The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis

***This review is part of a TLC Book Tour. A copy of the book reviewed was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.***

Peter Sis is a well-known and highly regarded illustrator, having won the New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year seven times and many other awards as well. I have neither read nor, to my knowledge, browsed any of those books. This does not prevent me from declaring that Peter Sis is an extremely talented artist. This book is evidence enough.

Sis’s The Conference of the Birds is an adaptation of a 4500-line Persian book of poems originally written in the Twelfth Century by Farid ud-Din Attar. Sis’s version incorporates the poet into the story, turning Attar into the hoopoe of the original:

When the poet Attar woke up one morning after an uneasy dream, he realized that he was a hoopoe bird…

The story itself is simple and allegorical. The hoopoe gathers all the other birds together and takes them on a journey of enlightenment to the Mountain Kaf to find the wise King Simorgh. They pass seven valleys: Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death. On their way, the flock loses most of its members, dwindling, in the end, to thirty birds. The thirty arrive at the Mountain Kaf and find nothing but a pool. In the pool, they see their own reflection and realize that they are King Simorgh.

The story strikes me as very Buddhist or, even, Spinozan before Spinoza was cool. What is striking to a Twenty-First Century reader, particularly when recalling that Attar was a Persian Muslim born around 1145, is the radical interpretation of Islam contained in this poem. Attar’s views, unfortunately, were too unorthodox (for those in power at the time). Sis relates the final details of Attar’s (largely unknown) life:

Attar was tried for heresy and banished, his property looted. In the 1220s, he was back in Nishapur, where he died at the hands of Mongol invaders.

I can add little about the poem other than that it does not come across, in Sis’s re-telling, as particularly religious. In Sis’s adaptaion (and I believe the original), the poem undermines traditional Judaic/Christian/Islamic notions of God and the Divine. In The Conference of the Birds, the birds naively begin on a quest to find a distinct being of power and wisdom but, after passing through the seven valleys, realize that they have attained the power of enlightenment and need no separate divinity.

Sis is an illustrator and, frankly, the illustrations are even more powerful than the story. They are stunningly beautiful.

The large flock which begins the journey is made, in a bit of visual foreshadowing, to look like a bird’s head.

Each of the valleys is given an aesthetically-pleasing personality that, for all the lushness of the art, sometimes jars one out of settled expectations. The desolate, burning desert of love, is a good example.

Conveying with words or pictures the experience of holding the book is impossible. The book is printed on textured paper which lends an artsy feel to the pages and enhances the illustrations. The book has to held to be fully appreciated. I was and am awed by the absolute beauty of the book. Physical books will continue to exist so that we can hold stunning objects like this.

I am no art critic nor any sort of artist. I draw stick figures if I must use a pencil to represent people. Yet, even I can recognize the quality, the attention to details, the originality of Sis’s work. Sis uses a vivid and colorful style which, despite the modern appeal, recalls to mind the art of ancient times. Sis and his publisher have wisely chosen not to skimp on the construction of the book.

I am gushing, but the book warrants it. I am extremely pleased to have been exposed to this work and I, in turn, will share it, first with my daughter (who is quite artistic) and, hopefully later, with grandchildren. This is an adult book, though, so I will be sharing it with adults too, starting with my significant other. In the meantime, I will return to it occasionally myself to bask in the beautiful pictures. I was and am awestruck.

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6 Responses to The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis

  1. william e emba says:

    I was privileged to see the Peter Brook stage adaptation, 1980. Contrary to my usual practice, I never tracked down the sources–I’ll take your posting as an overdue reminder to myself.

    • Kerry says:

      “Love loves difficult things” is quoted directly by Sis (with attribution in the acknowledgements) from the Brook’s and Carriere’s stage adaptation. Also, Jorge Luis Borges wrote (and Sis illustrated) “The Story of Simorgh” in his Book of Imaginary Beings. That might be worth tracking down too.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. trish says:

    I didn’t notice that the flock of birds was drawn like a bird’s head until you pointed that out. Very clever. I can see how a lot of meaning can be pulled from the illustrations alone, really bringing the poem to life.

    Thanks for being on the tour! Your enthusiasm for the book is infectious. ūüôā

  3. It sounds sufi in nature. The idea of there being multiple paths to divinity, which ultimately exists within ourselves. A very old Muslim spiritual/philosophical tradition, though one some oppose on the grounds it’s essentially gnostic (secret truths revealed only to some, as opposed to an open revelation open to all).

    I have absolutely no doubt physical books will long be with us. Not mass market paperbacks, but specialist editions, beautiful imprints, books in which the form matters as well as the content.

    A return perhaps to before the printing press, with book as quasi-sacred object. Alongside that a vast ocean of literature and non-fiction in electronic form. We could have worse futures.

    • Kerry says:

      Max,

      It is definitely Sufi in nature. Good call. While I have some sympathy with the objections to “special revelation” traditions, I like what Sis has done with this particular work. In my reading, his emphasis is less on a special revelation for a select few than on relentless commitment of individuals to their own self-improvement. The message is, or can be interpreted, as being opposed to the special revelation type belief-system and eschews reliance on a mythical outside force to betterment. Sis creates an empowering work which essentially posits that each individual does have the power to obtain knowledge and “enlightenment” rather than that such knowledge is specially dispensed to a chosen few.

      The difference between a small persevering group and a group of elect could be perspective, I suppose, but I think there is an important difference and that Sis captures it.

      I agree that there are worse futures than the one you envision (and which closely resembles the one I believe will come to pass).

      Thanks, as always, for your comment.

  4. […] November 9: Savvy Verse & Wit November 10: Col Reads November 15: Wordsmithonia November 16: Hungry Like the Woolf November 21: Unabridged Chick November 22: Seven Impossible Things November 28: Alexandra Boiger […]

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