Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003).
The university where I’ve taught for many years is located in a Vancouver suburb that also happens to be home, by virtue of historical accident, to a community of several thousand former Iranians. They’ve arrived on Canada’s west coast in successive waves reflective of the cataclysms of Iranian politics in the last half-century. Since quite a few of them have been students of mine, I’ve fortuitously learned more about Iranian history, politics, theocracy and Persian cooking than I otherwise would have in the ordinary course of things.
Some of my students, and/or their families, fled Iran during the reign of the Shah, others in the wake of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution of 1979, still others came following various failed attempts to “reform” the regime during the last decade, and some arrived as recently as mid-2009, after the current Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was fraudulently re-elected and hundreds of thousands of protesters who filled the streets of Tehran were violently suppressed by the Islamic Republic’s security forces, both official and para-military. There are now communities and enclaves of former Iranians similar to the one in North Vancouver scattered around the world.
The members of those communities, like Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, are people who no longer look through living room windows “framing my beloved Elburz Mountains” at the edge of the Iranian capital, but instead find themselves “in another room, in another country,” disturbed by the whirling dervishes of memory.
Nafisi’s book, one of the notable ones of the 21st century’s first decade, is a memoir of the author’s life in Iran from the late 1970s, the moment of the Islamic revolution, to the late 1990s, when she emigrated to the United States, but, as New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani notes, “it is also many other things.” Nafisi, a professor of literature, and the daughter of a prominent Iranian family (her father was once mayor of Tehran, her mother was one of the first women members of parliament), returned to Iran in 1979 after an education in Europe and the U.S. Among the “many other things” Nafisi’s book is, says Kakutani, “it is a visceral and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in that country and its fallout on the day-to-day lives” of Nafisi and her students. As another reviewer, The Guardian’s Paul Allen, explains, “After teaching literature at three universities in Tehran (and being expelled or resigning in despair from each) Nafisi picked seven of her best students and invited them to come to her home every week to discuss books.” Reading Lolita in Tehran tells the story of that remarkable group of readers.
As Kakutani says, Nafisi’s book is also “a thoughtful account of the novels they studied together” — works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Henry James and Lolita novelist Vladimir Nabokov, as well as the classic stories of Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights — “and the unexpected parallels they drew between those books and their own experiences as women living under the unforgiving rule of the mullahs. And it is, finally, an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction.” Or, as Paul Allen puts it, Nafisi “and her students, all women, began to think of these classes as an escape from the reality of Iran’s totalitarian theocracy; but the picture her book paints is of an escape to a true republic where they are able to discover another reality.” Nafisi sometimes refers to that place as the Republic of Imagination. (Michiko Kakutani, “Book Study as Insubordination Under the Mullahs,” New York Times, April 15, 2003; Paul Allen, “Through the Veil,” The Guardian, Sept. 13, 2003.)
Early on in her “memoir in books,” Nafisi declares, “What we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.” But what do you do if the reality in which you live is so distorted that the only epiphany it offers is the reality to be found in semi-clandestine fiction? That’s why, although it is of Lolita (and other books) that Nafisi wants to write, “there is no way I can write about that novel without also writing about Tehran.” What follows, then, “is the story of Lolita in Tehran, how Lolita gave a different colour to Tehran and how Tehran helped redefine Nabokov’s novel.”
The “different colour” that literature gives to Nafisi’s Tehran is paralleled by a literal contrast between the black-and-white colours of veiled, “black-scarved, timid faces in the city” that sprawls below the mountains, and the students who arrived at Nafisi’s home each Thursday for nearly two years, as they “shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into colour.” Writing her memoir from the U.S., where she now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, the exiled Nafisi has two photographs of her students and herself in front of her, taken days before her departure from Iran in 1997. In the first there’s a gathering of women who are, “according to the law of the land, dressed in black robes and head scarves, covered except for the oval of their faces and their hands.” In the second picture, the same women, in the same poses, “have taken off their coverings. Splashes of colour separate one from the next. Each has become distinct through the colour and style of her clothes, the colour and length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their head scarves look the same.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), the story of the “poet/criminal,” as Nafisi characterizes its oddly-named protagonist, Humbert Humbert, and his obsession with a 12-year-old all-American nymphet, has always been a difficult book to read, and not just in Tehran. Nafisi reads Nabokov’s notoriously disturbing novel as the “confiscation” of one individual’s life by another, and it is not hard to see how a reading group in Tehran might interpret Humbert’s seizure of Lolita’s life as a metaphor for the way women were being treated in the radical Islamic state.
Nafisi emphasizes that “we were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert and this republic was not what Humbert called his princedom by the sea.” Although Lolita was not a critique of the Islamic Republic, nonetheless it was a work of art that “went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives.”
“When I think of Lolita,” Nafisi says, the recurrent image that comes to mind is of a “half-alive butterfly pinned to the wall.” Although there is not a simple parallel between the lives of Nafisi and her students and Humbert’s “creation” of Lolita, his erasure of her real past, and the “perverse intimacy” that links jailer and victim, nonetheless, as she observes, “At some point, the truth of Iran’s past became as immaterial to those who appropriated it as the truth of Lolita’s is to Humbert.”
