02 January 2007

The Persian Bride

Since I'm doing book reviews, I want to include The Persian Bride, a book I read a couple weeks ago. The conservative British magazine The Spectator described this novel as "A book of astonishing intellectual grandeur and integrity... Airy, graceful, and big with truth, it feels like a major statement of confidence, not just by an English novelist but by the English novel... There is really no word for it but 'masterpiece.'"

I agree.

The story follows John Pitt, an 18-year-old drifter who is teaching in Isfahan, Iran, in 1974. He falls in love with Shirin, a 16-year-old girl, whose father happens to be an ambitious general in the Shah's air force. After they elope -- with the help of an opium-addicted Russian diplomat -- they spend a luminous year together in the Russian's walled villa on the sea. When they attempt to escape Iran, they are separated by vicious drug smugglers. The last half of the book follows John as he survives years and torture in revolutionary prisons, fights Iraq alongside boys and old men as an Iranian soldier, travels to Kashmir and Afghanistan, all searching for Shirin and his daughter.

That plot evidently makes it a "thriller" for some of the British press reviewers, but most Americans will agree that James Buchan's writing makes it something other. This book is rather a layered, graceful puzzle.

The first part of the book, John and Shirin's love story, is dreamlike. John at one point acknowledges that he's risking their lives by not getting them back to Europe. His judgment is that of an immature 18-year-old lovestruck dreamer -- which is what he is.

Here they are fleeing to the villa:

"In my arms, she fluttered with excitement and fear. Then she vanished. I stared miserably into the darkness. On the road, eighteen-wheelers roared and hooted. The moon rose to my right. My head jangled with the day. Her face and lips, the way she carried the can and tipped the water in the radiator, the trailing of her chador, lost their clarity, became mangled, rough and indecent. I smelled her scent, of salt and roses and some quintessential herness, on my chest and fingers. I felt drenched in femininity. Certain words -- 'pushidegi' covering, and by extension the mental attitudes in girls that are the effects or counterparts of veiling, such as ambiguity, inversion, concealment, intrigue or deceit; 'eish' meaning the delights of this worldly existence; 'kamrani,' the attainment of a young man's desire -- made maddening calligraphic shapes in my mind. I was depressed by missed opportunities: that we could have slept together one more time and still have reached here in the night. I thought: If we make it to the house, I am not going to stir from her bed for a year."

Perhaps a year later, here is Shirin:

"You do not think very much, John. I suppose it is not necessary for an Englishman to think, any more than it is necessary for an Englishman to pray. For that reason, your servant must think and pray not just for her poor self, but for the entire family. Our life in this garden cannot go on forever. We will be separated, or some other misfortune will befall us. Your servant is a mere woman. When you order me to kiss you, I obey, and the pleasure it gives me arises chiefly but not exclusively in my obedience. For I believe and hope that out of those kisses you might remember one kiss. Or you might remember this doorway, the rustle of my skirt and chador, the taste of fresh herbs and buttermilk from a cold steel cup, the warmth of my bust and neck in the morning, the scent of roses from the orchard, the damp of my lap. Each one is a thread that ties us -- or rather, though these threads must snap under the pressure of separation yet still there will be one intact -- and you will coil it up around your wrist and make your way back to your poor bride and wretched child."

It mustn't be imagined from this that Shirin is painted as anything but the stronger of the two. When they first arrive at the villa, she is the one who kills the snakes, bare-handed, that infest the place. Later, in a parallel, she staves off the double-crossing drug smugglers, protecting herself and her baby alone.

Here she warns John not to try to take their baby from her:

She spoke with the slowness of a nightmare. She said: "Mr Pitt, if you intend to take my Layly from me,, you shall first have to kill me. For otherwise I shall kill you."

"I have asked you before, ma'am, not to threaten me."

"It is not a threat, but the only solution to this difficulty."

Buchan gracefully shows us life's beauty and terror, but he weaves through magic, archetypal Iranian stories, poetry and politics as well.

Here, in Kashmir, he's talking with a student:

"Look, I've been there and you haven't. And to Iran as well. You must understand that the Iranian Revolution was not the beginning of something, but the end; not a revival of political Islam but its swansong. The effect of the Revolution has not been to revive religion in Iran but to make it hateful to all but the portion of the population that has a material interest in it, that gets its bread and water from the mosque. Without the war, the revolution would have lost its vigour long ago and its power to persuade. It survives only through control exercised on the minds of the living by the blood of young men and children who went singing to their deaths. Two hundred thousand boys died to prove that Islam could not be exported evwen to Iraq, home of one of history's most tyrannical despotisms."

I was surprised by my speechifying.

"Javed, you say that you want freedom, but it is not freedom you want but control. You and your friends want to close the hotels and the cinemas..."

"Yes. Life here is immoral. There are illicit liaisons..."

"Rubbish, Javed. Kashmiri girls are very chaste."

He trembled. I could see I had gone too far, for he hated his inexperience and I had made fun of it....

Buchan brings his hero's journey back to Isfahan, as heroes must return to their beginnings. Does he find his family? Buchan ends the book in exactly the right way to complete his character.

A verse from the end:

Luck and Joy and Grief and I
Set off together into the world of existence
Luck lay down and Joy ran off
But Grief and I go wandering on.

No comments: