In the old bazaars of Isphahan and Shiraz, you will find storytellers who perform their tales from the Persian epic — Shahnameh or Book of Kings — that was collected into a vast compendium by the poet Firdausi. Of course, to Western readers, the most celebrated of storytellers was Scheherazade, who kept the Sultan entranced as she spun her tales out for 1001 nights.
Porochista Khakpour is a modern Scheherazade. A writer and an academic, who has won many accolades in the competitive hothouse of New York, she has winged her way back into the mythic realm of ancient Iran and placed an unlikely hero named Zal walking into the clamour of New York on the cusp of the 21st century. She is like the Simurgh herself. The Simurgh is a marvellous creature in the Shahnameh ; a phoenix-like bird of gigantic proportions who takes it upon herself to nurture Zal, a strange albino princeling, when his royal parents reject him. It’s obviously a story that fascinated the young Khakpour when her father read it out to her in her adoptive city, New York, where the family had moved as exiles. She’s made Zal, the rejected boy, a freak in her account.
Zal begins life as a bird-boy living in a cage fed only grubs and seeds and later as a man who has the longings and hungers of a bird. He is the last child of a mother born too late in a village in Iran. She brings him up among a menagerie of birds that she keeps in cages until he is “discovered” by an American visitor named Hendricks, who studies children born in the wild, or “feral children”. He is a collector of sorts. When Hendricks hears of the ‘feral child”, as Zal is termed, he sets out to Tehran and nurtures him to normalcy of a kind, with surrogate parenting and surgery followed by intense counselling by a professional therapist.
Up to this point, Khakpour’s account is fascinating. In the Shahnameh , Zal leaves the Simurgh’s nest and finds his destiny awaiting him. The Simurgh gives him three magical feathers before he leaves and tells him she will always be there for him, as he finds his true self as a warrior and a prince.
Khakpour’s Zal has a tougher time. For one thing, Khakpour herself appears to be inordinately fond of freaks. There is a preternaturally thin, rich self-obsessed New York girl named Asiya, a photographer of dead birds, who takes a fancy to Zal. Her sister Willa is so abnormally obese that she can’t get out of the bed in their old-world mansion. We are given to understand that Zal, who cannot have the normal feelings of a human being, has the hots for her. There’s also a dysfunctional brother named Zak thrown in for crude relief.
Zal is also an object of interest to a magician named Bran Silberman, who has a penchant for flying objects. Bran is about to create the “The Last Illusion” and wants to make the iconic World Trade Centre building in New York vanish or, as Harry Potter fans will say, “disapparate”. We know long before the final act that this is Khakpour’s way of mythologising the events leading to 9/11.
Does Zal survive the apocalypse? Is it the price that he has to pay before he can call himself a man, that too an American man? These are questions that remain mildly intriguing. There are portions that are reminiscent of Gore Vidal’s Kalki , as the sky rains flakes of white. Are they signals of the nuclear night as in Vidal, or feathers as in the Shahnameh , or as Zal notices, the dust from the falling buildings? The cover depicts a “Fravashi”, a Zoroastrian symbol of the spirit going forward, with the skyline of New York at the edge. Poroschista Kakhpour has drawn upon myth and memory to create a journey of infinite possibilities.
The Last Illusion;Porochista Khakpour, Bloomsbury, Rs.450.