Sunday, December 16, 2007

The September of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer

This is one of the several books I have read by young Iranians under thirty years old, i.e., who were either born after or shortly before Iranian Revolution, the generation whose memory of Iran is formed mostly from what they must have heard form their parents and very little from their early childhood recollections.

The most impressive thing about these young writers is their urge to write about Iran. The fact that they were not raised in Iran and their mind set is supposed to be in accordance with the culture they grew up in makes it even more incredible how motivated they are in preserving their Iranian identity.

While the members of the previous generation who came here in their teens were inclined to write their stories as memoirs, the younger ones, like Sofer, write theirs as fiction. I welcome their choice of genre, even if it is autobiographical or biographical in nature. It must be frustrating to write a memoir as historical evidence and a witness to history, just relying on one’s recollections of one’s childhood or even teen years. It is indeed admirable that these young writers have the wisdom to avoid this problem, which brought so much of the preceding “memoir”-writers to grief.

Isaac Amin, a gem dealer in Tehran, who has pulled himself up from a very modest slums of Khoramshahr, a southern oil district of Iran, to the wealthy upper class Tehran’s society, is arrested shortly after the Revolution. His son, who is studying in New York, his wife, a vocalist, and his young daughter, are devastated and overwhelmed by the sudden changes for which they were unprepared.

Even though the story is related in the third person, I still have the impression that Shirin, then nine years old, is telling us a true story long after she and her family landed safely in the United States. I think the author in her interviews reinforced this impression, though I’m not sure that she intended to.

There are three distinct settings in the novel: jail, where Amin is, the family home in Tehran, where Farnaz and Shirin (Amin’s wife and daughter) are living, and New York City, where Parviz (Amin and Farnaz’s older son) studies. The most vivid description of these lives is the Amin’s jail experience, which stands out among them. Next to his life in jail comes Parviz’s life in New York, which we learn more about. Farnaz and her daughter are notably ignored until the last chapter of the book, in which we feel their presence when they are given the best seats in the front of the truck over the boarder to Turkey. Amin had made sure to pay extra for their safety and comfort.

The book’s blurb says, “The September of Shiraz simmers with questions of identity, alienation, and love, not just for a spouse or a child (the father is the protagonist of the story) but for the unnamable, uncountable sights and sounds of the places we call home.” How true this is for all of those who live in the Diaspora. But how true is it about the book? If this novel is about love and identity, it was totally lost to me. While it has just a casual acquaintance with love, it has much more to say about the pain, though an exclusive kind of it. It is about the abuse of human rights, arrest, confiscation, torture, bribing, smuggling, corruption, and lawlessness. It is the recording of pain in the solitude of jail, where colorlessness and hopelessness cast a deeper shadow on pain and turn it into a horror. Those of us who have had dear ones in and out of Evin prison know very well how daring it is to learn about the pain and suffering there. As far as I know, those who have experience it don’t voluntarily sharing it either. Dalia Sofer, with amazing courage, dares to look into this abyss and freezes everything into words; delightfully, she does it without rage or anger.

The book was a tribute to the pain and suffering of those whose suffering was not in retribution for their wrongdoings, but merely to their slipping into the wrong side of life by sheer chance. It is a heartbreaking tale of a man who happens to fall out of favor when society goes through changes. Amin’s suffering in jail is the most elaborate and the most vivid part of the book. It is the life in those smelly, blood-smeared, insect-infested, moldy cells, smeared with blood cells which works on our heart, rather than those outside of the cell, except for those breath-taking pages when Shirin is steals some files and again when she buries them in the garden.

In contrasted to Amin’s experiences in his forced solitude, which comes to us so sharply and vividly, Farnaz’s experience remains is passed over. Even her identity remains obscure to the reader. We only have a glimpse of her as reflected in her material possessions, the things she collects, the gifts she receives, and the souvenirs she buys from all over the world. She declares early in the novel that who they would all leave the country without their belonging. Were it not for her name, she could be Spanish, Italian, Czech, Lithuanian, or British—she was too lonely to be Iranian, Jewish or otherwise. There is not even one incident in the book in which a friend visits her or any occasion for her to visit anyone. No one comes to comfort her, neither friend nor family. It seems the only time she had a visitor was when the Revolutionary Guards raided their home. There are no Sabbath dinners with friends or relatives, no friends calling, no one dropping by; she is all alone while Amin is in jail. Not only does the loneliness remains a mystery to me, but her aloofness and coldness do not fit my image of Iranian mothers either. We do not see her to put her hands around her daughter to ease her grief or vice versa.

