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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Porochista Khakpour flies high on the wings of allegory

A neglected blond boy raised by birds in Iran finds love and disaster in America, in Khakpour's brilliant novel.
An observation deck in the World Trade Center in 2001. The destruction of the Twin Towers becomes a conjuring trick gone horribly real in Khakpour’s superb novel. Spencer Platt / Newsmakers
An observation deck in the World Trade Center in 2001. The destruction of the Twin Towers becomes a conjuring trick gone horribly real in Khakpour’s superb novel. Spencer Platt / Newsmakers

Porochista Khakpour’s second novel comes with a preface that both shines a light on her book’s source – a story from Iran’s national epic, the Shahnameh or Book of Kings – and alerts the reader to her authorial intentions.

Her protagonist, Zal, is named after a great warrior of Persian legend who, we are told, was cast out in infancy by his parents for being an albino, only to be saved and reared by an enormous mythical bird. Armed with this knowledge, we read on prepared for a modern-day spin on this ancient tale, and after squarely meeting our expectations Khakpour goes on to roundly surpass them with the breadth of her inventiveness.

Her beginning reads most like an updated Persian parable. A boy, at this point unnamed, is born in an Iranian village – “a white-blond child in a family of raven-haired folk in a nation almost entirely of raven-haired folk”. Dismissed as a “White Demon”, he is locked in a cage by his mother on her veranda alongside her “angels”, a menagerie of shrieking and chattering birds. There he stays for 10 years, cramped and confined, until he is rescued, adopted and taken to New York for a better life by an American child psycho­logist called Anthony Hendricks. He becomes Zal Hendricks, but, thanks to a documentary broadcast around the world, is also known as the Bird Boy of Tehran.

Khakpour leaves Iran and its ­fables and starts to expand her own narrative. Zal is gradually nursed from a young gibbering wreck unable to walk or talk into a healthier 20-something. Hendricks is given the child he never had, Zal a parent’s love he was previously denied. It is at this point that Khakpour pulls away and introduces the camp, brash self-aggrandiser Bran Silber, supposedly the world’s greatest illusionist. Zal attends his glitzy Vegas show and watches him cheat the audience by “flying”. Backstage, an unlikely friendship develops – Zal’s first. After this comes first love in the form of artist Asiya, another damaged soul. At long last, Zal feels mended, less bird and more human: “A hologram being filled in to flesh; a ghost suddenly acquiring corporeality.”

However, despite this progress, Khakpour tips us the wink that Zal’s rehabilitation is far from complete. He assures his father he has been purged of his bird habits yet guzzles insects on the sly (The Field Book of Insects of North America and other giant picture reference books are the equivalent of “the world’s most illustrious epic menu”). He can’t smile. Mirrors repel him. Airplanes are “giant roaring aluminum-­alloyed birds that he did not like one bit”. As if these temptations and bugbears weren’t enough, Zal discovers alcohol, gets fired from every job and is racked with conflicting desires, particularly towards Asiya’s obese, bedridden sister, Willa.

Khakpour deals us one manic situation after another while traversing the whole comic spectrum, from wildly funny to bitterly caustic. It is only towards the end that she darkens her prose to pitch-black satire. Silber has saved his meanest feat, The Fall of the Towers, till last: on September 11, 2001, he plans to make the World Trade Center disappear. By the time Zal connects this audacious stunt with Asiya’s spate of panic attacks and clairvoyant claims (“It’s coming, Zal. It’s coming for all of us.”) the world has significantly changed. “The illusion had not gone right, but it had not gone wrong, either. It had gone real.”

Khakpour’s debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects (2007), dealt with an Iranian-American family in the aftermath of 9/11. The Last Illusion tracks the fortunes of one Iranian-American in the years leading to it. Khakpour recreates that millenarian paranoia and the aborted apocalypse and then hits us with the real one in her brave restaging of 9/11. In the agonising build-up we witness the many mini-tragedies of Zal’s life and his quest to shrug off his freak tag and adjust to “the strangeness of normalcy”.

The critic James Wood has argued that the trouble with allegory is that it “wants us to know that it is being allegorical”. As true as this may be, it is not a problem here, for Khakpour treads lightly, never foisting on the reader the parallels between her characters and their Persian-legend antecedents. Where she occasionally presses hard is with her avian motif: Asiya feels “like a strange bird”, Zal gets a job in a pet shop and wants to free the birds and Silber yearns to fly like one.

In the end, Khakpour’s wily ­imagination and broken and ­endearing characters hold everything together. To play Khakpour at her own game, this is a novel that takes flight and soars.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.

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