Friday, February 24, 2012

The Iron King

First published in November 2005.

The Iron King

‘Grandpa! Grandpa! I’m back from school! Mummy’s still at work! So I’ve come here! Can I have a Fanta?’
‘Yawrauagha!’ I replied, trying to rouse myself from the sofa, where I had fallen into a coma, sunk by the hot afternoon. Back she came dancing from the kitchen, skinny little legs sticking out of a dusty blue uniform, all bright and breezy. I still lay there unconscious, like a corpse in a coffin.
‘You’re so energetic, Grandpa,’ she laughed. ‘You must have been working so hard all day that you needed this little rest. You’re so lucky that you’re still young, and with the strength to work so hard.’
I sat up slowly, painfully and suspiciously. ‘Thoko,’ I said, ‘what were you learning about at school today?’
‘Irony,’ she said. ‘It’s a clever way of talking, where you say something quite different from what you really mean, or even say the complete opposite!’
‘How very helpful!’ I sneered.
‘There you are, Grandpa!’ laughed Thoko, ‘you’re getting the idea! You need to know these things now that you’ve got a job writing in the newspaper!’
‘So was this irony invented by your teacher as a new way of failing exams?’
‘It all began a long time ago, and was named ‘irony’ in honour of the Iron King.’
‘Why was he called the Iron King?’ I wondered.
‘Because he would never listen to anybody. Talking to him was like talking to a lump of iron. People used to say that his head was made of solid iron. He never listened to what people wanted, and he never listened to advice. So he became known as the Iron King.’
‘So did people get into trouble for calling him the Iron King?’
‘People used to bow and say Thank you, O Iron King. And the King took this as a great compliment, thinking that he was being called big, strong, and powerful. But what they really meant was that he was hard, unbending and inhuman.’
‘So they said one thing, while meaning the opposite?’
‘Exactly,’ said Thoko.
‘But did the teacher explain why they couldn’t just say what they meant? Why couldn’t one of his advisers just go to the king and say Look here, Comrade Kingy, if you’re going to govern properly, you must listen to what people are saying, and take advice, otherwise you’ll soon be out on your ear, old chap!’
‘Grandpa!’ laughed Thoko. ‘Didn’t you do History at school? You couldn’t talk to a king like that. And definitely not the Iron King. You had to grovel on the floor and lick his boots, and then praise his ugly face for its beauty, and his iron head for its wisdom. Otherwise the king would have you thrown in jail!’
‘So people learned to praise him ironically?’
‘It became an art form,’ laughed Thoko. ‘People would say things like We are so lucky, O King, that you have God’s guidance in running this country, so there is no need for you to listen to the contradictory and ignorant voices of ordinary mortals like us!’
‘Or they might say How lucky we are, we thin and starving people, to have such a fat and wealthy king, that we may follow your fine example, and become prosperous like you!
 ‘Or they might say O Great Iron King, when you call us dirty and stinking, we do appreciate the elevated university vocabulary with which you describe our inexcusable poverty and our rotten diseases. We promise to work harder to smell sweeter in your most delicate royal nostrils, O Beloved King!’
‘But did the king realise he was being criticised?’ I wondered.
‘Of course not,’ laughed Thoko. ‘He was far too foolish to see through the irony.’
‘So what was the point of all this irony, if it was lost on the king?’
‘Because,’ explained Thoko, ‘it helped people to keep their self-respect. All the nation, except of course the king, was able to enjoy the delicious irony of all this bogus praise!’
‘So people began to realise that the king was a fool?’
‘They began to whisper to each other, firstly in dark corners. Then in the cafes and taverns. Then in the streets. First quietly, then more loudly. The king is foolish! The king is arrogant! Then a terrible thing happened. A newspaper printed what everybody already knew! The king was furious! He couldn’t believe it! The editor was thrown in jail! An example had to be made of him, otherwise the whole country would have had to be thrown in jail!’
‘My God!’ I exclaimed. ‘That couldn’t happen here!’
‘Why do you say that?’ laughed Thoko.
‘Because,’ I said, ‘This is a democracy!’
‘Well done, Grandpa!’ Thoko laughed. ‘You’ve learnt to speak ironically!’

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