Book review: The Conference of the Birds
Czech illustrator Peter Sís brings ancient Persian poem to life
Posted: January 4, 2012
Peter Sís has done it again.
The internationally renowned Czech illustrator, born in Brno in 1949, but based in the United States since 1982, has recently released his latest publication, The Conference of the Birds, a beautiful, condensed visual version of the eponymous, 4,500-line epic poem by the ancient Persian poet Farid Ud-Din Attar.
The book is a delight both visually and conceptually, and is an apt addition to Sís' oeuvre, which includes, most recently, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, which won him both the Boston Globe Horn Book Award and the New York Times Book Review's Best Illustrated Book of the Year Award, his sixth.
The story follows the adventures of the poet Attar himself, who one day dreams he is a hoopoe bird. The hoopoe calls a conference of the birds to tell them they must seek out the king bird, Simorgh, who lives on the mountain of Kaf, for only he will be able to solve all of the problems the birds face in the world. Despite some resistance, from the duck for example, who is afraid to leave the comfort of his pond, the scores of birds set off on their quest for Simorgh.
By Peter Sís
The Penguin Press
Sís is one of the most decorated contemporary illustrators. Besides his own publications, he has worked for Time, Newsweek, Esquire and Atlantic Monthly.
The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman (1986)
Rainbow Rhino (1987)
The following three books won the American Library Association's Caldecott Honor
Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei (1996)
Tibet through the Red Box (1998)
The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (2007)
But, like all quests, theirs is not easy. First, they must fly through seven valleys, of Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement and Death, until finally, after many trials and tribulations, they reach the mountain of Kaf, where something wondrous happens.
Despite the visionary, imaginative nature of Attar's poem, the real stars of The Conference of the Birds are Sís and his delightful illustrations. The book itself is handsome, and no expense has been spared on the hard cover and the beautiful, textured paper on which the poem and Sís' illustrations are printed. But one gets the feeling that even if the book were printed on napkins, these illustrations, in ink and watercolor, would stand out regardless.
Lush and perfectly detailed, Sís' artwork makes The Conference of the Birds a rare bird: a book that will please children with its story and its illustrations, yet one that is equally appropriate for adults. Attar's poem is simple enough for children to understand yet has spiritual and existential implications that even the most cynical adult readers will find difficult to ignore.
While Sís' previous books have told, in fine style, stories of his own making and the stories of others, it would seem that with this epic poem he has found the perfect medium for his particular skill as an illustrator. At the same time, his artwork brings the poem to life in a way that previously could only be imagined.
Abu Hamid bin Abu Bakr Ibrahim (1145-1221), better known by his pen name, Farid Ud-Din Attar, or simply "the perfumer," owing to his job working as a perfumer, is widely considered the finest Persian poet of the Sufi tradition. The son of a prominent chemist in Nishapur, a major city in the medieval region of Khorasan, which is now located in the northeast of Iran, Attar received a first-class education and later took over from his father in the chemist shop, before abandoning his work and traveling widely across the Middle East to Asia, where he met with the Sufi master Shaykhs and returned home a devout Sufi.
Attar is well-known in the Arab world for his long narrative poems of conceptual and verbal ingenuity, mostly promoting the teachings of Sufism, a mystic branch of Islam that focuses on turning away from worldly possessions and aspirations and devoting one's life completely to a metaphysical relationship with God. "The Conference of the Birds" is considered one of Attar's finest works of literature.
In 2003, Sís was awarded a MacArthur Award, also known as "a genius grant," which entitles its winners - none of whom can apply for the award - to $500,000 over a period of five years. While such wealth is a far cry from the spiritual poverty preached by Attar and other Sufis, it would seem that Sís has made fine use of his time. The Conference of the Birds is a delight for readers young and old, and the beauty and depth of the poem is amply matched, even enhanced, by Sís' brilliant illustrations.
Stephan Delbos can be reached at