Part of the unsettling power of Nabokov’s Lolita lies in the ambiguity and multiplicity of its meanings. Nafisi discusses a range of interpretations, from Humbert’s own crazed attempt to exonerate himself by painting Lolita as a knowing “little monster,” to those of other readers who have seen Nabokov’s book as everything from a brutal satire on the mores of suburban American life to a parable that explores the unidentifiable border between true love and obsession. Still others, Nafisi notes, condemn Lolita “because they feel Nabokov turned the rape of a 12-year-old into an aesthetic experience.” Nabokov died in 1977, but the question of Lolita preoccupied him to the end of his life, as is clear from the fragments of his final unfinished novel, the story of a novelist who publishes a best-selling novel about an illicit affair with an underage girl and is pondering the “real-life” model for his “fictional” creation. The notes were published, only decades later, in 2009, as The Original of Laura (see John Lanchester, “Flashes of Flora,” The New York Review of Books, Dec. 17, 2009).
Nafisi’s framework of readings and readers is constructed around the totalitarian context in which the whole of the story is embedded. It is a scene, Nafisi says, where “the streets have been turned into a war zone, where young women who disobey the rules are hurled into patrol cars, taken to jail, flogged, fined, forced to wash the toilets and humiliated” in a hundred other ways. “Almost every day my students would recount such stories,” Nafisi writes, adding some of her own stories about not wearing the veil, or wearing it improperly, or being castigated for studying allegedly decadent Western texts, as well as refusing to take up a hard-line ideological stance. “We laughed over them, and later felt angry and sad, although we repeated them endlessly at parties and over cups of coffee, in bread-lines, in taxis. It was as if the sheer act of recounting these stories gave us some control over them.”
But the reappropriation of a measure of intellectual freedom through storytelling is clearly limited for those who “had become the figment of someone else’s dreams. A stern ayatollah, a self-proclaimed philosopher-king, had come to rule our land. He had come in the name of a past, a past that, he claimed, had been stolen from him,” and “he now wanted to re-create us in the image of that illusory past.” Nafisi describes in convincing detail the “tragedy and absurdity of the cruelty to which we were subjected,” and the circumstances of a culture “that denied any merit to literary works” except as ideology, a country “where all gestures, even the most private, were interpreted in political terms,” and where “the colours of my head scarf or my father’s tie were symbols of Western decadence and imperialist tendencies.” It’s hardly necessary to add, though one of Nafisi’s students does, that the criminal acts of Humbert Humbert are perfectly legal within the provisions of Islamic marriage law in Iran.
A few reviewers criticized Nafisi for “fictionalizing” her students, for referring to one of her confidantes throughout the book only as “my magician,” and even for the mixture of personal memoir combined with literary criticism. But, of course, the students, whose own developing life-stories are poignantly crucial to the reality of the book, have been disguised for their own protection. As for the unidentified mentor that Nafisi calls “the magician” (a reference to another Nabokov story), his genie-like existence is no more surreal than the actual existence, also noted by Nafisi, of a blind cleric who was the official Iranian censor of television and movies for many years. The hybrid combination of autobiography and literary commentary seems to me expressive of the book’s Shaherazade-like charm, and its creative reshaping of Persian literary tradition. In the end, against the niggling complaints, I prefer cultural critic Susan Sontag’s praise of an account of defiance of “radical Islam’s war against women.” Sontag adds, Nafisi’s memoir “contains important and properly complex reflections about the ravages of theocracy, about thoughtfulness, and about the ordeals of freedom.” Finally, it’s a stirring tale of inspired teaching and the encounter with great writing.
Perhaps the quickest sketch of Nafisi herself, as a teacher, is provided by Jacki Lyden, a writer and reporter for National Public Radio in the U.S. “When I first saw Azar Nafisi teach,” Lyden recalls, “she was standing in a university classroom in Tehran, holding a bunch of fake red poppies in one hand and a bouquet of daffodils in the other, and asking, what is kitsch.” In Reading Lolita, says Lyden, Nafisi “mesmerizingly… reveals the shimmering worlds she created in those classrooms, inside a revolution that was an apogee of kitsch and cruelty.”
Finally, beyond the stories of coming home to the Islamic revolution, surviving the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War, and ultimately departing for “another room, another country,” Nafisi wonders “if you can imagine us.” Can we imagine this extraordinary gathering, of what might be described, in a cliché of the era, as “the mother” of all book clubs?
“We are sitting around the iron-and-glass table on a cloudy November day, the yellow and red leaves reflected in the dining room mirror are drenched in a haze,” Nafisi recalls. “I and perhaps two others have copies of Lolita on our laps. The rest have a heavy Xerox. There is no easy access to these books — you cannot buy them in the bookstores anymore. First the censors banned most of them, then the government stopped them from being sold: most of the foreign-language bookstores were closed… We photocopied all 300 pages for those without copies. In an hour when we take a break, we will have tea or coffee with pastry. I don’t remember whose turn it is for pastry. We take turns; every week one of us provides the pastry.” And every week all of them engage in the act of quiet heroism that serious reading can be in a world that denies its worth.
The heading that I’m using here, “Other Voices, Other Realms,” as some readers will recognize, echoes the title of Truman Capote’s first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), in which heretofore unheard voices resounded, but it also points to a contemporary and equally notable debut, Pakistani-American writer Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (2009). In a brief survey of interesting books from places around the world that appeared in the first decade of the present century, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran provides one of the convenient bookends; the other will be Sharhiar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story (2009).
It is not immediately clear how to categorize these books from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, or if we need to do so. They are, of course, “international” literature but, then, so are the works of Orhan Pamuk, Amos Oz and Javier Cercas. For that matter, so are the books of Philip Roth and other writers “closer to home,” depending on where home happens to be. In that sense, “international” is simply a relative term, an “elsewhere” from the perspective of where one is. In some instances, but not all, these books are translated from another language into English, but that isn’t their distinguishing feature, since many of them are written in English, and some of those that aren’t originally in English are written by authors now living in English-speaking countries. The implication of a notion of other voices, other rooms, and other countries is that we’re hearing voices in literature that we haven’t heard before, from rooms and realms that are elsewhere. But for the authors themselves, their voices aren’t “other,” and the other rooms in other countries in which they find themselves, willingly or not, are merely places distant from where they started out.
