Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Septembers of Shiraz (Not A Review)

  • Hardcover: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco (July 24, 2007)
  • Language: English

I first heard about Dalia Sofer’s debut novel on NPR (audio link here) and was intrigued by the storyline of the travails of an Iranian Jewish family in post-revolutionary Iran.

Book Description:
In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, rare-gem dealer Isaac Amin is arrested, wrongly accused of being a spy. Terrified by his disappearance, his family must reconcile a new world of cruelty and chaos with the collapse of everything they have known.
As Isaac navigates the tedium and terrors of prison, forging tenuous trusts, his wife feverishly searches for him, suspecting, all the while, that their once-trusted housekeeper has turned on them and is now acting as an informer. And as his daughter, in a childlike attempt to stop the wave of baseless arrests, engages in illicit activities, his son, sent to New York before the rise of the Ayatollahs, struggles to find happiness even as he realizes that his family may soon be forced to embark on a journey of incalculable danger.

This book took me a few pages of reading to really grab me although it has been referred to as a “page-turning literary debut”, but hey that is me. Perhaps the way the narrative unfolds had its purpose, for once it had my attention it became quite engrossing. The story is told in third person from the perspective of the four principal characters of the Amin family.. Isaac, his wife Farnaz, daughter Shirin and their son Parviz who is in far away Brooklyn studying architecture.

We watch the slow unraveling of the lives of this family. Isaac is a gems dealer. His crime is that he is Jewish and that he tried to live a life making money impervious to the excesses of the Shah. His services have been patronized by many of the ruling of the elite including the wife of the shah. His interrogator in prison is none other than Mohsen who is missing a thumb thanks to his time in the Shah’s prisons. In a rather dark twist Mohsen often brings his young son to prison, something we find out as Isaac hears the sounds of tiny feet above his cell. We watch this often surreal game between these two men and the reader will be left wondering what will become of Isaac. Will he be shot, for there seems no logic to the process by which prisoners are picked up for execution or will he succumb to the harsh conditions of his confinement which includes torture? Sofer describes this in language that makes the reader experience all the color that has drained from Isaac’s life in the little cell that is now his world.

Isaac has a lot of time to contemplate during his stay in the prison, his life, his past love, his marriage, the slowly growing distance between him and his wife and his relationship with his children. Some of what he feels towards Farnaz is complicated by the presence of Vartan Sofoyan in the prison. He used to be Farnaz’s piano teacher and he knew she felt more alive with him than anyone else he had seen. Farnaz on her part sense’s Isaac’s distance in how his eyes smile in response to Suzy, in a way she can no longer do. Suzy is the family’s dog.

There are crisscrossing narratives here and the reader is taken along different paths of the family.
Isaac’s wife Farnaz is left behind to carry on with life, look for Isaac and as much as she tries she cannot resolve the incongruity of her collapsing world with the normalcy around her…

“That the city is short by one man makes so little difference – stores still open their doors, schools ring their bells, banks exchange currency, grass-green double-decker buses- men on the bottom, women on top-follow their daily routes.”

Farnaz’s collection of objects from her visits around the world, appear to provide her some comfort and solace.

The attachment of these characters to their status and lifestyle (via their personal belongings) and their reason for not leaving Tehran is evidenced from the utterance by by Isaac’s sister and her husband “If we leave this country without taking care of our belongings, who in Geneva or Paris or Timbuktu will understand who we once were?”

The relationship of Farnaz with their housekeeper Habibeh is also explored in the larger context of the overthrow of the Shah, the resurgence of the Islamists, differences across class, and a sense of resentment and a desire for revenge against the rich regardless of their guilt in the situation that the poor find themselves in. What is the role of Habibeh and her son (who Isaac had given a job at his workplace) in Isaac imprisonment? How does one justify his removal of Isaac’s office equipment under the guise of “Safe keeping”?

