THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS (Peter Sís / The Penguin Press 2011)

Peter Sís

I first came across the work of Peter Sís in an exhibition of children’s illustration at the Imperial Stables of Prague Castle in 1998. This show was split over two huge rooms; one containing the work of 50 of the finest illustrators working in the Czech Republic; the other dedicated entirely to Peter Sís and featuring the stunning large originals from all of his books to that point. It was an eye opener that these original (and often dark) Czech illustrators were respected enough on a domestic level for such an event to be staged. Internationally, children’s picture books were rapidly becoming the domain of bad celebrity authorship or product franchise instead of existing as creative works. That made the impact of Peter Sís’s work so much more remarkable. His pivotal book at that stage of his career, THE THREE GOLDEN KEYS, captured the arcane and labyrinthine Prague of his childhood in a way that was still visible (in January ’98) once the dense, freezing night fog hit the cobbles. It seemed like the perfect snapshot from the city and it was the first book of his I ever bought.

Peter Sís is now a towering figure of ageless illustrated literature so it’s somewhat surprising that THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS is considered his first book directed towards adults. It transpires that this is dictated by the marketplace rather than by Sís himself, who makes no such pointless distinctions. This new book is based on the celebrated 12th century Sufi poem by Farid ud-Din Attar and concerns itself with the transformation of the poet Attar into a hoopoe bird, a symbol of virtue in ancient Persia. He gathers “all the birds of the world” to a great conference and makes a declaration that they should seek the king of the birds, Simorgh, for answers to “ the troubles happening in our world! Anarchy – discontent – upheaval! Desperate fights over territory, water and food! Poisoned air! Unhappiness ”. (The mythical winged Simorgh – also simurgh, simurg, simoorg, simourv – appears in a number of ancient Iranian fables including one where it uses its beak to perform a life saving cesarean section. These are the type of things you learn from lurking round the scrolls in the Chester Beatty Library). After the great conference and a period of doubt in which many creatures question their involvement, the birds of the world set out in an immense flock across seven valleys: Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement and Death. Many get lost, sneak away or die in the course of the journey and a small number of survivors finally reach the mountain of Kaf, home of Simorgh for the spiritual finale.

Peter Sís expertly depicts this over 160 pages in a manner that’s part ancient manuscript, part contemporary art and part classic Sís. The primarily earth-toned pages alternate between sparse illustrations, abstract mandalas and masterful full spreads. These map the initial flight of the birds in trademark Sís dot work as well as graphically striking wallpapers flooded with avian silhouettes. As the book progresses, particularly in Part IV (the Seven Valleys section), it depicts a world of strange cartography littered with weird hillocks, erratic tidemarks and a generous scattering of the author’s omnipresent abstract rubber stamps. These landscapes are hellishly lifeless. With the flick of a page they suddenly contain a flash flood of birds in a somewhat Hitchcockian manner. Each valley contains a different maze, starting with a Cretan Labyrinth and progressing through variations and convolutions of ancient maze designs. There are obviously many levels of symbolism at play here. The varying complexity of each maze is noteworthy as doubts, calamities, deaths and ravages take their toll on the flock. It’s those sort of contemplative keys that project a wealth of graphic narrative, parallel to the main text, in much of Sís’s work. There’s also an eerie beauty about the flow of birds as it diminishes to a trickle across the Valley of Death. The Mountain of Kaf sequence is initially represented by a colourful mandala against a large black backdrop, dwarfing the silhouettes of the 30 remaining birds. It then progresses through to the end in a graphically stunning and somewhat hallucinatory full circle.

Attar himself was a travelling pilgrim, an herbalist and poet who was excommunicated as a heretic and eventually killed by rampaging Mongols. They obviously cared little for his enigmatic teachings and inward looking theologies. What Peter Sís has done with Attar’s poem, rather than simply taking the original text and illustrating it, is interpret the story in his own unique way before translating it into something which is primarily visual. His detailed pacing and spatial arrangement is nothing short of outstanding and the book itself is printed on canvas textured paper to augment a tactile, archival feel,definitely an inspired move – try doing that with Kindle! To call this a graphic novel would be an insult. It is a work of art, plain and simple. – BOZ

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