Kaveh Bassiri on Iranian Novels in Translation
Why would you want to read an Iranian novel when our government is debating a ban on Iranians coming to America? Maybe you're friendly with one of the 1 million Iranian-American citizens here. Maybe you loved the poetry of Rumi, Hafez, or Khayyam, and you want to read what modern Iranians are writing. Maybe you'd like to understand the demonized country that has been in conflict with the United States for the last 38 years.
As an Iranian-American, I read Iranian novels to understand my heritage better. I also read them to understand myself as an American. The word translation is rooted in the Latin to "carry over" or to transport. Translated books are ambassadors and messengers. They are immigrants settling in a new home, adapting, changing and being changed by the world around them. They might look different or have strange customs, but they are here and want you to come over and knock at their doors. They don’t carry slogans or shout at you. A book is not a wall, and it's not just a door. It is a lonely friend who is waiting to share what it has prepared for you at its table of words.
I chose the following novels with diversity in mind. They are examples from before and after the Islamic revolution, from different communities and regions of Iran, in different styles, written by both women and men. May you find a good friend among them.
The Blind Owl, By Sadegh Hedayat (Grove Atlantic, 2010)
Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951) is possibly the most influential modern Iranian prose writer. His masterpiece, Buf-e Kur (“The Blind Owl”), was published in 1941. In The Politics of Writing in Iran, Kamran Talattof calls the novella “Iran’s most controversial and celebrated work of fiction.”
The Blind Owl was the first modern Iranian novel to be translated into English. It was translated by Desmond Patrick (D.P.) Costello in 1957 and later by Iraj Bashiri in 1974 and Naveed Noori in 2011. Bashiri revised his translation three times, and the most recent version became available online in 2013. Even with its problems, Costello’s translation is still a good read and remains the most popular. To see the work’s more formal experiments, read Noori’s translation. The work has also been adapted four times into film: by influential Iranian-American experimental theater director Reza Abdoh in 1992 and by the great Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz as La chouette aveugle in 1990.
Porochista Khakpour, in her extended introduction to the Grove Press edition, begins by describing how her parents forbade her to read the book, something that I, like many Iranians, also experienced. She describes the book as “the most disturbing thing I have read.” Some readers have viewed it as a critique of the Reza Shah’s rule, though the book is about much more. M. R. Ghanoonparvar, in Prophets of Doom, says the book reveals “Hedayat’s terrible awareness of change taking place in the Iranian psyche, Iranian society and social institutions.”
Told by an unreliable narrator, The Blind Owl’s complex and macabre existential tale has confounded readers and critics alike. It recalls works by visual artists like Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch in its hallucinatory parallel story of a misanthropic male protagonist’s sexual anxiety and fear of death. You can see the influence of mysticism, Hinduism, and Khayyam, genres like expressionism and gothic fiction, as well as the influence of Western writers like Rilke, Poe, and Kafka. This enigmatic book has also inspired many books and essays to be written about it.
Savushun, By Simin Daneshvar (Mage Publishers, 1991)
Simin Daneshvar (1921-2012) was the first Iranian women to publish a novel and a collection of short stories. As a Fulbright fellow in 1952-54, she studied creative writing with Wallace Stegner at Stanford University. She also married the acclaimed Iranian writer and thinker Jalal Al-e Ahmad.
Her first novel, Savushun (1969), which has sold more than half a million copies, has been translated twice into English, with more exacting language by Ghanoonparvar in 1990 and by Roxane Zand as A Persian Requiem in 1991. Hassan Abedini, in Sad Sal Dastan-nevisi-ye Iran (“One Hundred Years of Persian Prose”), writes that Savushun, with its poetic, precise, and strong prose, started a new season in the history of prose in Iran.
Set in the later years of WWII, when the British occupied Iran, Savushun is the story of a landowning family in the city of Shiraz, where Daneshvar grew up. The narrator, Zari, is a wife and mother who is concerned about the safety and happiness of her family while her patriotic husband gets involved in the movement against imperialism, tribal politics, and corruption. It is a story of the growing social and political awareness of Zari, as well as a growing revolutionary social consciousness. Farzaneh Milani, in Veils and Words, writes that Savushun “presents a world in which not only do the characters function fully and have the freedom and the ability to speak for themselves but the plot is also highly plausible, culturally, socially, and historically.”
My Uncle Napoleon, Iraj Pezeshkzad (Modern Library, 2006)
Translated by DICK DAVIS
Daie Jan Napoleon (1973), written by Iraj Pezeshkzad (b. 1928) and translated as My Uncle Napoleon by Dick Davis in 1996, is another Iranian best-selling novel set during the WWII Allied occupation of Iran. But instead of being another social realist work, My Uncle Napoleon is a social satire, a tragicomedy full of puns, ludicrous characters, farcical conflicts, sexual innuendo, and imaginary enemies and battles. It also references the earlier Constitutional Revolution period (1905-11), when the Iranian government was subject to British and Russian imperialism. However, unlike the revolutionary response to British imperialism in Savushun, My Uncle Napoleon makes fun of the common belief that the British are behind all important political events in Iran. In fact, Iranians use the name “Uncle Napoleon” to refer to conspiracy theorists.