Perhaps the point is that the increasing presence of books from all over the world at the beginning of the 21st century is an indicator that there is no longer an “elsewhere,” except relatively speaking. Once we might have thought of these works as “exotic,” but the notion of the exotic diminishes in a de-centred global society, and becomes little more than an anachronistic colonialism of the imagination. Indeed, perhaps the only exotic reality now is “virtual reality,” and not the different customs, languages, and landscapes of places other than our own. Although the stories such books tell may be news to us, even “news from the front,” we now recognize that the “front,” the place of crucial encounters, is increasingly everywhere. What were once thought of as “other voices” are now more appropriately recognized as simply the author’s own voice. In a sense, all voices are now “our voices,” but I don’t mean “our” to suggest a reductive homogenizing, or to erase the distinctive differences that distinguish our voices. Here are just a few of them.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).
There was once an African country called Biafra in what is now eastern Nigeria. It precariously existed from 1967-1970. It doesn’t exist anymore. And few people now remember that breakaway state whose flag bore the emblem of half of a yellow sun and whose inhabitants were mostly members of the Igbo ethnic group. The bloody civil war that resulted in the demise of Biafra, one of the worst conflicts in modern African history, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, by bombs, gunfire, starvation, and disease.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun tells the epic story of the secession and destruction of Biafra. It is intimately presented through the experiences of its three principal characters: Ugwu is a teenage, village-raised youth who becomes a houseboy in the home of a politically radical mathematics lecturer at the nearby University of Nsukka. Ugwu’s middle-class “Master,” as he styles himself, is the impetuous Odenigbo; and finally, there’s Odenigbo’s woman-friend, Olanna, British-educated and the daughter of a nouveau riche business family in Nigeria’s capital, Lagos. The cast of main players is rounded out by Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene and her English boyfriend Richard, a would-be historian, as well as an assortment of academics, villagers, and servants. The time-line takes us from the promise of the early 1960s, through the growing political alienation of the Biafran secessionists, and into the bloody civil conflict at the end of the decade.
The novel is technically conventional in a realist mode, but it tells us something about a tragic patch of history we probably didn’t know much about, and its characters, I noticed, remained memorable long after I’d finished reading Adichie’s book. Maya Jaggi called it “a landmark novel, whose clear, undemonstrative prose can so precisely delineate nuance.” She also praised the “rare emotional truth” in its sexual scenes, including “Ugwu’s adolescent forays and the mature couples’ passions”; it’s an emotional truth that extends to the horrors of rape in a war-battered land where one sees, as Adichie writes, “vaguely familiar clothes on headless bodies,” or the odd skin tone of corpses — “a flat sallow grey, like a poorly wiped blackboard.” (Maya Jaggi, “The Master and his houseboy,” The Guardian, August 19, 2006.)
“It’s easy to forget what a big deal” Adichie is, notes one newspaper profile of the author (William Skidelsky, “The interview: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Observer, April 5, 2009). One thing that might be easily forgotten is that her “hugely accomplished and harrowing drama” is literally an historical novel, in that its events all occurred before the birth of the then 29-year-old Adichie. The skills displayed in her well-received first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), the coming-of-age story of a Nigerian girl, were confirmed by the reception of the book that made Adichie a literary sensation in Britain. Half of a Yellow Sun won the 2007 Orange Prize, the prestigious award for women writers, and the book sold close to the three-quarters of a million copies in Britain alone. In addition to enthusiastic reviews, it received the imprimatur of Nigeria’s most famous writer, Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart (1958), who said, “We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers… She is fearless, or she would not have taken on the intimidating horror of Nigeria’s civil war. Adichie came almost fully made.”
Adichie, the daughter of Nigerian academics, went to school in the United States, completing a graduate degree at Yale, while working on a third book, a volume of stories, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009). One of the stories, “Jumping Monkey Hill” is about an African writer’s workshop held in South Africa, presided over by an unpleasant Englishman who tells the students what kinds of fiction they should be writing. “For me, the story is about the larger question of who determines what an African story is,” says Adichie, which is precisely one of the sub-themes of her Biafran novel. “I remember feeling helpless. You’re sitting there thinking, this is the result of two hundred years of history: we can sit here and be told what our story is.”
As I was belatedly reading Adichie’s work in mid-2009, her effort to define “what an African story is” was made all the more poignant by events in Nigeria itself. Some four decades after the brutal events in Biafra she brings to life in her prose, the day’s news began with an account of a deadly clash between Nigerian government forces and religious fundamentalists: “Troops shelled the compound of an Islamist sect blamed for days of violence in northern Nigeria, then attacked its mosque, killing at least 100 militants in a fierce battle,” the press reported in the now almost antiseptic language we have become accustomed to when being told about the world’s “hotspots” of violence. (Nyadvara Musa, “Nigerian troops attack Islamist mosque,” The Globe and Mail, July 30, 2009.) The location of the incident was far north of the now vanished Biafra, religious extremism had displaced ethnic and tribal politics as the issue of the day, but the troubled character of the Nigerian regime had not markedly improved, and the need for African storytellers remained urgent.
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2003).
Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini’s multi-million copy bestseller, The Kite Runner, as well as the successful film version of it made in 2007, is probably more of a cultural phenomenon than strictly a matter of literary merit. Still, thousands of readers found it to be a gripping page-turner, and it certainly deserves mention as a notable instance of literary news from “home and abroad,” concepts that, as I’ve said, seem to be converging.
