A new addition to their award-winning Reading the City Series, The Book of Tehran from Comma Press (edited by Fereshteh Ahmadi) is a beautiful, insightful peek into a lesser-explored area of the world and the literature that such a diverse and troubled city can produce. A selection of Iran’s best known writers merge together into one intensely emotional collection, with short pieces which offer their own interpretation of Tehran and the people that inhabit it. It is an anthology about the past, the present and therefore also the future; it shows us, the reader, what it means to be a citizen of Tehran, through the eyes of those who have lived there.
However, this is by no means a joyous celebration of Tehran and its history. While the Western-conjured image of the area may be a simplistic, one-sided stereotype, an illuminating introduction in the anthology – vital in setting the scene for what we are about to read – discusses Tehran and Iran and it’s mixed past. This is not a collection of emphatic love letters to the city, or a declaration of support for the city that many have indeed been misunderstood. As the introduction tells us, Tehran is best known for its conflicts and its suppression’s, which are certainly not belittled in the short stories that follow. But, as the writer (Orkideh Behrouzan) continues, it is also a city of art and experimentation, especially with regards to literature and the mesmerising words it has produced. The Persian language is arguably one of the most poetic in the world, made clear by the complex meanings of one dainty word, and the ability to have a word for just about any human act or emotion that can be experienced. As Westerners, we may struggle with the unfamiliar pronunciation, but once you begin to have a grasp on things, the language takes on this new, ethereal feeling that is somewhat difficult to achieve in our own tongue through the sounds of words alone.
Of course, The Book of Tehran contains pieces that are translated into English, all for the first time. The beauty of translation must therefore be appreciated in this instance too. Reading it, I felt that the original meaning of metaphors, the rhythm of the pieces and the tone of them too, had not been lost in the act of translating this complex language. In fact, I was intrigued by just how nuanced some of the metaphors were. The writers put two images together that I had never seen paired before. They pushed the boundaries of imagery within literature, which is difficult already in a short work, let alone a piece written in a different tongue and then translated. They conjured amazing images that fit the setting so perfectly, that turned the mood of a piece in a single sentence and made me consider it in a different, opposing way. I am in awe at the quality of the translation; it is a task that in this collection, demands recognition.
One thing that I did note – if I were to compare the stories to Western ones that I am more familiar with – was just how different the pace felt to anything I have experienced before in a short story. A lot of them took the reader on a very fast journey, full of the dramatic – though not necessarily plot-changing – twists and snippets of the unsaid. Some were a flurry of events, of dialogue, of characters, that we merely got a taster of, before the narrator was off again and back with the reins of the story. The unsaid teased us and offered up a pause where one was needed, but they didn’t dwell too long and the rhythm certainly kept moving forward. One story in particular achieved this particularly well: Sunshine, by Kourosh Asadi (translated by Lida Nostari). In this short story, the narrator appears – or at least that’s how I read it – to be drunk. He is infatuated with an imperfection on his lover’s body, and is thrown into an emotional spiral when the relationship does not go as planned. He speaks at length to characters who are barely introduced, the obsession growing to consume him and sending him into rambling fits about the situations he finds himself in, many of which are unclear to the reader. We access them only through the odd bit of speech, or a brief scene that is disclosed. It makes for an exciting, if not confusing, piece, that leaves the reader with more questions than answers when it finally ends.
Another common factor between many of the stories is the setting of the home, more specifically, an apartment. In the introduction, Behrouzan discusses this section of ‘apartment stories’, “characterised by plots set in around the interiority of homes and a persisting nostalgia for a time when homes were primary houses rather than apartments”. Their tales were confined into four walls, but these stories show that that did not necessarily limit them. Wonderful things and creative analyses happen within these apartments. A handful of the stories centre their themes on the relationship of women in these spaces, which makes for interesting reading when the ‘home-maker’ assumption is shattered. Female partnerships and familial tiffs are unearthed; one of my favourite stories is an incredibly short piece called The Neighbour, by Amirhossein Khorshidfar (translated by Niloufar Talebi). A young woman, a new resident in the apartment block, spends a curious afternoon with ‘the neighbour’s wife’. She feels belittled by her overwhelming presence and the piece is heavy with sexual connotations – images of red, pale, delicate limbs, the seductiveness that smoking still alludes to. The women taint and reshape an area that is traditionally thought of as pure, and questions arise as to what a ‘neighbour’ really can be.
However the stand-out of the anthology comes at the end of the collection, in the form of a story aptly called The Last Night by Atoosa Afshin Navid (translated by Susan Niazi). This blew me away, truly. Each young woman is at a turning point in her life, exploring what path the future holds for her and how exactly she will fare down that route. The story discuses marriage or belonging to another person, whoever that may be. The beauty and complexity of female friendships is shown perfectly too; as women, they hurt one another, they are envious, cruel, but they are also undeniably loyal and supportive, even when clashing personality types may want to push them against each other. It is a tragic story full of captivating scenes and equally captivating characters. This one actually isn’t set in Tehran – instead, it is the dream of the city, of something bigger and things to come, that connects main character to it.
The writers are all clearly talented and also respected, within their own right. The anthology is a celebration of this skill from established voices who understand best what the city resembles for them. However I am curious how (or indeed, if) the anthology would have been any different, if younger or more unknown voices were included. Like any complex city, there must be an abundance of talent emerging from it, ready to portray the life that they have lived and the future that they see for the place. While the anthology does not necessarily include these unheard voices, it does open the door for more exploration into the literature of the place, by those who read it. If the work we have sampled is any indicator of the talent that is yet to be pushed into the limelight, not only in the West but in Tehran itself, then it is a very exciting time to be discovering Iranian literature.
The Book of Tehran is published by Comma Press and is available here.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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