Isaac’s daughter Shirin inhabits a world where she makes some surprisingly adult choices. Her belief that some how hiding the files of detainees (that she finds while at her friend Leila’s house whose father works for the revolutionary guard) might save those detainees from a cruel fate is brave yet will send a chill thru the reader. Shirin’s friendship with Leila is rather ironic because she is from a different class of people and it’s the closing of private schools that has even brought them together since public schools are all that remain open.

The theft of files is indeed discovered but is the perpetrator or the files? The disappearance of her father takes her toll on the little kid and she seeks succor in magical thoughts and the comfort of tea prepared for her by the schools nurse during her frequent visits to the school’s infirmary.

Isaac’s son Parviz’s life in Brooklyn is characterized by loneliness and his incomprehension as to why no one understands his situation, as he goes from thinking about going to architecture schools in Europe to now ending up in NY, strapped for cash and working in his Hasidic landlord Zalman Mendelson’s hat shop to help with the rent. I did wonder if his growing attraction to Rachel who comes from a completely different observant orthodox Jewish world was born out of his sense of displacement and detachment.

Sofer writing style is very effective in how she conveys gravity thru use of language. The passage where Farnaz first reveals to her daughter Shirin that Isaac is now in prison is just one example.

When her mother finally called Leila’s house and arrived, frantic, she kissed and hugged Shirin, in a way she hadn’t done in months, then leading her to the car, she said, ”Your father isn’t on a business trip, like I told you. He is in prison. But don’t worry prison is now routine.” She looked like she was about to cry, but Shirin wasn’t sure.
These were the only words spoken between them that night. Later in bed, Shirin thought of her Monopoly game, of that square in the corner with the distraught convict behind bars. In Monopoly, too, prison is routine. Even the best players have to leave everything and jump across the board to that dreaded box, missing a few turns while the same goes on.

The author captures both the mood of the city and her characters brilliantly.

She walks for a long time through the city. Above her, windows and balconies close, shutting out the cool September breeze. Summer is leaving, and with it the buzz of ceiling fans, the smell of wet dust rising through the air-conditioning vents, the clink of noontime dishes heard through open windows, the chatter of families passing long, muggy afternoons in courtyards, eating pumpkin seeds and watermelon.

Sofer’s writing is exquisite and her words give the characters a complexity, nuance and a rich depth. This book really grew on me, I loved it.

If you want to know a bit more about the author Dalia Sofer, here is a link to her interview in the NYTimes Sunday magazine.


Aditi said...

brilliant review.. i will look out for the book
interesting new profile pic.. or atleast new pic of u

Sanjay said...

@Aditi.. Thank you. I think you will enjoy the book, her writing although light is very incisive. Thanks for the comment about the profile pic. :)

Lotus Reads said...

Sanjay, this sounds like an absolutely smashing read! I have read so many books set against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution but I can honestly say I haven't read any that involved the Jewish community ( I am sure they went through hell, because, like Issac, many of the Jews were very wealthy and it is their wealth,status and proximity to the royal family that would have likely got the ire of the new revolutionists)

Dalia Sofer's characters sound very complex and interesting. The psychological games that Mohsin plays must keep the reader at rapt attention. Ofcourse, I am dying to know what "illicit activities" his daughter engages in, but I'll have to read the book to find out!

I find it very interesting, and rather sad, that some of these characters feel like they are defined by their status and material possessions, for both are so temporary, all that really remains behind when everything else is gone is our character, isn't it?

I'd love to know what genre you would place this book it historical fiction, mystery...?

Also, is the Jewishness of the characters played up in the book, in other words, did you find that religion played an important part in this novel?

Finally, did you have a favorite character? They all seem so multi-layered and interesting,I just had to ask!

Thank you for your truly wonderful review, Sanjay, I so enjoyed reading it and the next time I want to read something on Iran, this will be it!

p.s. Enjoyed the that your bookshelf? I've always wanted to have a white bookshelf!

Happy Reader said...