The melodramatic first novel by a then 38-year-old Afghan-born physician now living in California “tells a story of fierce cruelty and fierce yet redeeming love,” wrote one of the many enthusiastic reviewers who, along with extensive word-of-mouth praise, helped propel the book to unexpected best-seller status in the U.S. (Edward Hower, “The Kite Runner: A Servant’s Son,” The New York Times, August 3, 2003). The story of two boys, Amir and Hassan, begins in Kabul, Afghanistan in the late 1970s, during the last days of the country’s shaky monarchy, before the society was brutally transfigured by, successively, civil war, invasion by the Soviet Union, and the mid-1990s triumph of the Islamic fundamentalist movement known as the Taliban.
Hosseini presents a sort of traditional “boy’s own” tale of passionate adolescent friendship and betrayal, set against the background of competitive kite flying in Kabul that provides the book’s title image, as well as a metaphor for freedom lost. The story reflects the class and ethnic tensions of Afghanistan, with Amir, the son of a wealthy Pashtun businessman, representing the ruling elite, while his devoted companion and servant, Hassan, is a member of a minority tribe, the Hazara, fated for poverty and subservience.
The intricate plot twists, complete with sociopathic villain, can be left to travelling readers. But between the acts of moral and physical violence that launch the story and a dramatic denouement of moral redemption in contemporary Afghanistan, Hosseini tells an intriguing tale of Afghan refugees in America. Indeed, the best writing in the book is “a lively and well-observed section about Afghan expatriates setting up flea markets in Fremont, California,” as one reviewer notes. (Meghan O’Rourke, “The Kite Runner: Do I Really Have to Read It?”, Slate, July 25, 2005.)
The question that intrigues critic O’Rourke is, “Why have Americans, who traditionally avoid foreign literature like the plague, made The Kite Runner into a cultural touchstone?” She eventually finds a clue to the puzzle in a sentence spoken to Amir, many years after his forced emigration, by one of his childhood mentors: “There is a way to be good again.” It serves as a mantra-like promise of moral renewal, and in “the appealingly familiar story at the heart of the novel,” a “struggle of personal recovery and unconditional love, couched in redemptive language,” there is something “immediately legible to Americans.”
While the “vocabulary of psychotherapeutic spiritual recovery” likely explains the book’s popular success, critics like O’Rourke credit Hosseini with “wisely steer[ing] clear of merely exoticizing Afghanistan as a monolithically foreign place.” While O’Rourke retains her doubts about the book’s literary and other merits, she concedes that “one shouldn’t underrate the complexity of the task facing Hosseini, who understandably wanted to make the human predicament at the core of his novel seem universal, not remote. There’s something to be said for The Kite Runner’s strategy.”
That was my sense when I taught the book one semester. While the more sophisticated students, in terms of writing, were disdainful of the potboiler elements of Hosseini’s book, other students were enthralled by the melodrama and no doubt learned something about a contemporary political crisis to which they otherwise might not have paid attention. Whether Hosseini succeeds in achieving all his humanist political aims, either here or in his follow-up novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), his writing provides an intimate glimpse of a society with which a good part of the world was militarily and politically embroiled through the whole of the first decade of the present century.
Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (2006).
If Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner offers a populist redemptive narrative, Hisham Matar’s Booker Prize-nominated first novel, In the Country of Men, while bearing some similarities to Hosseini’s best-seller, is a book that presents a starker view of politics and love under conditions of totalitarianism. Matar’s poignant novel is set in Tripoli, Libya in 1979, and is written (like Hosseini’s book) by an exiled author in his mid-30s.
One obvious feature that distinguishes the two books is political history itself. Unlike the fluid, volatile politics of Afghanistan, the North African country of Libya was ruled, then as now, by Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, who came to power in a 1969 military coup. By the end of the first decade of the present century, Qaddafi had marked four decades as the absolutist, and sometimes absurdist, “Guide” of one the longest-running regimes in the Arab world. It’s not only a lengthy dictatorship that has engaged in both extensive internal violence and international terrorism, but it’s one that explains itself by means of a bizarre brew of revolutionary socialist rhetoric, pan-Arabist nationalism, and the Guide’s own idiosyncrasies, which range from goofy to deadly. Even at the time of the events depicted by Matar, Libya was already one of the stranger modern human hells. It had a zero tolerance policy for dissidents, many of whom it executed in gruesome, televised rituals.
Nine-year-old Suleiman, whose adult self is the narrator of In the Country of Men, is the son of a Libyan dissident, Faraj. His father’s public life as a well-to-do entrepreneur provides cover for his frequent absences, which are written off as business trips. But one day, in Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square, when Suleiman spots his father (who is supposed to be away on business), the boy gets his first glimpse of the mysteries of political and domestic life that will shape his youth.
In an astute and admiring review of In the Country of Men, Indian writer Pankaj Mishra notes that Matar includes a description of the statue of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus that stands in Tripoli’s main square. The North African born emperor’s arm points toward the sea, as though “urging Libya to look toward Rome,” and the promise of Europe. When Suleiman eventually visits Lepcis Magna, the Roman seaside colony in Libya where Septimius was born, the boy finds that “absence was everywhere,” a phrase that registers the distance between the ancient world and the debased present day dictatorship. In the antique city’s ruins, Suleiman is accompanied by Ustath Rashid, the father of the boy’s best friend and next door neighbour, Kareem. Rashid, one of the political liberals stealthily opposing Qaddafi’s regime, recites an old Arab poem: “Why this nothingness where once was a city? / Who will answer? Only the wind.” It doesn’t give away any secrets to say that naive dissidents like Rashid and Suleiman’s father will face variously grim fates. (Pankaj Mishra, “Muslims in the Dark,” The New York Review of Books, April 12, 2007.)
