories she has heard, inspiring some of Kazemi’s most affectionate drawing. The attitudes struck by the listeners, as they sprawl on the ground or the floor, prop themselves up on their elbows, loll in chairs with their pets about them, all the while gazing enthralled at the storyteller, are wonderfully observed, economical and lighthearted, displaying the carefree bravura of celebrated illustrators such as Quentin Blake and Charlotte Voake. Kazemi has a way with off-kilter alignments — showing crossed legs and even slightly crossed eyes — that make her characters comically endearing. This tableau exudes community well-being, a theme that will become more important as the plot develops.
Shahrzad’s role here is closer to that of a bard, or a West African griotte or Middle Eastern hakawati. She’s performing, relating back to her world a picture of its thoughts and deeds.
One day she comes upon a young boy sitting by himself on a park bench. He’s miserable because he and his family have had to flee their home; their country is suffering under a tyrant’s cruel oppression.
The angry king of the title now enters Kazemi’s story, bringing with him a different order of narrative: news from afar and news of today, history and politics. With this broadened perspective comes a change of style in the illustrations: rich washes of translucent watercolor, Islamicate architecture, enclosed courtyards, armored guards.
The motive for the sultan’s violence in “The Thousand and One Nights” is traditional dyed-in-the-wool misogyny. He’s been provoked, we’re told, by women’s wickedness and his queen’s orgy with her slaves. The cause of the angry king’s rage in Kazemi’s tale is sorrow. His wife and child have died, and he wants everyone to be as unhappy as he is. He is not deluded or proud or murderous, just a dog in the manger, a grim Taliban-like puritan who has banned laughter.
The woebegone boy’s fate affects Shahrzad deeply. No longer a sleuth eavesdropping on neighborhood gossip, she imagines herself in his shoes. This empathy gives her a mission. To achieve it, reportage and bardic chronicling won’t suffice; Shahrzad turns instead to imagination and daydreaming. She picks up a toy airplane in a store and flies into the presence of the angry king himself, stepping firmly into her namesake’s role.
With this confrontation, Kazemi mobilizes two vital dynamics of the original folk tale. First, Scheherazade holds a mirror up to Sultan Shahryar, giving him one example after another of princely conduct — and misconduct — according to the medieval genre of handbooks for rulers. Second, she enacts the ancient principle of bringing about recognition (anagnorisis). It’s no good trotting out examples if your target audience doesn’t see itself portrayed, exposed and shamed.
Shahrzad taunts the angry king by suggesting he isn’t as enraged as he says he is and tells him many many stories — some of “fear, sadness, death, and the loss of family and home,” others about “people in lands ruled by happy kings.” As the king unwinds, he sheds his crown, his boots, his throne and is stirred to feel a range of emotions. Eventually, much to her surprise, Shahrzad finds she has succeeded. The king revokes his cruel laws and the people are once again free to dance, giving Kazemi another opportunity for a double-page spread of buoyant, inventive drawing, ecumenical as to body shapes, with expressive gestures, poses, leaps, struts and general élan.
Shahrzad will tell the boy her daydream to give him hope. At the close, with her loopily cross-eyed cat for company, she sets about writing it down. That is the plan and the wish of this story, and it goes to the heart of fairy tales, which are, as Italo Calvino put it, “consolatory fables.”
But winning and delightful as it is, there is a less satisfactory aspect to “Shahrzad & the Angry King.” Unlike her forebear, Shahrzad has become the heroine of the tale she tells. The cover image reinforces this perspective, showing her facing forward at the controls of a small plane, flying solo, in a pilot’s cap and dark glasses — a Qaddafi look. At first, I mistook her for the angry king. This was of course a mistake, though as the subject of a daydream she is playing all the parts.
Her story may present an enjoyable fantasy in a Walter Mittyish mode. But it enlists readers to identify self-flatteringly with Shahrzad, as she joins the ever-growing number of child protagonists who act as autonomous agents and omnipotent influencers. The effect is to diminish the book’s own strong, early message: that when anger does not rule, a society flourishes on reciprocal, mutual activities, such as dancing and gathering in parks. As Brecht’s Galileo comments, “Unhappy the land that needs heroes.”