Great Review! I have it on my bookshelf and am yet to read this book! I just finished reading "Prisoner of Tehran" which was based on aftermath of Iranian Revolution too.

Sanjay said...

Hey there Lotus! How are you? Hope you are having a good long weekend? Thank you so very much for your wonderful comment and you truly ask some very incisive questions which make your comments very stimulating and have made me think about the book in truly different ways.

but I can honestly say I haven't read any that involved the Jewish community
That was one big reason for me to want to read this book. I can remember the exact spot on my commute when I heard about the subject of this book, that and this being Dalia Sofer’s debut novel, I thought I must read it, it all sounded so fascinating.
The wealth, status and proximity to the Shah were indeed huge factors but more so was just being Jewish.

The characters are indeed complex and interesting and the point you made about some of them being defined by their material possessions while sad is alas a very human failing. And yes all that remains, when everything is gone is merely our character, you put that very well.

I would classify this as historical fiction rather than a mystery.

Also, is the Jewishness of the characters played up in the book, in other words, did you find that religion played an important part in this novel?

No religion did not play and important part in the lives of the Isaac and his family at all. Religion seemed to play a role for some of the other characters though. But it had me wondering, what kind of religion says it is ok torture? But going back to Isaac for a second, during his confinement the only book he has access to is the Koran and he does read that, even taking part in the prayer in prison before he goes to solitary. One wonders if his reading the Koran was purely out of his need to seek solace in a higher power or ingratiate himself with the guards?

Finally, did you have a favorite character? They all seem so multi-layered and interesting,I just had to ask!

I did not have a favorite character. As you said they all are indeed multi-layered, but if I had to pick one it would be the daughter Shirin, for her age she makes some amazingly adult and brave choices. I wondered if I would ever have the guts to do something similar at that age.

Thank you for the comment re the picture. Yes that is a white bookshelf, they came with the house.  I love white bookshelves too. Incidentally the lamp in the picture is an Iranian lamp a replica that is from the Museum of Natural History from my days in NYC.

I truly enjoyed your comment Lotus, and thank you so very much, you made me think more about this book and the characters that populate this story. I truly hope you enjoy this book if you do read it.

Sanjay said...

@Happy Reader. Thank you for stopping by, your comment is most appreciated. I truly do think you will enjoy "The Septembers of Shiraz". Do you have a review of "Prisoner of Tehran"? I should visit your blog and find out. :)

Ash said...

A fine review!

Cacophoenix said...

you should read "Reading Lolita in Tehran" There is a certain kind of magic in the way the author descirbes Iran and its history against the backdrop of the books she reads and the connections she makes with the boooks and waht happens in her life. It is absolutely amazing

Lotus Reads said...

Hi again Sanjay!

Thank you so much for your response. Sorry, I meant "multi-dimensional" characters, not multilayered...when I get excited about a review I tend to mix words up! lol

Glad you told us about the lamp...I thought it was from India, but upon closer inspection I realize that its design is not that Indian after all. It's a beautiful piece...the museum stores are indeed wonderful places to make purchases like these.

Interesting what you say about Issac reading the Koran in prison. When there is just one book to read in a day filled with nothing to do, it is amazing how much the contents of what we read can influence us. I wonder how much of his attitude in prison was dictated by what he found in the Koran. Interesting.

Sanjay said...

@Ash ..Thanks

@Cacophoenix..I have read "Lolita In Teheran" and it exactly as you decribe, thank you for your comment.

Sanjay said...

Hi again Lotus! Thanks for the clarification but please don't worry about mixing words up.:) But I am glad the review was exciting. Thanks.

Yes museum shops do have some wonderful things to offer.

You make a wonderful point about how much a book can influence a person when that is all they can read. Unfortunately the book was from the public library and I would have loved to refer to my copy to answer your Q about how much Isaac's attitude in the prison was dictated by what he read in the Koran. I think from what I can recall there was some influence but not significant, but pl don't quote me on that. :)

Again thank you for your thought provoking comment!

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