SHAHRZAD AND THE ANGRY KING
By Nahid Kazemi
Angry kings swarm literature. In “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, the oldest poem that has come down to us, the inhabitants of Uruk implore the gods to save them from the rapes and pillages of their ruler. In “One 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 defeated by the wits and courage of the young protagonists. “Shahrzad & the Angry King” is inspired by this tradition.
A sweet and seductive picture book with a spirited child heroine at its heart, it’s a fable for our troubled times. Shahrzad is one piece of a girl, with round gooseberry bun eyes, thick eyebrows, and a wild afro-style hair, but she’s also a reincarnation of her famous forerunner, Scheherazade. We are invited to follow this enterprising kid, in a blue-green tunic with studs, striped shorts and flip-flops, as she spins briskly alone through a generic and nameless contemporary metropolis.
The artist-writer Nahid Kazemi is Iranian, studied at the School of Fine Arts in Tehran, where she began her career, and now lives in Canada; the theme of cultural loss colors some of his earlier works, such as “The Orange House” (2016). Kazemi does not specify the location, time or ethnicity of his angry king – dark-haired and bearded, his trousers tucked into his boots, he looks vaguely Central Asian – but it is clear that, like many tyrants myths and fairy tales, he everywhere replaces the rulers who, in history and in the present day, will harm their own people rather than relinquish power. He’s a basic villain, almost a cartoon character, except so many world leaders have made the cartoon look too real.
Kazemi’s plot takes up the premise of “One Thousand and One Nights”: the conversion of the tyrant. In the Arabic classic, Sultan Shahryar finds himself listening with close attention to the stories Scheherazade tells him night after night and spares him day after day – until after the 1,001st night he repents of his manners. This type of story is a ransom tale: the stories of Scheherazade save her life, the life of her sister, the life of all women. Over the folktale’s long run, we see its arc bend toward justice and mercy.
Shahrzad’s story is very short, the story simple; his words are sparse, his drawings disarmingly naive. But this apparent naivety skillfully mixes many types of storytelling, from observation to fantasy. Shahrzad “fell in love with stories”, we are told, “long before she could read or write”. When she makes her first appearance in the book, she already has a pen and a notebook in hand. We follow her as she listens to conversations – some between adults, some between children her own age: “She found stories everywhere – in people’s faces and gestures, in shops and cafes and in city streets.” Here, she behaves like a journalist (think of the boy reporter Tintin), a witness, even a child spy. “She listened to every story she encountered, with a smile from ear to ear.”
The ingenious Shahrzad stores what she has learned. We see her pondering her gear as she sits on the toilet (a scene that’s sure to elicit gasps and laughs) and takes a shower (still in her underwear). Then she begins to “regale others” with stories she has heard, inspiring some of Kazemi’s most loving drawings. The attitudes taken by the listeners, while they are spread out on the ground or on the floor, leaning on their elbows, slumping on chairs with their animals around them, while gazing in wonder at the storyteller, are marvelously observed, thrifty and lighthearted, displaying the carefree bravery of famous illustrators such as Quentin Blake and Charlotte Voake. Kazemi has a way with staggered lineups — showing crossed legs and even slightly crossed eyes — that make her characters comically endearing. This tableau exudes the well-being of the community, a theme that will become more prominent as the plot develops.
Shahrzad’s role here is closer to that of a bard, a West African morello cherry, or a Middle Eastern hakawati. She plays, bringing back to her world an image of her thoughts and deeds.
One day, she comes across a young boy sitting alone on a park bench. He is unhappy because he and his family had to flee their home; their country suffers under the cruel oppression of a tyrant.
The angry king of the title now enters Kazemi’s story, bringing with it a different narrative order: news from afar and news from today, history and politics. This expanded perspective is accompanied by a change of style in the illustrations: rich translucent watercolor washes, Islamist architecture, closed courtyards, armored guards.
The motive for the sultan’s violence in “One Thousand and One Nights” is outright traditional misogyny. It was provoked, we are told, by the wickedness of women and the orgy of his queen with her slaves. The cause of the rage of the angry king in the tale of Kazemi is grief. His wife and child are dead and he wants everyone to be as unhappy as he is. He is neither fooled nor proud nor murderous, just a dog in the manger, a sinister Taliban-like puritan who has banned laughter.
The unfortunate boy’s fate deeply affects Shahrzad. No longer a detective listening to neighborhood gossip, she imagines herself in her place. This empathy gives him a mission. To achieve this, the report and the bardic chronicle will not be enough; Shahrzad turns instead to imagination and daydreaming. She picks up a toy plane from a store and flies in the presence of the angry king himself, firmly taking on the role of her namesake.
With this confrontation, Kazemi mobilizes two vital dynamics of the original folktale. First, Scheherazade holds up a mirror to Sultan Shahryar, giving him one example after another of princely conduct – and misconduct – according to the medieval genre of ruler’s handbooks. Second, it enacts the ancient principle of recognition (anagnorisis). There’s no point in giving examples if your target audience doesn’t get portrayed, exposed, and humiliated.
Shahrzad taunts the angry king by suggesting that he is not as enraged as he says he is and tells him many stories – some about “fear, sadness, death and loss of family and house”, others on “the inhabitants of the ruled lands”. by happy kings. As the king relaxes, he strips off his crown, boots, throne, and is agitated to experience a range of emotions. Eventually, to her surprise, Shahrzad finds out that 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 of dynamic and inventive designs, ecumenical in body shapes, with expressive gestures, poses, leaps, legs and general momentum. .
Shahrzad will tell the boy about his reverie to give him hope. In the end, with her goofy-eyed cat for company, she sets about writing it. This is the design and the wish of this story, and it goes to the heart of fairy tales, which are, as Italo Calvino says, “consoling fables”.
But as winning and delicious as it is, there’s a less satisfying aspect to “Shahrzad & the Angry King.” Unlike her ancestor, 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, with a pilot’s cap and dark glasses – a Gaddafi look. At first, I took her for the angry king. This was of course a mistake, although as the subject of a daydream she plays all the roles.
His story can present an enjoyable fantasy in a Walter Mittyish mode. But it inspires readers to flatteringly identify with Shahrzad as she joins the ever-growing number of child protagonists who act as empowered agents and omnipotent influencers. The effect is to diminish the strong and early message of the book: that when anger does not reign, a society thrives through reciprocal and mutual activities, such as dancing and gatherings in parks. As Galileo of Brecht comments, “Unhappy is the country that needs heroes”.