King of the Benighted
Novella attributed to Houshang Golshiri
June 8, 2000
Houshang Golshiri, a prominent writer and human rights activist died
on June 5, at the age of 63. In 1991, a book was published in English called
of the Benighted or Shaah-e siyaah-pooshaan (1990, Mage Publishers). The name of Manuchehr Irani
appeared on the cover as the author.
Abbas Milani who translated the book, explained in an afterward that
the novella was sent to him in several individual envelops, each containing
radom pages of what eventually turned out to be a brilliant novella called
of the Benighted.
Soon after the book's publication, some critics suggested that the
novella's prose and narrative structure could only be the work of Houshang
Golshiri. Now that Golshiri is dead, Milani too has indicated that in his
of the Benighted, in its sophisticated prose, its successful incorpration
of classics of Persian literature in a modern work of fiction, and its
clever structure can be the work of noone other than Golshiri.
-- Excerpt from the novella
-- Excerpt from the prologue
-- Excerpt from the introduction
Excerpt from King of the Benighted:
Again this morning as he opened his eyes, he saw that
Farkhondeh's mother was not staring or even glancing furtively, as the
living do, but looking at him from the depth of the two glazed eyes that
were left of her in the picture, with that grey and limpid color of a much
reprinted black and white picture. Her hair was disheveled, and she was
looking at him. She had said, "What's the meaning of it all?"
By the bedside, standing there, perhaps on top of the dressing table,
and frameless, between the two silvery hooks of a light wooden base, in
such a way that it occasionally seemed to quiver.
The picture had been taken years ago, when Farkhondeh was probably only
five or six; it had stood there on the dressing table for fifteen or sixteen
years. When Grandfather died, she put his picture in the lower corner of
the mirror. When her brother disappeared (they still say he might be a
prisoner of war, although there has been no news of him or about a year),
his picture was added to the other two. It is in the upper right hand corner
of the mirror. The nice thing about Grandfather's picture is that it doesn't
seem to stare at him, although you can see his eyes. When Grandfather died,
he was already blind, with dark glasses. His eyes, or whatever is left
of them in the photograph, don't say anything.
He turned his back to the picture, and said, "What a graveyard
He rolled over. Maybe it was all because of the hejleh he had seen on
the street corner yesterday afternoon. A martyred soldier or a revolutionary
guard. He no longer remembered names. It might still be there. A little
boy, plate in hand, was giving out dates as alms. All around the glittering
hejleh hung pictures of the young martyr. Youthful, smiling, beardless.
Perhaps he had been only old enough to have had down on his face. He must
have just shaved to leave a hint of beard on his countenance. That was
it. Two other young men, dressed completely in black, sat on the front
step of the closed store. They were talking. That's it. A young man, barely
bearded, and dressed in black, was looking at him.
When the phone rang, he didn't answer, yet he remembered. How could
he have forgotten? Well, that's how things are, first the news on the phone,
then maybe a memorial service, or even a visit to the cemetery, and that
is it. He had seen Amir Khan only three or at most four times.
Excerpt from the prologue to King of the Benighted translated
by Abbas Milani:
The Black Dome is a part of a longer poem called Haft Peykar (Seven
Beauties) by the Persian poet Nizami of Ganja (1141-1203). The seven beauties
refer to seven portraits of daughters of different kings-p;from the Raj
of India and the Khaghan of China to the Shah of Kharazm and the king of
the West, or "Sunset-land." When Bahram the Sassanian King, discovers
these portraits, he falls in love with them, and, upon succeeding to the
throne vacated by the death of his father Yazdigird, he marries all seven
princesses. The represent the climes into which the habitable world is
divided and are lodged in separate symbolically colored palaces, beginning
with the black and ending with the white. Bahram then visits them on seven
successive days. This is the story of the first night.
On Saturday, Bahram, clothed in black from head to foot, went to the
Black Dome where his bride, the daughter of the Raj of India lived. He
asked the Princess to tell him a story and she, with her head cast down,
said: When I was a child, a pious and compassionate woman visited our house
once a month, and she always wore black. After many persistent inquiries,
she finally acquiesced and told us the secret of her unusual attire.
When I was young, the woman said, I was servant to a mighty King in
whose land sheep and wolves lived in amity. Yet fate had it that he would
become the King of the Benighted, and the story I'll tell you is
the tale of how he came to wear black for the rest of his life.
He was a benevolent king with an insatiable desire to learn the ways
and the wonders of the world. At his command, a house was set up where
all visitors to the land enjoyed the fruits of his hospitality. There the
king, with his keen and curious mind, asked each visitor about his homeland,
his travels, his plans and adventures. As men search for precious stones,
the king sought to collect tales about other men and their lives. The richer
his collection became, the hungrier he was to learn more.
But suddenly the King vanished. Like Simurg, the mythical bird, he too
disappeared from our midst. A long time passed and then one day the king,
completely dressed in black, reappeared and again ascended his throne.
One night, as I was tending to his needs, he began to lament the turns
of his fortune. I sought the secret of his sorrow and this is the story
You know of my habit of entertaining visitors to my land. From each
I would ask about their city and its wonders. One day a wanderer arrived
dressed in black. I asked about his peculiar attire. He asked me to cease
my inquiry, reminding me that no one has ever learned the secret of Simurg.
The more I preservers, the more he persisted in his silence. "Only
the ebony-clad can grasp the essence of this blackness," he said.
Yet I persisted, and he finally said:
"There is a beautiful city in China called the City of the Bedazzled.
There everyone is in mourning." The wanderer then refused to utter
another word and soon disappeared. Amazed by this tale, I resolved to solve
the mystery of the city. Yet nobody seemed to know anything about the place.
Finally, I temporarily relinquished my throne, and taking some jewels with
me, I set out to find that mysterious city.
Excerpt from the introduction to King of the Benighted by
At a time when the world has just celebrated the end of a decade marked
with momentous change, it would seem inappropriate to speak of The Demonic
Decade--the title the poet protagonist of King of the Benighted
has bestowed upon a collection of his own poems. But his perspective is
that of an Iranian who witnessed the brutal end of another era in 1979.
If we expect "The Demonic Decade" to set the tone of this
novella, we are in for a surprise. King of the Benighted is not
a litany of shattered ideals; it is a startling and at times ironic self-examination
which never loses sight of the absurd and the humorous.
Led away to interrogation, the hero is grateful for small mercies: "So
long as they hit with a book and on his head, then there is something to
rejoice for." Political commitment has given way to personal obsession.
Will all of his books fit into the few boxes the interrogators have brought?
Will they take away his precious copy of Nizami's thirteenth-century poem?
Will the cracked wing of the plaster angel, standing in his garden, survive
Those seeking the definitive symbolic meaning of every utterance made
by the anonymous narrator will have their expectations thwarted at every
turn. Like the thirteenth-century poem on which King of the Benighted
is superimposed, this novella works on many levels. The poet's remarks
about Nizami's The Black Dome are an apt description of the way in which
his own novella should be read: "Well, that was the story. That is
what he read. What counts is the interpretation. It has to be an inner
experience, everyone must go through it."
Abbas Milani belongs to a new generation of Iranian intellectuals,
now living abroad, who have worked in Iran before, during and after the
revolution. Dr. Milani lives in California, where he is chairman of the
Department of Social Science at the College of Notre Dame, Belmont.
Nasrin Rahimieh is an assistant professor and Canada Research Fellow
at the University of Alberta. She has published a book on Middle Eastern
writers in exile and is completing a second on travelogues.