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Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings (Penguin Classics) Paperback – March 8, 2016
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Dick Davis [is] our pre-eminent translator from the Persian...Thanks to Davis's magnificent translation, Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh live again in English -- Michael Dirda * Washington Post * Accessible...A poet himself, Davis brings to his translation a nuanced awareness of Ferdowsi's subtle rhythms and cadences. His "Shahnameh" is rendered in an exquisite blend of poetry and prose, with none of the antiquated flourishes that so often mar translations of epic poetry -- Reza Aslan (author of Zealot) * New York Times Books Review * Davis's wonderful translation will show Western readers why Ferdowsi's masterpiece is one of the most revered and most beloved classics in the Persian world. -- Khaled Hosseini
About the Author
Abolqasem Ferdowsi was born in Khorasan in a village near Tus in 940. His great epic, Shahnameh, was originally composed for the Samanid princes of Khorasan. Ferdowsi died around 1020 in poverty.
Dick Davis (translator) is professor emeritus of Persian at Ohio State University and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His translations from Persian include Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz and Vis and Ramin.
Azar Nafisi (forward) is the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Things I’ve Been Silent About, and The Republic of Imagination. She lives in Washington, D.C.
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Abolqasem Ferdowsi. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Dick Davis, Translator. New York: Penguin Books, 2016. $30. ISBN: 978-0-14-310832-0. 996pp.
It is a treat to have received a free copy of this great reference book. I always enjoy researching some of the earliest and most complicating books in human history, and this certainly qualifies as a monumental achievement. Abolqasem Ferdowsi was born in a village in Persia, now Iran, in 940 CE, and rose from this humble beginning in scholarly achievement to be funded by the Samanid dynasty that sponsored his writing of this one single book across the entirety of his long adult life. I love the ending in this book, in which the writer finally takes the first-person voice and complains about the indignities he suffered as a dependent of the kings that he spent his life writing about.
After sixty-five years had passed over my head, I toiled ever more diligently and with greater difficulty at my task. I searched out the history of the kings, but my star was a laggard one. Nobles and great men wrote down what I had written without paying me: I watched them from a distance, as if I were a hired servant of theirs. I had nothing from them but their congratulations; my gall bladder was ready to burst with their congratulations! Their purses of hoarded coins remained closed, and my bright heart grew weary at their stinginess. But of the renowned men of my district, Ali Daylami helped me, and that honored man Hosayn Qotayb never asked for my works for nothing. I received food and clothing, silver and gold from him, and it was he who gave me the will to continue. I never had to worry about paying taxes and was able to wrap myself in my quilt in comfort, and when I reached the age of seventy-one, the heavens humbled themselves before my verses…
The above is the translator’s prose version of the multi-volume poem with rhyming couplets at the end of stanzas. The poem ends following the above content with these verses:
I’ve reached the end of this great history
And all the land will fill with talk of me:
I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save
My name and reputation from the grave,
And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,
When I have gone, my praises and my fame (962).
Right before the above, the last section of the poem describes a rebellion against a king, followed by the violent execution of the rebel that assumed the throne, Mahuy, by the king that stepped in to defend the conquered city, Bizhan. The description of the execution is so brutal it might be fit for a modern black comedy film: “He cut off Mahuy’s hands with his sword and said, ‘These hands have no equal in crime.’ Then he cut off his feet so that he couldn’t move from the spot. Finally, he gave orders that Mahuy’s ears and nose be cut off, and that he be sat on a horse, and left wandering the hot sands till he died of shame” (961). The dark ending with the violent death of a few kings echoes the glum feeling the author was feeling towards the end of the writing process. He has had to fight for his daily bread like a servant instead of being respected for the scholarly and creative work he was doing that was benefiting the nobility that was using his text as propaganda. He might have felt rebellious and might have wanted to stage an uprising of his own to protest the poor treatment that failed to reward him for outstanding work, but the thought of being ripped to pieces for treason probably kept him from inserting still more unflattering images of the kings. The rest of the book includes many negative depictions of despicable acts by the kings of Persian history, and not only propagandistic reviews of their eternal fame and glory. This is a historical epic similar to the Odyssey and both are precursors of the modern European historical novel. The introduction describes the various sources Ferdowsi used to base his accounts of the lives of the kings on factual information.
Overall, I recommend this book to any scholar of Persian history or literature. College students or anybody that wants to read a unique philosophical and fictional exercise would also enjoy browsing some of this book. Though, this book is harder to finish than War and Peace and Anna Karenina combined, so those who enter might not surface on the other side. Reading this book before bedtime if you usually do not enjoy dense reading might help you out too.