The menace of Libyan politics and its effects on private life that Matar so effectively conveys no doubt reflects his own childhood. Born in New York in 1970 to a diplomatic family working in the Libyan delegation to the United Nations, Matar grew up in an upper class Tripoli suburb, but when his father fell out with the regime, the family sought refuge in Egypt. Although Matar himself settled in England as a teenager, and lives there today, his father, who remained in Cairo, was “disappeared” in 1990, presumably by agents of Qaddafi, and has not been seen since, although rumours of his imprisonment have sporadically surfaced.
“For all the grim news it brings us from a murky region,” Mishra observes, Matar’s novel is neither “overtly political or polemical.” As in The Kite Runner, much of the story is devoted to boyhood friendship and betrayal, and the usual run of childhood activities, from soccer in the streets and swimming at the nearby beach to climbing the mulberry tree in the backyard of Suleiman’s friend, Kareem. All of it is shadowed by the unexplained absences of Suleiman’s father and the mysterious “illness” of his mother, which the reader quickly recognizes to be alcoholism, caused by the bottled substance in paper bags that Mama illicitly purchases from the local baker. “At the heart of the novel,” Mishra says, “is Suleiman’s great love for his mother, who, in a country dominated by men, faces both domestic and political oppression.”
Unlike Khaled Hosseini’s best-seller, while Matar offers painful, poignant love, there is little redemption possible here and “even fewer comforts,” as Mishra says. What practically all the reviewers of Matar’s novel noticed, however, is the quality of the prose. “Whatever his subject, Matar writes beautifully,” says Guardian critic and novelist Kamila Shamsie. “In describing the world of seas and mulberries, he is a sensualist; when writing of executions and arrests he is a nuanced observer with a gift for conveying both absurdity and raw emotion.” She cites Matar’s sentence about a man trying to resist being taken to the gallows, which reminds Suleiman of “the way a shy woman would resist her friends’ invitation to dance, pulling her shoulders up to her ears and waving her index finger nervously in front of her mouth.” (Kamila Shamsie, “Where the mulberries grow,” The Guardian, July 29, 2006.)
Lorraine Adams’ review of Matar warns readers not to confuse melodramatic populism with the sublimity of art. “The wonderfully original is anathema to most marketing campaigns, so don’t let anyone tell you, as publicists in Britain did… when In the Country of Men first appeared, that this is a Libyan Kite Runner,” Adams says. Matar’s “exceptional first novel… yields something rare in contemporary fiction: a sophisticated storybook inhabited by archetypes, told with a 9-year-old’s logic, written with the emphatic and memorable lyricism of verse… free of both cliché and padding.” (Lorraine Adams, “The Dissident’s Son,” The New York Times, March 4, 2007.)
Pankaj Mishra makes the most interesting of comparative suggestions. In praising Matar’s “clean supple prose, which vividly evokes days of idleness, long warm afternoons, the sensations of extreme heat, and the coolness of shuttered interiors,” Mishra says, “Matar resembles the lyrical Camus of The First Man.” After invoking Albert Camus, Matar’s fellow North African-born writer, Mishra adds that, given the “darkening ambiguities” of North Africa and its relation to the West, Matar’s first novel makes “Septimius Severus’s antique exhortation to learn from Europe look touchingly innocent.”
Ma Jian, Beijing Coma (2008).
One of the most ambitious books of the decade under review comes from China. Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma is an epic-sized novel that tells the story of what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, where the Chinese revolution not only ate its children, but subsequently attempted to wipe out the memories of the citizens of the world’s largest republic.
The London-based Ma Jian, a writer in his mid-50s, recreates the day-by-day developments of the largest, most sustained political demonstration against the Chinese Communist government in its history. The events, now two-decades old, involved a huge number of mostly young people, and began with a burgeoning camp-like occupation of Beijing’s main square in spring 1989 that gathered around a polystyrene replica of the Statue of Liberty. The extended protest was forcibly ended only in early June when the Chinese army crushed the demonstrators with tanks and guns, and killed a still unknown number of protesters. In a 2009 essay commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the events in Tiananmen Square, Ma says the massacre “killed thousands of unarmed citizens, and altered the lives of millions,” but the events seem “to be locked in the twentieth century, forgotten or ignored… The amnesia to which China has succumbed is not the result of natural memory-loss but of state-enforced erasure. China’s Communist regime tolerates no mention of the massacre.” (Ma Jian, “The great Tiananmen taboo,” The Guardian, June 2, 2009.)
Ma, already in disfavour with the regime as a result of his earlier book of stories, Stick Out Your Tongue, left China in 1987, “shortly before my books were banned there,” but he’s returned regularly ever since, and in 1989, “I was on Tiananmen Square with the students, living in their makeshift tents and joining their jubilant singing of the ‘Internationale’… They were pressing for dialogue with their Communist leaders, and ultimately for freedom and democracy.” Indeed, at one point during the giant sit-in, the Communist Party’s general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, visited the students and for a moment it seemed possible that the ending might have been different from what it turned out to be.
By happenstance, a few days before the violent denouement, Ma’s brother had an accident in their hometown of Qingdao and fell into a coma. “I immediately left Beijing to look after him, so I didn’t witness the massacre of 4 June,” Ma says, then adds, “Perhaps if I had, I would never have been able to write about it.”
