A feeling of delicious anticipation is inevitable when one hears about a new novel from Porochista Khakpour, the Iranian-American author, who has regaled readers in the past with her debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects. Her new novel, The Last Illusion, does not disappoint. Rather, it gallops many notches up the literary ladder.
The novel is spun around the ancient Persian myth of Zal, an albino baby born to the great hero Saam. Abandoned on a mountain top by his parents due to his strange white colouring, Zal is brought up by the enormous mythical bird, Simorgh. Years later, Saam, recognizing the strong silver-haired young man roaming the wilds as his lost son, hands over his kingdom to the rightful heir and in due course of time, Zal goes on to become one of the greatest warriors of Persian legend. Khakapour’s novel, similarly, begins in rural Iran where an albino baby is born to the ageing Khanoom, mother of seven grown-up children. Repelled by his unnatural looks, Khanoom thrusts the baby into a wired cage where, amidst filth and feathers, Zal lives a cooped existence along with Khanoom’s verandah full of beloved birds. When his sister Zari gets to hear about his inhuman upbringing, she comes marching to rescue Zal from their deranged mother even as her documentarian boyfriend records the entire operation on film. The story is lapped up by the media and very soon, Zal finds himself an international sensation, fancifully nicknamed the ‘Bird Boy.’ A malnourished bag of bones who cannot walk upright or digest human food, Zal passes from orphanage to juvenile detention centre to rehabilitation homes in Tehran before being adopted by a New York-based feral children researcher, Anthony Hendricks, a Professor Higgins-like character, who comes to love him like a father while undertaking to reintroduce him to polite society and to the accepted notions of ‘normalcy.’ But then—and this is the million-dollar question that the novel tries to tackle headlong—what really is normalcy?
As Zal grows from confused adolescence to tortured adulthood, teetering off the precipice of sanity and then flapping back to safety only to teeter off again, he is befriended by the famous American illusionist Bran Silber, an enigmatic young artist, Asiya McDonald and her sister Willa, each of whom has a painful story hidden in her closet. What follows is a succession of brand new human experiences for Zal—his first taste of alcohol, amorous adventures (heterosexual and homosexual), landing a regular job and subsequently, getting fired from it, and most important of all, falling in love. As he attains increasing normalcy at a superficial level, learning to walk the walk and talk the talk like fellow New Yorkers, secretly he still dreams in bird, pines for a diet of insects and lusts to take wing and fly high up in the sky.
The conversation bits crisp and stylized, Khakpour’s prose soars like the very birds she writes about. Esoteric, moody, anguished, edgy and quirky in turns, the author mesmerizes with her power of words. Her characters etched with minimal brush strokes are, like light filtering through stained glass, both nebulous and vivid, making an instantaneous connect with the reader. Zal, the protagonist, layered, complex and splintered, is all too real as is the anorexic Asiya with her leanings towards dark premonitions. The book is filled with the sights, smells and sounds of urban American life; there are a great many references to popular songs and modern-day glitterati—“Genie in a Bottle” (Christina Aguilera), “Baby One More Time” (Britney Spears), “Believe” (Cher)—and a crucial part of the plot hinges around real life events—the Y2K/ millennium bug panic and the 9/11 attacks. The dehumanizing ways of a busy city—New York in this case—and paradoxically, the kindly camouflage it could offer to social misfits, is deftly explored. Although out and out American in its essence, the novel will find resonances with the alienated hailing from any part of the world. A deeply significant and urgent work of fiction that tries to peel layers of social conditioning to analyse the sense of belonging in humans, juxtaposing it over the sense of un-belonging. Even as the book races towards a cataclysmic end, the scanner remains disturbingly trained on the diffused nature of boundaries that lie between one’s personal identity and that of another, between man, beast and bird, on the very nature of human existence. A powerful and original throw of imagination, the novel could well be considered an anthem for the oddball population of the world. A rich and rewarding read, this is a book that will forever change the way one looks at oneself, winged creatures and the idea of flight.