Living with voices: magical realism in war-torn Iran

By 
By Lynne Rogers

Afsaneh, A Novel From Iran
By Moniru Ravanipur
Translated from the Persian by Rebecca Joubin
Ibex Publishers, 2014, pp. 211

Moniru Ravanipur introduces her protagonist, Afsaneh, as she flees in the middle of the night wearing only her orange nightgown.  In Ravinpur’s indictment of the patriarchal order, Afsaneh never finds her way back to a concrete memory of that night and only briefly alludes to her husband’s gambling debt and her subsequent shame, which precludes her seeking refuge in her father’s home.  Instead, the reader witnesses Afsaneh’s unsuccessful, yet valiant attempts to maintain a sense of professionalism as a writer and to find both a mental and domestic space in which to live in peace as a single woman in an Iran at war with Iraq. 

Afsaneh’s mental fragmentation has already firmly taken root when the novel opens. During her conversations with friends, colleagues and her intrusive landlady, she observes herself from a distance and engages internally in yet another conversation with her companions, the dictator and the horseman. These two internal characters further complicate her desperate sense of instability, as they constantly veer from protective behaviors to destructive ones.  When the Dictator begins to control her conversation, the embattled woman does remember, “At the beginning, he was not like that.  He used to be peaceful--he had wanted to start from scratch--but now he was just destroying everything in the middle of the battlefield.”

 Afsaneh’s chorus of internal voices reflects on the political situation as the narrative wrestles with the historical literary tradition that informs the multifaceted ills of the present.  In an effort to escape one invasive landlady, Ravanipur’s protagonist finds herself in an apartment with bleeding walls which can no longer cover the closeted histories and the plethora of human needs.  While Afsaneh struggles with history and her own demons, the other characters deal with domestic violence, the after-effects of war, prescriptive drug abuse, and opium addiction.  In one of many unforgettable pictorial and psychologically vivid scenes, Afsaneh’s attempts to write are interrupted by her neighbors, two terrified, giggling virgin spinsters dressed in tattered wedding gowns, who want her to put the spirit of their deceased, cruel, and wheel chair-bound mother’s spirit into a glass. 

In a narrative coup, Afsaneh’s insanity becomes increasingly sane to the reader.  At one point, the narrator writer thinks to herself that “Tonight Shahrazad’s story would come to its close.” Yet the story does not follow suit for the reader will want to revisit this intricate novel time and again, empathically drawn to help Afsaneh find some semblance of calm, a state that may yet be achieved through a third internal voice, that of a young woman writer. 

This book review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 67.

© Copyright 2014  AL JADID MAGAZINE