His brother’s coma provides the “guiding metaphor” of Beijing Coma, as Guardian reviewer James Lasdun calls it. The book’s protagonist and narrator, Dai Wai, a former biology student, is shot in the head during the military crackdown, falls into a coma, and for the following decade exists in a comatose state, lying in his mother’s spare apartment. The title conceit, as Lasdun notes, refers to “the systematic erasure of the event from public consciousness as the hardliners in the government consolidated their victory… Mention of the troops’ massacre of unarmed civilians remains forbidden, as does all reporting that differs in any way from the official version. Many young people in China know nothing about the events at all, and with their new prosperity, perhaps few care.”
As Lasdun sums it up, “A comatose mind within a terrifyingly vigorous body is the analogy for post-Tiananmen China that emerges from Ma Jian’s book. In the classic tradition of satire, it opposes this image by turning it on its head.” In the novel, Dai Wai’s “body is comatose, but his mind is coruscatingly alert.” (James Lasdun, “Children of the revolution,” The Guardian, May 3, 2008.) Another reviewer notes that Ma, in creating a protagonist who is conscious but immobile, takes James Joyce’s famous dictum literally: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” (Jess Row, “Circling the Square,” The New York Times, July 13, 2008.)
Ma’s account of China’s political and social history over the past quarter-century is often stomach-churningly brutal. The phrase about a revolution that ate its children is unfortunately not just metaphorical, as Ma recounts instances of grotesque indignities inflicted on the protagonist’s paralyzed body, as well as gruesome stories about forced organ donation and even cannibalism. Nor is Ma sentimental about his student heroes. “Alongside their heroism,” notes Lasdun, “runs the whole gamut of human flaws.” The student leaders are frequently portrayed as “full of posturing and petty squabbling… Different factions make power grabs even as the tanks roll in.” Nor is the novel itself entirely satisfactory. Even otherwise sympathetic critics recognized that several longish scenes of political debate featuring hard to distinguish personalities “may stretch some readers’ patience,” but as Lasdun ultimately argues, the flaws are outweighed by a “vivid, pungent, often blackly funny book [that] is a mighty gesture of remembrance against the encroaching forces of silence.”
Notwithstanding what I said earlier about global familiarity gradually eroding a notion of the exotic, China may be the partial exception to the rule. While everyday life in China’s cities, including its pace, production and consumption of commodities, resembles that of other advanced industrial societies, the degree of authoritarian political secrecy, and the state’s control of virtual reality (such that a Chinese citizen is unable to “google” an independent account of the events of Tiananmen Square) lend China a chilling sort of political exoticism. What James Lasdun refers to as “silence” was briefly broken in 2009 by the publication of an unusual volume of memoirs that deserves at least brief mention here.
Although the Communist Party’s Zhao Ziyang made a sympathetic visit to the demonstrating students in Tiananmen Square, he represented a minority view within the party leadership. Despite his prominence and seniority, he was thrown out of office in 1989, and kept under house arrest for almost sixteen years until his death in 2005, at age 85. Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang (2009) is the secretly recorded reflections of the former Chinese official, and is considered to be an authentic document by most China specialists. (See Jonathan Mirsky, “China’s Dictators at Work: The Secret Story,” The New York Review of Books, July 2, 2009.) In addition to lifting a corner of the curtain by which the Chinese leadership is insulated from scrutiny, the political conclusion of the elderly life-long communist, though couched in characteristically cautious language, proclaims, “In fact, it is the Western parliamentary democratic system that has demonstrated the most vitality. This system is currently the best one available.”
By the time of his death, Zhao was pretty much a forgotten figure, as were the events Ma Jian depicts in Beijing Coma. Nonetheless, in December 2008, a document called “Charter 08,” signed by several thousand Chinese dissidents, called for democratic freedom of assembly and a multi-party political system. Although the prospects for the enactment of the charter’s hopes were minimal in the first decade of the century, there exist at least some home-grown “other” voices who seek to break China’s “exotic” political silence.
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (2009).
The “link” in Pakistani-American Daniyal Mueenudedin’s debut book of “linked stories,” In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, is the formidable figure of K.K. Harouni. The retired high-ranking Pakistani civil servant (with a mansion in Lahore) and feudal owner of extensive agricultural estates in the Punjab district of the country, periodically inhabits the elegant pages of these “other rooms.” He is glimpsed in passing as a favour-dispensing patron, or seen in cameo praising the lightness of a kitchen girl’s chapattis, sometimes observed in three-quarter length portrait, and even felt posthumously. His life and passing affect the destinies of servants, managers, colleagues, and various children and heirs.
He first appears in the book’s opening story, “Nawabdin Electrician,” the tale of the man who maintains the electric motors of the wells that dot Harouni’s fields of sugarcane, cotton, mango orchards, clover and wheat.
K.K. Harouni rarely went to his farms, but lived mostly in Lahore. Whenever the old man visited, Nawab would place himself night and day at the door leading from the servants’ sitting area into the walled grove of banyan trees where the old farmhouse stood. Grizzled, his peculiar aviator glasses bent and smudged, Nawab tended the household machinery, the air conditioners, water heaters, refrigerators, and water pumps, like an engineer tending the boilers on a foundering steamer in an Atlantic gale. By his superhuman efforts he almost managed to maintain K.K. Harouni in the same mechanical cocoon, cooled and bathed and lighted and fed, that the landowner enjoyed in Lahore… Finally, one evening at teatime, gauging the psychological moment, Nawab asked if he might say a word. The landowner, who was cheerfully filing his nails in front of a crackling rosewood fire, told him to go ahead.
