SAVUSHUN A Novel About Modern Iran By Simin Daneshvar Translated from the Persian by M.R. Ghanoonparvar Mage. 387 pp. $29.95
SINCE its publication 20 years ago, Savushun has enjoyed a wide circulation in Iran. For Western readers the novel not only offers an example of contemporary Iranian fiction; it also provides a rare glimpse of the inner workings of an Iranian family. Such a prospect is even more intriguing because the novel is written from a woman's point of view, by an Iranian woman writer whose life covers one of the most turbulent periods in Iran's history.
Simin Daneshvar, who was born in 1921, has been writing fiction as well as essays on aesthetics and on classical Persian literature since the early 1950s. It was Savushun, however, that established hers as a distinct literary voice. The novel is dedicated to her late husband, Jalal Al Ahmad, also a renowned fiction writer. His passionate attacks on the corrupting influence of Western culture on Iranian society proved, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran a few years later, to have been prophetic. It is not surprising, therefore, that Daneshvar addresses this topic in her novel, but she does so from a completely different perspective.
Foreign interference is only one of the many oppressions that her main character, Zari, has to endure. In fact at times a greater oppression is exerted by Zari's own family, although she doesn't complain about it or even appear to notice it. She does love her family and her culture deeply and is drawn to the radical ideas of her husband, a landowner who hates the foreign interference in the government and the exploitation of the poor peasants.
It is late spring, 1943, and Iran is under Allied occupation -- Russian in the north, American in the center and British in the south. The men around Zari -- her husband and teenaged son and two tribal leaders -- are conspiring against the government and its foreign functionaries. Zari is in sympathy with them, but their daring frightens her. Unlike them, she doesn't glorify death and destruction. Only one individual, an old woman, shares Zari's worries. Khanom Fatemeh's sharp eyes don't miss much, and she never hesitates to speak her mind. Zari, in contrast, avoids confronting anyone with her objections.
During the wedding ceremony that opens the novel, Zari is tricked into "lending" her emerald earrings to the bride, the governor's youngest daughter. Later, she is forced to "sell" her son's favorite mare to the same bride. She gives in to protect her husband's safety, but she is afraid to tell him about it. "I wanted to tell you about the earrings, but you were already so angry, and I didn't want to make it worse. It's always like that . . . to keep peace in the family."
The pattern is for Zari to be left alone to handle dirty deals of this kind, after which she is blamed for her lack of gumption. Nevertheless, she adores her husband, because he combines for her the images of a dashing landowner and a confident, British-educated intellectual. Only during her regular charity visits to the mental hospital does she seem to free herself from the confines of his abstract social theories. Human suffering has a special appeal for her. It helps her to feel a tangible link with the tragic heroes of the past. The murder of the pre-Islamic hero Siavosh (from whom the novel takes its title) or the martyrdom of the Shiite saint Hosein seems re-enacted around her every day.
At the end, when she suffers her own loss, she is triumphant; she is Zaynab, Hosein's sister, at the scene of the massacre. She has lost everything except her defiance and her eloquence. Her conclusion is a sobering one: "If only the world were in the hands of women, Zari thought. Women give birth. That is, they are creators, and they know the value of their creation, the value of endurance, patience, monotony, and being unable to do anything for oneself. Perhaps because men have never been creators, they'll take any risk to create something."
Despite her love for life and her eloquence in grief, we feel a bit disappointed that Zari is not more outspoken. After all, Zaynab herself voiced her protests even in captivity. Aside from this, Savushun is a very engaging saga. Daneshvar manages to avoid the awkward, affected mannerisms that still obscure much Iranian writing. Hers is the colorful voice of a housewife in an old family from Shiraz. Those southern ladies are famous for their spicy conversation -- a brew of folkloric expression and historical, religious and mythic references. One might find fault here and there with an-out-of-context narrative, such as a report from a distant battlefield, or the inclusion of an Irish correspondent's short story in its entirety, but the novel's overall originality and interesting characters make up for these.
What is harder to overcome is the stilted English translation. I hope the reader won't be discouraged by passages like this: "But when one faces nothing but dejection and despair, one feels that one has become like refuse, a corpse, or a carcass discarded . . ." The sentence "My father, Mirza Ali Akbar Khan, was an unbeliever" is translated as "My father was Mirza Ali Akbar Khan the Infidel" -- a signifcant difference in nuance. Mage Publishers, a Washington-based firm specializing in translations of Persian literature, should be congratulated for introducing us to this work. On the other hand, I wish this book bore evidence of editing by somone whose mother tongue is English.
Taghi Modarressi's most recent novel is "The Pilgrim's Rules of Etiquette."