Looking back from the 1960s, the narrator of the novel tells the story of his first teenage love and growing up in an extended family under patriarchal rule, aristocratic pretensions, power struggles, and petty family dramas. Azar Nafisi, in the introduction to Random House’s 2006 Modern Library edition, writes that despite being “highly critical of the society it portrays, it is also the best testament to the complexity, vitality, and flexibility of Iranian culture and society."
In 1976, My Uncle Napoleon was also made into a popular television series by Nasser Taghavi, a leading Iranian filmmaker. Ghanoonparvar, in his book In a Persian Mirror, writes that “Pezeshkzad builds one of the most memorable and remarkably true-to-life, albeit caricatured, characters in his very popular novel.” As a testament to this claim, after the Islamic Revolution, both the movie and book were banned, though black market copies were readily attainable.
Touba and the Meaning of Night, by Shahrnush Parsipur (Feminist Press, 2016)
Translated by Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof
Along with Daneshvar and Goli Taraghi (b. 1939), Parsipur is one of the three Iranian women who published a novel before the revolution. She has also won numerous prizes, including the Lillian Hellman/Dashiell Hammett Award, the Italian literary award Premio Feronia-Citta di Fiano Prize, and the Persian Heritage Foundation’s Latifeh Yarshater Award for lifetime achievement.
Translated by Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof, Tuba va ma’na-yi shab (“Touba and the Meaning of Night”) (1989) follows a spiritual journey of the heroine, Touba, as well as her daily struggles in a patriarchal society from when she is a young girl until her death. Parsipur creates extraordinary characters. The different women in her novels are complex and alive. They may be ordinary and petty or wise and radical. They go beyond the Western or Iranian cultural and gender stereotypes. Touba is also a panoramic history of Iranian women in the 20th century and of the changes in Iran from the final days of the Qajar dynasty and the Constitutional Revolution to the Islamic Revolution. Many issues—such as religion, marriage, family, class, politics, philosophy, sexuality, tradition, and modernity—are dealt with in the book.
Influenced by authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Parsipur weaves together magic realism and modern innovations in the novel with classical myths and Middle Eastern storytelling that hark back to 1001 Nights. She incorporates diverse works such as the Attar’s classical Persian text The Conference of the Birds and Hedayat’s experimental work The Blind Owl. Her writing brings together the real and magical, polemical and lyrical, rational and mystical, public and private, historical and mythical, traditional and modern, east and west. With their multiple, sometimes even contradictory, perspectives, the novel becomes a prism of Iranian society, echoing the lives of its citizens. As Houra Yavari writes in the afterward, “[Touba’s] story is a spiritual quest. But at the same time, like the tree, [she] has deep roots in the soil of her native land, and her story is also the story of Iran in a turbulent century of change.”
The Colonel, by MAHMOUD DOWLATABADI (Melville House, 2012)
Translated By TOM PATTERDALE
Dowlatabadi is possibly the most respected Iranian novelist living in Iran. He is the author of many books, including the magnum opus Kelidar (1978-1983), a ten-book saga of a nomadic Kurdish family. He has also won numerous prizes, including France’s Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and prestigious Golshiri Lifetime Achievement Award. His novel The Colonel, which took twenty-five years for him to consider finished, has not been published in Persian or in Iran, but translations of the work are available in numerous language, starting with German in 2009. The novel has won praise and awards, including the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature. It was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. An English translation of The Colonel by Tom Patterdale was published in 2011. Among his other major works translated into English are Missing Soluch, translated by Kamran Rastegar, and Thirst: A novel of the Iran-Iraq War, translated by Martin E. Weir. Missing Soluch was conceived while he was in prison during the Shah’s regime and written in the seventy days after his release.
Dowlatabadi is known for long social realist novels about the devastating decline and transformation of rural life, such as Kelidar and Missing Soluch, but The Colonel is a chamber drama. The book is set in the town of Rasht in the north of Iran at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. The protagonist colonel, who has been stripped of his rank because of murdering his adulterous wife, must confront the consequences of the different paths his children have taken. The colonel’s thoughts cover a period starting with the first modern reform movement by Iranian Chancellor Amir Kabir (1848-1851) and ending with the Islamic Revolution. The result is a hallucinatory recollection of the country’s long history of progresses and setbacks, dreams and repressions, and hopes and disillusionments, during the many movements of reform and revolution. Past and present are molded in a nightmare of eternal return. Like Dowlatabdi’s other powerful works, the writing is unsentimental, dark, and despairing. In The Literary Review, Matt McGregor wrote, “Dowlatabadi has done something perverse, something almost unforgivable: he’s spun from this muck a beautiful, wretched novel.”