Though the book is about suffering, there is none of the Farnaz’s pain depicted in it. Given the impression I have regarding the story’s point of view, I’m puzzled by the absence of Farnaz and the indifferences of the author to her. Is the author’s total preoccupation with Isaac, the father? Is it simply relative? Or did the author’s personal experiences of the time of her father’s imprisonment exclude everyone and everything else beyond the jail’s wall?

I met the author in one of the book reading in Manhattan and raised these questions. I asked about Farnaz’s absence and asked about its significance. Was it intentional or instrumental or what? Before the author found a chance to answer, another friend suggested that it was a lonely time, indeed, in Iran in those early years of revolution; it was not hard for people to experience that kind of loneliness and alienation. Sofer simply confirmed this. Although I can see a grain of truth in that, I’m still not convinced that anybody in Iran, even if we had been occupied by Martians, could be that lonely, and indeed, that ignored.

New York City gives life a better chance to display itself. We know more about Parviz than Farnaz and Shirin. Since the book was published in the United States, we need something for the local reader to connect to. But that aside, a parallel runs through the story, if not a connection.

Parviz lives in Borough Park with a Hasidic family and works part time for them in Mr. Zaman’s hat shop to work off the rent which he can no longer afford. He has an interest in their young daughter, Rachel. Once he takes the opportunity to return the coat, which she had left the day before in the shop, to her home.

“How your dinner party is going on?” Parviz asks.

“It is not a party. It is a dinner for a young couple going to England as emissaries tomorrow.”


“Yes … we have thousand of them going … to help the new Jewish community…”

“Sounds like quite an operation. Exporting Judaism.”

“No it is not like that.” The smile disappears from her face just as easily as it had appeared. “Well, goodnight and thank again for the coat,” she says as she shuts the door.

Standing on the stoop, he tucks his gloveless hands in his pockets and looks out onto the dark street. How unyielding is the space between connection and interruption. One false move, one misspoken word, and you find yourself on the wrong side of things.

It is this thin wall which is the most frightening aspect of our modern life, this unreliability and unpredictability, this living by chance, by a flip of the coin, this unexpected “all of a sudden” which turns Isaac Amin’s life upside down and sends Parviz to the wrong side the wall. The only difference is that by pure luck, Parviz is better suited on the wrong side, but Isaac is not.

Clair Messud, in her very favorable review, writes,

A memorable title surely attracts reader, but when a book become a classic, it is hard to say whether the title has been part of its canonization or merely become retroactively canonical! … Whether Trimalchio in West Egg, one of Fitzgerald initial choices, would in time have accrued the same force as The Great Gatsby? ... In this fickle literary world, it is impossible to predict whether Sofer’s novel will become a classic, but it certainly stands a chance.

No! It is not too exotic or overly attractive. It is just trendy. And there is nothing wrong with being attractive and establishing oneself in some niche of market if that is all it takes. But, no, Sofer is not Fitzgerald, even if their names appear in one sentence. And the September of Shiraz won’t be canonized as The Great Gatsby, even with a change of title.

I’m well aware of the significance of a review in well-established publications, particularly when it comes from a well-known writer. However, reviews come and go and are soon forgotten. What remains is the book, which should survive long after the author is gone along with the reviewer. There is a long way to go for the September of Shiraz to become a classic, for a novel in which two of its four characters do not find a chance to appear fully or even to develop at all and whose subplots have no connection to the main plot except through the blood relation. Why are we are in such a rush? The author is too young and has just started, it is her first novel. Let’s do not go that far. It takes a bit more than one review in The New York Times to make any book a classic.

Yes, Sofir’s story is very good for a novice writer. A work in the progress, I would call it. Let the story to be read and judged by its readers, and not friendly critic, and let’s see if it withstands its readers’ demands. Let’s see if it answers reader’s questions. Then, in due time, it will become a classic disregarding the capricious market.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was a beautiful book - written from the heart and does ask many questions pretty fairly. however one of my impressions is how sad it is that those who by fortune - not just hard work - find themselves in the preiviledged position of 'living well' just don't seem dto understand that this is usually at the expense of so many that 'live poorly - and often brutally'. Revolutions are usually run by the fanatics and all hell and brutallity breaks loose. But the desparity in income sure struck me as one of the main drives of the iranian revolution - as it was in the French revolution.