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A Persian Requiem (thoughts)

January 5, 2011

(Have you entered my giveaway? It’s open to all book bloggers anywhere in the world!)

I came across A Persian Requiem by Simin Daneshvar (originally published in English under the title Savushun) in my library catalogue when I was looking up something else. As I already mentioned, as soon as I saw that it was a translation (and thus probably written by an Iranian) and that the author was born in 1921, I wanted to read it! I was hoping it would evoke the feeling of an earlier Iran (it’s set during the early 40s), and it completely did. From the first page, I was right there in Shiraz with Zari, and I experienced her ups and downs as my own. There isn’t any deliberate sharing on Daneshvar’s part, as if this was written with a foreign audience in mind. Instead, it simply matter-of-factly references aspects of Iranian life (it seems like there were still countryside estates with ‘peasants’ even then), which helps with the insider feeling. She creates the setting so well that despite my lack of background knowledge of Iran before, say, the 1960s I never felt lost. The story at the book’s heart is universal, and Zari and the people in her world are so well drawn that they were easy to identify with.

The book, especially in the beginning, has a comedy of manners flavour, with hints of Austen. It’s on a bit grander of a scale (with the intrigues of war intruding more and more frequently as the story progresses) and definitely darker in tone, but some of the characters, especially one particular manipulative older woman and a the most powerful family in town, seemed cousins to characters you might find in Austen’s world. And since the book is told form Zari’s point of view, it is primarily domestic. She must navigate through those difficult social obligations, and the tension between her love of her husband and children and her need to keep others appeased in order to keep her family safe was well-drawn. In contrast to Zari, her husband is more idealistic (in the ‘committed to an ideal’ sense): he believes in Justice regardless of the consequences to himself. He’s out in the ‘larger’ world, swept up in the ‘great game’ being played in Iran at the time, which is another great difference compared to Zari’s more circumscribed sphere of influence.

Daneshvar’s treatment of all this is wonderfully subtle; Zari herself is perfectly content as a wife and mother (with a strong marriage), and the book isn’t driven by gender contrasts (although, as a feminist reader, it was obvious to me that Daneshvar is a feminist). Instead, there are so many aspects of Iranian life at that time that this is just one of them! There’s also the tension between the old ways and the new, hints of Western world manipulation (then being carried out by the British), and a lot of everyday life for a privileged Shiraz family. I was particularly interested in Zari’s visits to an asylum for women whose families have committed them there. The exploration of sanity v. insanity, and of the gender issues related to that, fit right in with a sudden curiosity I have for the topic! (I’m in the middle of Mad, Bad, and Sad right now.) And there’s such scope for a kind of quiet courage in Zari’s life, including her visits to the asylum (she also visits a prison): her willingness to leave her comfort zone for the sake of her beliefs, that echoes her husband’s actions. I haven’t even mentioned Zari as a mother! But it’s a big part of the book, and her relationship to her children (in particular her oldest son, who she had at a young age) was marvelously done. I accidentally returned the book to the library without copying out notable passages, which is the only reason I haven’t been sharing them. So you’ll just have to trust me that she’s a magnificent writer!

I’m sure A Persian Requiem could be the focus of some fantastic discussions in college, but it’s also a page-turning read: I had to know what would happen with Zari and her family. Isn’t that what we all want from our fiction? Daneshvar seems like a fascinating woman, and I wish she had written more fiction (or that more of her fiction had been translated!). The only other book I could turn up in English was a collection of her short stories, Daneshvar’s Playhouse, which I’m hoping I’ll be able to ILL. I’d highly recommend this one to a wide variety of readers; if you’re interested in other cultures, or women’s issues, or domestic-focused stories, or a WWII buff, or just delight in good prose, this should be a treat.

I really want to read more Iranian lit now! I read Women Without Men ages ago, and it blew me away as well. Any suggestions for where to go next?

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2011 1:42 pm

    Wow! This sounds really fantastic… I haven’t read any Iranian lit and certainly wouldn’t have expected it to have Jane Austen flavor. If I wasn’t on a TBR-only reading frame of mind, I’d be looking for this right away! I’m always so impressed by the titles you find!

    • January 8, 2011 3:26 am

      It’s more a hint than a flavour, but it surprised me too! :) I love stumbling across a book that turns out to be marvelous!

  2. January 5, 2011 2:28 pm

    This sounds like a fascinating book. I’ve also never read any literature from Iran, but I enjoy reading about other cultures and would love to broaden my horizons somewhat. Particularly if it’s Austenesque, as that sounds particularly intriguing. Thank you for the reveiw (although, curses, it means another book on my wishlist).

    • January 8, 2011 3:27 am

      It definitely has an Austen hint to it, but it is darker. I think it’s definitely worth a read! :)

  3. January 5, 2011 3:14 pm

    I have no recommendations from where to go from here…but wow, this sounds fantastic!

  4. January 5, 2011 3:22 pm

    It’s not a novel, of course, but Reading Lolita in Tehran (forget author’s name) was a fascinating picture of women’s lives under the impact of the Iranian revolution.

    • January 8, 2011 3:27 am

      I read that one several years ago, and I definitely found it fascinating!

