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Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer

November 14, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

The Septembers of Shiraz stays on the longlist for the 2009 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

In silent yet profound lamentation of Iranian novelist Dalia Sofer's 340-page debut novel aptly titled The Septembers of Shiraz - and which for its main character, Isaac Amin spells the inate reminder of poetry and lovers in a time long fled - the reader in return is drawn into a semi-tragic web of a haunting melancholic repose as a fictitious law-abiding family disintegrates with meticulous precision before their very eyes.

The year is 1981 and a painful turn of history has reared its ugly head for many used to the glitter of Iran's past flamboyance. The deposed Shah has fled to Europe and Ayatollah Khomeni is in charge. As is often the case with revolutions- think Mao's China in the 1960s - rules change overnight and new regimes motivated by the grudges of the revengeful working class, turn nasty. The rich are steadfastly punished.

In confronting senseless episodes and the slight frenzied cackle of emotional dishevelment that now rule the once elegantly dressed wives and mothers managing their luxurious swimming pool homes; and in laying bare the torment and torture that often accompanies imprisonment of the innocent, Sofer reveals herself in no uncertain terms, to be an amazing writer.

With deft skill, she lauds her pen with a sensitive air, not at all girlish for one so young in years but preferring contemplation to cynicism; shows the reader with a smooth airing of philosophical renditions over injustices; that there is a reason for everything in the badly shredded nation that threatens evil over good.

Indeed, it is a well mannered plot. One pictures the author's hand to be ladylike and very well behaved as the story narrated almost in a series of whispers, unravels silky spidery threads that shun high drama, racy episodes, aggressive overtones or incidents that would lead to harsh swearing. Instead Sofer focuses on an inspirational hope, tender remembrances and sagacious acceptances, even through the hellish bits.

Isaac Amin is an industrious businessman and popular gemologist. He was raised in a working-class Jewish family in Tehran where most of his father's days were spent in drinking *arrak. In his youth, he bravely sacrificed his pursuit of poetry compositions to receive with an air of sturdy practicality, the scholary study of gemology. As a result in later years, Isaac is rewarded with an easy opulence and wealth. One day, Revolutionary Guards march into this office and arrest the startled man who will later be falsely accused of having been a Zionist spy. He must also explain the weaknesses of a brother - now labelled sinner - who deals in vodka smuggling. Under Ayatollah Khomeni, basic pleasures like alcohol and music have all been prohibited. Anyone seeking the arts or its contemporaries, is looked upon with heavy scorn.

Out of loyalty, Isaac keeps tight-lipped and his fortitude shapes the flow of the tale. His life hangs in the balance where decisions on executions and freedom spin about like a giddy game of roulette.

Sofer traces the feelings of Isaac's shocked, sad wife Farnaz who must rely on her shaky womanly strengths to care for her 9 year old daughter Shirin, her university son Parviz in New York and the dutiful homage paid to close family even in this vulnerable times. The years of married and family life are adequately reflected upon.

Farnaz is all at once infuriating and likeable. She reveals her weaknesses for beautiful things with honest candour and must confront an old servant, Habibeh who suddenly turns hostile against her compassionate master and feels that for being rich alone and this while she has slaved over his family's labour; he may have just received his comeuppance. It doesn't help that Isaac's employers and Habibeh's son, whom Isaac had cared for like his own, takes the opportunity to loot his office and later present a blackmail threat.

The story lies boxed in neat safe categories focussing with easy succession on the upsetting school-life of Shirin, Parviz's youthful anxieties, Farnaz's crucial errands to ensure her husband's safety and other supplementary characters, laid out in thoughtful arrangement.

Towards the end, the plot zooms in on Isaac and Farnaz to close the tale and the rest of the voices appear foggy and shadowed as the characters melt away or stay subdued... permanently resigned to the plot's adventure.

In a way, Sofer was cautious on exercising ambitions and one can't help but wonder how much more grandeur could have been passed on had Sofer wandered out of her safe territory of story-telling. Taken a chance. Killed off an unexpected character. Threw in an eccentrity. Laundry-wrung an otherwise predictable form into a strange twist.

However, Sofer's calm wisdom prevails throughout and this is made sure in her sketching of a brainwashed Habibeh which shows that a collective hysteria of the moment or any sign of religious obsession automatically turns a blind eye to all things loyal, loving and valuable. Then there is Parviz's romantic infactuation with Rachel, his landlord's daughter and a bit of a cold fish. It is an important experience which Sofer executes with easy directness, to exhibit an uncomfortable clash of cultures.

The portrayal of dark moods are also punctured by a quietude of scattered beauty, now and then.

"Here they play solitare and old songs. A 1950s recording spins on the turntable. ... .... A half-full glass is on the table in front of him, the tea inside looking cold. ... on the sofa, concentrates on her game of solitaire. The house smells of simmered onions and camphor oil." - Dalia Sofer, The Septembers of Shiraz .

It is Sofer's brilliant subtle manouverings that makes a reader so used to blockbuster stories wonder how it will all end. With no drama on the horizon, there is no escape plan. Yet far from the story tapering of to a wishy-washy conclusion, there are sudden turns that will reveal unexpected inspiration. A perfectly shaped diamond offers hope for a broken man. Just as Isaac's wealth cursed him, it may just prove his lifeline. Sofer rightfully keeps the reader guessing as to the outcome of the plot until its tight satisfying finish.

************

*arrak - a liquor distilled in parts of the Middle East from the fermented sap of toddy palms.




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