Amir-Ali can no longer trust himself to sleep with his beautiful wife. An alternate self is struggling to emerge, and the respected vice president of the Yarn and Spool Imports Company has begun to act in shocking and unpredictable ways. The weight of the chandelier in the ceiling, with its countless prisms and pendants, oppresses him — he longs for the open sky. His hand rises without volition, he watches in horror as it descends “like a heap of rubble on his wife’s delicate and beloved head.” This inability to control his body begins at the communal Friday prayers, where he must fake the piety necessary to get ahead in post-revolutionary Iran. It culminates in him vomiting over the desk of an official he needs to impress. Amir-Ali has lost the capacity to pretend to be what he is not.
In the Iran that Goli Taraghi depicts in her new story collection, “The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons,” this inability to deceive is catastrophic. Taraghi explores not only the duplicity necessary in the public domain of revolutionary guards and black-cowled guardians of feminine chastity, but in private lives subjected to the tyranny of social and cultural constraints. Her story “In Another Place” juxtaposes Amir-Ali’s need to be free with his wife’s need to control. She hides her true face behind thick makeup and refuses to stretch when her leg is numb. “Her body and her mind are restrained by two thousand rules, two thousand considerations and precautions,” Taraghi writes. “An inherited pride binds her hands and feet and restricts her movements.”
Taraghi’s new book offers American readers a chance to read an author who has maintained her popularity in Iran for nearly four decades — an era spanning revolution, war and diaspora. Her accessible prose straddles the boundary between memoir and fiction, documenting life in Iran and in exile and in the airports that mediate the two. Now 74, Taraghi lives in Paris, where she was awarded a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in recognition of her literary achievements.
The characters in “The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons” range from a downtrodden Bengali maid to a belligerent grandmother hoarding precious antiques. An alienated university professor takes refuge from revolutionary tumult in an enchanted garden. An upper-class woman arrested during a morals raid finds herself at the mercy of the maid she once fired.
An Iranian expatriate flees the Iran-Iraq war only to do battle with her French neighbor in a Paris apartment complex. And in the title story, an illiterate old woman embarks on a desperate journey to see her sons in a place she has never heard of — Sweden. “My sons have turned into nomads,” the Pomegranate Lady’s husband frets. “They’ve lost their roots. Wherever they go they will be strangers.”
Translated into English by Sara Khalili, Taraghi’s voice loses texture and delicacy but gains force. Her narrators are often impatient, sometimes wry and generally beleaguered. Her style can be discursive to the point of tedium and constricted by class consciousness, yet it carries the flavor of the old world, its underlying ferocity leavened by a lyrical mysticism. At times, her prose is transcendent, as in “The Flowers of Shiraz.” In this story of girls growing up in 1950s Tehran, Taraghi captures the irrepressible zest and vitality of childhood. The Flowers, so named by their dance instructor, roam the city’s sere hills on their bicycles; eat sour cherry ice cream at the Tajrish bridge, home to “the biggest party in town”; and carry long needles to stab men who have wandering hands. The Flowers are strangers to fear. “The future has a thousand doors and the key to every door is in our pocket. We hear them jingle and we wonder which door to open.” Although they live in a time of political turmoil — the overthrow of Iran’s government by a CIA coup — it is not politics but mischance that teaches them how suddenly those doors can close.
For decades, Iran has been the subject of headlines, but journalism carries inherent distortions; news by definition excludes the ordinary, while even the best foreign reporting obscures the individual in favor of the aggregate. Fiction, however, regardless of its flights of fancy, can unveil deeper realities. Taraghi’s work, with its focus on contemporary life as lived by a range of quixotic characters, offers not only a portrait of her homeland but a chance for readers to explore their own alternate selves.
Asayesh is the author of “Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America.”