  5. January 5, 2011 4:10 pm

    Sounds nice! Unfortunately my library doesn’t have any books by her.
    About what to read next re: Iranian writers. How about Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour or Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji? I haven’t read either one, but mean to do so in the future as both seem really interesting.

  6. JoV permalink
    January 5, 2011 4:47 pm

    Have you tried Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi? I have it on my shelf, heard it’s good.

    • January 8, 2011 3:28 am

      I have: I read it ages ago. I definitely liked it!

  7. January 5, 2011 5:01 pm

    This sounds fantastic and it’s certainly a title I would otherwise never have heard of. It’s almost impossible for me to resist anything with ‘hints of Austen’ but when coupled with the other topics you mention (WWII, women’s issues, etc) I’m truly helpless. I’ll be looking for this one right away!

    • January 8, 2011 3:28 am

      I think it’s definitely a Claire book! I’d love to see your reaction. :)

  8. January 5, 2011 7:02 pm

    I already have Reading Lolita in Tehran on my TBR shelf…moving it down to the “up next” pile :) and adding A Persian Requiem to my TBR list…thank goodness I didn’t promise myself not to buy any more books ;)

    • January 8, 2011 3:28 am

      Definitely good you didn’t make such a silly promise! ;)

  9. January 5, 2011 9:00 pm

    I’ll have to investigate this author—sounds promising!

    • January 8, 2011 3:29 am

      Have you read Women Without Men? If you haven’t, I think you’d find it fascinating!

  10. January 6, 2011 2:36 am

    Thank you. A friend and I were only saying the other day that we would like to make this the year when we read more literature in translation and this would certainly make a very unusual addition to our growing tbr list. I hope I can find it in the UK library system.

    • January 8, 2011 3:29 am

      I hope you can find it too! Have you come across Stu’s blog (Winston’s Dad) yet? He primarily reviews translated books.

  11. January 6, 2011 6:49 am

    If you do find more Iranian literature that you like, post about it quickly so I can get on that too. I think Iran is such a fascinating country — I’d love to go there, except I don’t want to get arrested and imprisoned like those hikers. :/

    Have you read Shahriyar Mandanipour’s (I think that’s how he spells his name) Censoring an Iranian Love Story? It’s about an author writing a romance in post-revolutionary Iran, and he’s struggling to create a story that will get past the censors there. He finds himself self-censoring, and there’s some stuff about his relationship with the censor, and some magical realism….so good.

    • January 8, 2011 3:30 am

      I will post when I find it! And I want to visit Iran too one of these days. I hadn’t read the Madanipour, but I lurve magical realism!

  12. January 7, 2011 1:18 am

    These days it’s easy to find Anglo-written Iranian lit, to a point where it’s a rather predictable subgenre of contemporary fiction (falling into the so-called “multi-cultural” or “exotic” literature category). I’ll admit that this sounds nothing like those other books. That the book takes place in the 40s, presents daily life without explaining it (I’m particularly averse to books that need to spell out all the cultural differences) and does not emphasize its modernness (like the feminist aspect – though this is also intriguing) implies that it could be a very interesting book to read. I’ll have to look into it.

    • January 8, 2011 3:31 am

      I know the ‘type’ of book you’re talking about, and this definitely isn’t one of them. :) Neither is Women Without Men, so that could be another one for you to look into.

  13. January 8, 2011 2:16 pm

    This is a book I’d not heard of before but it sounds really good. Onto the list it goes!

  14. January 9, 2011 6:34 pm

    You’ve introduced me to yet another author/book that I probably wouldn’t have found on my own. This one is being added to my list.

  15. February 28, 2012 7:49 pm

    I stumbled across this post when looking up reviews of this translation, since I am writing a my undergraduate history thesis on this novel. Fun facts about the novel: it was the first novel written by a woman in Iran (pub 1969) and then went on to be the best-selling novel in the country for nearly 30 years.

    There is another collection of Daneshvar’s short stories translated into English, entitled Sutra and Other Stories (pub Mage 1994). The short story translations are not great. I dont’ know that I would recommend them highly. She has written two novels since Savushun, but neither have been translated into English.

    Recommendations for other Iranian fiction:
    My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkhzad was translated in 2006 by Dick Davis, and published by modern library, so should be pretty widely available. It’s a coming-of-age novel published in 1973, also set during WWII, and was the inspiration for one of the most popular Iranian television shows of all time. It is a hilarious farce.

    The Blind Owl by Sadeq Hedayat is a totally different kind of book, but is arguably the most significant literary work of 20th-century Iran. Published in 1937, it’s very dark. A 1994 translation by D.P. Costello is fairly widely available.

    A really excellent novel about Iran – written neither in Farsi nor English – is Samarkand, by Lebanese author Amir Maalouf (trans Russell Harris). Featuring Omar Khayyom in the 11th century and the Constitutional Revolution of Iran in the 20th century, this novel is both great fiction and fun history.

    All the King’s Men is an eminently readable work of popular history by Stephen Kinzer about the CIA-orchestrated coup in Iran in 1953.

    Happy reading (I had fun just thinking of what books are best to recommend)

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