First published in England in 1991 to considerable acclaim, Roxane Zand's translation of Simin Daneshvar's first novel (written in 1969-the first by any Iranian woman author) tells the story of a young feudal Persian landlord and his family in Shiraz at the time of British occupation during World War II through the eyes of his wife, Zahra (Zari). It was a time of political upheaval, future uncertainty and economic privation. Yusef Khan, the landlord, is an intellectual with Western ideas of social reform that run counter to the traditional views of his brother, the politically ambitious Abol-Ghassem. In the end Yusef is murdered by hand unknown, doubtless because of his good works, which antagonized the ambiguous and anonymous forces of evil and reaction. An attempt to give him full Shia burial rites with procession ("Sir...we'll take the body to the Shah Ceraq Shrine, go round it, mourn and flagellate for a while... "says one of the bereaved to the resisting police officer on p. 271) is thwarted by the government forces. The story line is fairly amorphous and disarmingly simple, but the narrative is rich and complex, and therein lies the book's interest and worth. The central character, Zari, young mother of Yusefs son and infant twin daughters, is, despite her own less glamorous background and the restrictive Shia society of Shiraz half a century ago, educated, enlightened and English-speaking, thanks to a local Christian mission school. Although still very much the product of her social environment, she understands her husband's unhappiness and impatience with the injustice, poverty and ignorance that surrounds him but fears for her and her family's safety should be become too bold.
As a backdrop for this concern we have the relative anarchy of Iran during World War II at a time when the Germans were still advancing toward Suez and the Caspian, the government in Tehran was under siege by both the Allies and the Axis agents, and the tribes (Qashqai and the Boyer Ahmadis) were on the rampage. Yusef with his modern ideas tries to convince the tribal leaders of his acquaintance to lay down their arms and accept government offers to settle them in villages. Here and in describing the badly characterized British officers the author is at her weakest. Perhaps in her attempts to show the latter through the eyes of a young Persian woman they are deliberately without much interest or reality, but an opportunity has, I think, been missed in giving Western readers an idea of how they must have appeared to a Muslim lady of quality whose intellectual horizons had been recently extended beyond the strictly traditional.
Her characterization of the English woman doctor known to us only by her title, Khanom Hakim, is also very one-dimensional. Here is someone who has come to a provincial Persian town to work under primitive conditions for humanitarian goals, has delivered both the narrator's son and twin daughters under difficult (Caesarean section) conditions that might have meant death otherwise, and yet all we know of her is that she cannot conjugate the verb "to be" in Farsi and therefore she is somehow a creature of mockery. In fact she exemplifies Zari's own shortcomings in cross-cultural human understanding.
The author is best in her heroine's description of daily life in a traditional home of considerable wealth and privilege-her household routine, her dealings with servants and supplicants, her charitable visits to the prison and insane asylum (the description of the latter is moving and vividly evocative). Also well portrayed are her relationship with her husband's widowed sister Arneb, whose life has been reduced to a ritual of prayer and opium since the death of her husband and young son, and her attempts to keep peace between her idealistic husband, whom she loves but cannot quite understand, and his brother, whom she doesn't like but whose traditional ideas are much closer to those she was raised with.
The finest characterization of the book is that of the town's aging social dragon, Khanom Ezzat ud-Dawish, a woman whose "cobra-like face framed by... gaudy hair" (p. 224) would require a Bette Davis or Katherine Hepburn to embody on film. She has it in for Zari because the latter rejected her unpleasant, spoiled son in favor of the d shing, fair-haired Yusef. She finds ways to take her revenge from the beginning of the book, where she engineers the unwilling "gift" of Zari's emerald earrings to the governor's daughter at her wedding feast, to the end, where she commandeers the lady mourners at Yusef's wake with the energy of someone leading a cheering section-which in her own vicious mind she is.
The episode where Zari and Ameh spend an interminable afternoon in the dragon lady's garden trying to eke out what sort of favor she obviously intends to require of them is the finest bit of writing in the book-utterly believable and deviously charming. Likewise the expropriation of Zari's son's favorite pony by the same greedy governor's daughter and its subsequent recovery is a charming vignette that would make a superb children's story on its own.
The surrealist chapter which follows the death of Yusef in which Zari confronts the prospect of madness brought on by sorrow is less successful. It is an attempt to describe incipient insanity through the grieving mind of someone who has confronted it on a regular basis by virtue of her charitable visitations to the local asylum, but it reads like the ramblings of someone on an LSD trip-probably profoundly meaningful and horrific to that person at the time but a discordant stream of semi-conscious ranting to anyone else. In the end, Zari faces her future with hope-she is carrying a fourth child of her husband and has ample wealth to support her and her children without having to consider a second marriage unless she chooses to. Her sister-in-law gives up her desire to spend her final days in Kerbala since her "martyr is lying right here" in Shiraz (p. 275). The final dialogue is similarly trite, and the condolence message at the end from the one British (actually Irish) officer for whom a half-hearted attempt at portrayal has been made is drivel. This is not the "great Iranian novel [and) world classic" described by the London Independent. "Complex and delicately crafted" (London Financial Times) it is for the most part, and at its finer moments a provocative and memorable read.
We are told that the author, having retired from her university position as an art historian following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, still lives in Tehran, where "she has kept a low profile while continuing to write fiction and remaining deeply committed to her life-long concern with women and their role in Iranian society" (dust jacket). The latter must be a rather depressing concern these days, and the lives of Zari and Yusef and the changes they portended somehow wasted. She "supported intellectuals opposing the Shah's regime" and "her promotion was hindered by Savak, the secret police," we are told in the publisher's promotional flyer. Those days must look rather halcyon from the vantage of hindsight, and life in Shiraz 50 years ago ever more appealing with its prospect of hope for future change for the good. Daneshvar has done the world a service by describing Persian society of this very recent past, which the reader cannot help but compare with what he knows of the Islamic Iran of today.