The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis

November 16, 2011

***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.