Nawab delivers a flowery speech of lament about approaching old age and diminished capacity. “The old man, well accustomed to these sorts of speeches, though usually not this florid, filed away at his nails and waited for the breeze to stop. ‘What’s the matter, Nawabdin?’”
“Matter, sir?” Nawab disenguously asks. “O what could be the matter in your service.” The matter, it turns out, is that Nawab wants a motorcycle as a replacement for his ancient bicycle, a proper motorcycle that will allow Nawab not only to get around the vast holdings of K.K. Harouni, but as well to arrive at his wife’s bedside in a nearby village each evening. Equally important, possession of the motorcycle will enhance the electrician’s status among his peers. In due course, Nawab receives his motorcycle, not because Harouni cares “one way or the other, except that it touched on his comfort — a matter of great interest to him.” In any event, the crops had been good that year and Harouni “felt expansive.” In the neo-feudal world, all that is dispensed depends merely on the whims, moods, or passing desires of the prince, or his modern successor, K.K. Harouni.
The motorcycle, with Nawab aboard, as we can easily anticipate, will lead to further adventures, landscapes, fateful encopunters, and fatality itself. In the above passage and dozens of others, Mueenuddin demonstrates an utterly sure touch, and “touch” is perhaps the key to short story writing. Mueenuddin succinctly conveys the nuances of the Pakistani social class spectrum, and confronts its brutality (especially in the lives of impoverished women) with a restrained prose that is all the more effective for concentrating on the particulars rather than giving way to mere rhetoric. In that, he’s reminiscent of V.S. Naipaul, when the Nobel Prize-winner was at the height of his powers.
In Mueenuddin’s stories we learn not only of a crafty electrician’s slightly shady freelance fiscal affairs (but then, everyone, of financial necessity, is doing deals on the side), or the blunt sexual facts of life in the “upstairs, downstairs” arrangements of the class structure, we also learn about the little things, like the source of the rosewood in the “crackling rosewood fire” in front of which Harouni is filing his nails. Nawab, aboard his new motorcycle, flies down the “long straight road… through the heart of the K.K. Harouni lands.”
The road ran on the bed of an old highway built when these lands lay within a princely state. Some hundred and fifty years ago one of the princes had ridden this way, going to a wedding or funeral in this remote district, felt hot, and ordered that rosewood be planted to shade the passersby. He forgot that he had given the order, and in a few dozen years he in turn was forgotten, but these trees still stood, enormous now, some of them dead and looming without bark, white and leafless.
Mueenuddin’s stories are often about power — the casual orders of princes and landowners, or the sexual subservience of the powerless — but they also give us a sense of feudalism’s timeless time – those rosewood-lined roads whose dead tree branches crackle in Harouni’s fireplace.
Mueenuddin’s sketches of “other rooms” deservedly found their way to various literary prize and book of the year lists (the stories were nominated for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and critics enthusiastic as myself offered a wide range of flattering comparisons. While I see a certain kinship with the prose of Naipaul, others linked Mueenuddin to writers as diverse as R.K. Narayan, Turgenev, Chekhov, Isaac Bashevis Singer and the previous “other voices” writer, Truman Capote, as well as to such contemporaries as Jhumpa Lahiri and Alice Munro.
If Mueenuddin’s “other wonders” elicited unconstrained praise (William Dalrymple writing in the Financial Times called it “the best fiction ever written in English about Pakistan”), the author is himself a rather wondrous character. The son of an Oxford-educated Pakistani civil servant and landowner and of an American journalist mother, Mueenuddin, in his mid-40s (born in 1963), has spent roughly equal parts of his life in both countries. As a child he grew up in Lahore and on the family farms, went to boarding school and college in America, until he was urged to return to Pakistan by his elderly father (a man not unlike the fictional K.K. Harouni) to tend the family property. For the next seven years, he managed a farm in the southern Punjab, along the way learning the gritty details of the argricultural business and life in the harsh villages of the countryside, and occasionally doing some writing on the side. Mueenuddin decided to return to the U.S., attended Yale law school, and became a New York lawyer for a while. Then one day he resigned, left his 42nd floor office in Manhattan, went back to his Punjab farm, and began writing stories.
That Mueenuddin’s book of linked stories is as good as any volume of short stories published in the first decade of the century is, of course, the true wonder of this particular tale.
Shahriar Mandanipour, Censoring an Iranian Love Story (translated by Sara Khalili, 2009).
I read Shahriar Mandanipour’s novel, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, in mid-2009, during Iran’s distorted presidential election and its brutal aftermath, one eye on literature and the other on television as the country’s military suppressed hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protesting the dubious vote count that resulted in the reelection of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The experience was very much like that reported by critic Michiko Kakutani in her review of Mandanipour’s book (Michiko Kakutani, “Where Romance Requires Courage,” The New York Times, June 30, 2009).
While reading it, Kakutani recalled seeing on television that month the repeated video clip of the killing of an Iranian protestor, Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman cut down by a bullet during the post-election demonstrations. “In what now reads like an eerie echo” of that incident, Kakutani says, Mandanipour “foresees the possible death of his heroine in the streets of Tehran,” a chilling instance of art anticipating life (and death). As Mandanipour puts it at the outset of his novel, “The girl does not know that in precisely seven minutes and seven seconds, at the height of the clash between the students, the police, and the members of the Party of God, in the chaos of attacks and escapes, she will be knocked with great force, she will fall back, her head will hit against a cement edge, and her sad Oriental eyes will forever close.” Or, since this is a thoroughly postmodern confection, perhaps not.