Horse’s Head, By Jaafar Modarres-Sadeghi (Mazda Publishers, 2011)
Translated by Ali Anooshahr and M. R. Ghanoonparvar
Kalleh-ye Asb (1991), written by Jaafar Modarres-Sadeghi (b. 1954) and translated as Horse’s Head (2015) by Ali Anooshahr and M. R. Ghanoonparvar, is a good example of a work that deals with issues of the Kurdish minority in Iran. Moderres-Sadeghi is a prolific writer, who has written seventeen novels. Horse’s Head, the second part of a trilogy, is a love story between Kasra, a married man from Tehran, and Jahan, a young Kurdish girl. Much of the book covers the concerns of Kurds and the start of the Iran-Iraq War with its impact on the Kurdistan region. Kasra tries to persuade Jahan to leave a militant party for Kurdish independence, while she tries to get him to join. Kasra ends up going to Kurdistan to look for Jahan. Typical of Modaress-Sadeghi’s work, the protagonist (Kasra) is in search of a purpose, and there is much psychological and philosophical discussion and contemplation. There is also tension between love and war, living a normal life and fulfilling obligations to a cause or party. The book went through two printings before getting banned. Today, it cannot be easily found in Iran.
Things We Left Unsaid, by Zoya Pirzad (OneWorld, 2013)
TRANSLATed By Franklin Lewis
Zoya Pirzad (b. 1952), the second Armenian women to publish a novel in Persian, is a great example of a minority writer who is also one of the best Persian writers. Her work is infused with the culture of Armenians. Pirzad has received France’s Chevalier of Legion of Honor. Her best-selling novel, Cheragh-ha ra man khamush mi-konam (“I’ll Turn Out the Light”), won the prestigious independent Golshiri Literary Award (2002) and the best literary book of the year prize from the Ministry of Culture & Islamic Guidance (2003). The translation by Franklin Lewis was published in 2012 under the title Things We Left Unsaid (which Lewis told me was not his decision).
Things We Left Unsaid is set in Abadan—a city built around a major oil refinery—in the early 1960s during the era of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Pirzad, who was born and raised in Abadan, writes with great precision and detail about a woman’s everyday experiences and emotions. Her style is casual, natural, and subtle, which was new for Iranian novels. The narrator, Clarice Ayvzaian, is an unfulfilled Armenian housewife whose life changes when Emile and her family move next door. Clarice slowly finds herself falling in love with Emile as the families’ lives become entangled. She also gets involved with the women’s movement. Although the book does provide a sense of place, and references to social events such as women’s suffrage and the Armenian genocide, it is not a political or social realist novel. Most readers in the West, especially if they have lived in suburbs, may easily identify with the narrator, which is significant because, after all, we often share similar experiences in our everyday lives even when we live in very different parts of the world.
Censoring an Iranian Love Story, by Shahriar Mandanipour (Penguin random house, 2010)
Translated by Sara Khalili
Censoring an Iranian Love Story (2006), written by Shahriar Mandanipour (b. 1957), is an example of a book written in Persian by a known Iranian author living in exile. Mandanipour, one of the best Iranian writers, has lived in the U.S. since 2006. He has won a number of prizes, including the Golden Tablet Award in 1998 for writing the best fiction of the past 20 years in Iran. Censoring appeared first in translation by Sara Khalili and is not available in Persian. Unlike most Iranian books in translation, it was also published by W.W. Norton and received attention and reviews in the media. For example, James Wood observed in The New Yorker, “Mandanipour’s writing is exuberant, bonhomous, clever, profuse with puns and literary-political references.” The Greek translation of Censoring won The Athens Prize in Literature in 2011.
Censoring is a postmodern novel–a surrealistic and ironic tale within a tale. The first story, identified by bold text, is a modern love story between two youths named Sara and Dara, who meet at a political protest. Their challenge is how to get together given the limitations in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their story is set in a meta-fiction narrative in which the writer’s alter-ego, Shahriar, is in discussion with a censor, Petrovich, about writing. The book becomes an absurd voyage through the labyrinth of censorship in Iran. We can also see the use of self-reflexivity which became a hallmark of Iranian cinema, as seen in the work of filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami. Coincidently, The Blind Owl also appears as a banned book that Sara wants to read.
Kaveh Bassiri is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Arkansas, where he also teaches Persian literature and film courses. His poetry has won the Bellingham Review’s 49th Parallel Award and been published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Mississippi Review, and the anthologies Best New Poets 2011 and The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and Its Exiles. His translations won the Witter Bynner Poetry Translation Residency and have been published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, and Massachusetts Review. He also writes for Michigan Quarterly Review’s blog.