Mandanipour is a prominent Iranian novelist and short-story writer who was prohibited from publishing his fiction in his native country for most of the decade of the 1990s, critic James Wood informs us in an extended essay (James Wood, “Love, Iranian Style,” The New Yorker, June 29, 2009). He went to the United States in 2006 for a fellowship at Brown University, and stayed, going on to become a visiting scholar at Harvard. “This novel, his first major work to be translated into English, was written in Farsi but cannot be read in Iran,” Wood says, and then adds, “His book is thus acutely displaced: it had to have been written with an audience outside of Iran in mind, but in a language that his audience would mostly not understand; it depends on translation for its being, yet its being is thoroughly Iranian, lovingly and allusively so, dense with local reference. And it takes as its subject exactly these paradoxes, for it is explicitly about what can and cannot be written in contemporary Iranian fiction.” That, no doubt, explains a good deal of the book’s convoluted moves, but they’re also the result of Mandanipour’s literary sophistication.
His multi-layered text, as Kakutani describes it, “is, at once, a novel about two young Iranians trying to conduct a covert romance in Tehran; a postmodern account of the efforts of their creator, or his fictional alter ego, to grapple with the harsh censorship rules of his homeland; and an Escher-like meditation on the interplay of life and art, reality and fiction.”
The would-be lovers are named Sara and Dara, and they’re a cross between Jack and Jill figures in a children’s nursery rhyme and the protagonists of ancient Persian love epics. They spend a good portion of their virginal courtship dodging the eyes of parents, nosy neighbours and the morality police, and contriving to meet in museums, movie theaters and even hospital emergency rooms. The digressive Mandipour, who frequently breaks into his narrative, throws in an aside about how he once wrote a story in which he led an amourous couple to a cemetery in order to provide a meeting place. Dara leaves Sara hidden messages in library books, placing purple dots under certain letters in certain words, which she must then decode.
Mandanipour depicts the extremes of censorship in both Iranian literature and life through elaborate typographical devices. The adventures of Dara and Sara are presented in boldface type, but whenever the story becomes unacceptably political or erotic, offending sentences and phrases are crossed out, struck through with a horizontal line, so that, as Wood notes, “the reader can examine what might constitute a literary offense in Iran. The text is veiled, but the author lifts the veil for his non-Iranian audience.” Wood cites a typical passage that begins, “Sara is studying Iranian literature at Tehran University.” But the following sentence, “However, in compliance with an unwritten law, teaching contemporary Iranian literature is forbidden in Iranian schools and universities,” is crossed out. The owner of a store where Sara goes to buy sunglasses sighs, “What a shame for those beautiful eyes and that tantalizing face to be hidden behind those glasses.” The phrase “and that tantalizing face” is struck through.
The mutilated bold-face text of Mandanipour’s faltering attempts to write an Iranian love story, is accompanied by another text printed in normal roman type. “Since the official love story can barely get off the ground,” Wood says, “Mandanipour supplies the unofficial version, in an essayistic running commentary that often displaces the official tale for pages on end.” There we learn about the revolution of 1979, the history of censorship of Iran, and the risky obstacle course facing any courtship. In the unofficial text, with its metafictional echoes of Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie, the censor is conceived of not merely as one who prohibits but as a kind of co-author of the book. He makes frequent appeareances, under the alias of Porfiry Petrovich (a character in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment). He squabbles with Mandanipour, crosses out sentences, chats with other characters, and even has desires of his own. “One of the great successes of this book,” says Wood, “is how thoroughly it persuades the reader that a novel about censorship could not help also being a novel about fiction making.”
But if this is a novel whose first hundred pages are “exciting,” and whose writing is “exuberant, bonhomous, clever” (Wood), it eventually becomes a bit too much. Not only is the authorial commentary quickly of greater interest than the official love story, given that the lovers are simply present to show that it’s impossible to write an Iranian love story, but the surreal, postmodern, magical elements increasingly “feel distinctly strained” (Kakutani). If Mandanipour’s novel about writing and love falling apart has shortcomings, it nonetheless is more interesting as an attempt at what to do with writing in such circumstances than a host of other more conventional tales dealing with similar materials. In the end, critic Kakutani credits Mandanipour with conjuring up “a clever Rubik’s cube of a story, while at the same time giving readers a haunting portrait of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran: arduous, demoralizing and constricted even before the brutalities of the current crackdown.” The crackdown has only become worse in the time since the publication of Mandanipour’s book. I think it’s a book that might be both recognizable and revealing to not only my Iranian students in a Vancouver university classroom, but to a far broader readership.
In considering these other voices, places, regimes, I should underscore again that my reflections are a minuscule sampling of what became available in the first decade of the new century. There are dozens of other books, both fiction and non-fiction, that would reward comparable attention. Such works range from British-born Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulizter Prize-winning stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and subsequent volumes; and include Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City (2005), a portrait of Bombay; Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (2006), winner of both the Booker and National Book Critics Circle awards; Mohsin Hamid’s Booker-nominated The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), an elegant monologue about the anxieties of the 9/11 era; and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), a novel of news from India which also won the Booker Prize, among other honours.
Of the threads and thematics that bring many of these books together, one of them is that they invariably present political and class structures that sharply contrast to the relatively placid politics of countries like Canada or, in Europe, Germany and France. For those whose “grand tour was only through the gently borderless continent of Google,” we may find ourselves looking almost enviously, as James Wood says, “at those who have the misfortune to live in countries where literature is taken seriously enough to be censored, and writers venerated with imprisonment.” In more bucolic polities, as a result of cultural and commercial indifference rather than repression, it is literature itself that seems an endangered and exotic species.
Berlin, June 13, 2010. This essay is from a work-in-progress about writing at the beginning of the 21st century.