"What time is it?" he asks.
"Brother," says Hossein, "you have to learn not to think about time. It means nothing here."
Dalia Sofer's debut novel The Septembers of Shiraz (2007) has attracted a lot of effusive praise for its portrait of the impact of the Iranian Revolution on a wealthy Jewish family. Reading it in the wake of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, however, I couldn't help but find it somewhat unsatisfying. Set against Satrapi's passionately angry and powerfully affectionate memoir, which was so alert to the multiple intersections and ironies of identity and belonging - the complexity and multivalency of Revolutionary (and post-revolutionary) experience - Sofer's novel felt, by comparison, rather cramped and solipsistic.
In some measure this is a function of the sort of story it is telling. While all four members of the Amin family (Isaac, his wife Farnaz, their children Shirin and Parviz) have point-of-view chapters, the shaping event of the novel is Isaac's arrest and imprisonment, and everyone else's stories essentially orbit his. His family are bereft, not least because of the agony of not-knowing: the way this thing has fallen down on them out of (what appeared to be) a clear blue sky, changing everything and suddenly leaving them exposed and endangered in a way they could never have imagained:
Farnaz cannot reconcile the normalcy of the world around her with the collapse of her own. That the city is short by one man this morning makes so little difference - stores still open their doors, schools ring their bells, banks exchange currency, grass-green double-decker buses - men on the bottom, women on top - follow their daily routes.
In terms of descriptive prose - of a sense of place - Sofer's writing is really only functional; there is little here (beyond the sheen of specificity offered by naming) that evokes Tehran specifically:
For months he had been leaving the house at dawn, when the snow-covered Elburz Mountains slowly unveiled themselves in the red-orange light, and the city shook itself out of sleep, lights in bedrooms and kitchens coming on one after the other.
She is rather better at sketching emotional states. Farnaz, grief-stricken, tries to keep up appearances and not give in to panic, while watching the vultures circling the family's possessions now that her husband's changed status has left them vulnerable. Nine-year-old Shirin, terrified by her mother's fear and sorrow, is aware that the world around her has changed in some wrenching way, but is unable to comprehend the extent or the reasons; when Farnaz cannot answer her questions, and exiles her to bed to stop her asking, Shirin lapses into "a muddy silence", and later begins to steal files from a classmate whose father is a government informant, hoping, in a confused way, that she can help her family.
Parviz, sent to live in New York, is oppressed by the cultural gulf - preserving his sense of identity through the rather unfortunate means of being really arrogant and high-handed to the poorer orthodox Jews among whom he lives - and the distance from his family. But he also struggles, particularly, with the inability to express any of these things, knowing how much his family expects of him (and, later, how much they are suffering). So both sides of the family, half a world apart, try, fruitlessly, to reassure each other, and there is a lovely economy about the way Sofer puts this across:
It was a sweltering night, and when the phone rang he was chasing a cockroach around his bedroom, cursing and sweating, shoe in hand. He didn't tell them any of this. He told them everything was fine and asked them how they were, and they said fine, everything was fine.
Above all, Sofer shares with us the daydreams and self-examination and friendships that keep Isaac's head above water amid the boredom, the dehumanising helplessness, and the short, sharp shocks of violence that is his imprisonment - politically-driven and with no prospect of release:
They are all the same here, he realizes, the remnants of the Shah's entourage and the powerful businessmen and the communist rebels and the bankers and bazaar vendors and watchmakers. In this room, stripped of their ornaments and belongings, they are nothing more than bodies, each as likely as the next to face a firing squad or to go home, unscathed, with a gripping tale to tell friends and family.
Again, I cannot help but make comparisons, to this novel's detriment: certainly, The Septembers of Shiraz lacks the intensity and the viscerality of insight of Karen Connelly's stunning The Lizard Cage. But I keep coming back, in my mind, to the word 'luminous'; there is something about Isaac, about the great welling up of sympathy with which Isaac is drawn, that glows from the page, nonetheless.
And yet. While it is entirely justified and expected that there would be bitterness in a novel such as this - a story about a family destroyed by a new regime seeking to crush all opposition, and the opportunistic people who exploit this world turned upside down for their own ends - Sofer's novel sounded a jarringly vindictive and rather blinkered note once or twice too often for my taste or comfort.
For example, when Farnaz reflects, after a former employee of her husband's has made plain his disloyalty and lack of decency by stealing from Isaac's business, "In the old days Keyvan, with one phonecall to his father, could have someone like Morteza imprisoned for life", I can both understand her desire for revenge and marvel that the irony of her position induces not even a flicker of hesitation: she misses the days before the Revolution because back then she and her family were on top, and they could have inflicted exactly the same grossly unjust punishment on their social inferiors that they are now suffering under. When Isaac finally escapes prison through the medium of very hefty bribery, he thinks not of all the fellow prisoners he is leaving behind - including people he appeared to have developed deep personal connections with - because they aren't fortunate enough to have the resources of a family business to buy them their freedom, but rather - with a disturbingly self-congratulory sort of affront - of how his persecutors are essentially just jealous:
Why the constant indignation at a man who dares to live well? Does living well imply selfishness? Is he - Isaac Amin - a selfish man?
Frankly, in your case, yes!
Maybe the point is that revolutions make everyone into horrible human beings, but again I just find myself thinking about Persepolis, which contains its villains and its blame, but ultimately retains nuance and compassion. Persepolis, for example, never lost sight of the fact that the social status - the obvious wealth, the liberal lifestyle - of Marjane's family both made them a target and in some measure sheltered them from the worst excesses of the new regime. When bombs are dropping on Tehran and the religious police are becoming more and more thuggish, the family can afford to send Marjane to Europe, where she can continue her education without getting arrested for her taste in music or looking at someone the wrong way, a recourse completely beyond the means of many of the people around them. The revolution brings oppression, and death, and destruction, but Satrapi feels no apparent need to pretend that life before it was a halcyon wonderland of ease and tolerance. For all that Persepolis is a monochrome comic book, to my mind it's The Septembers of Shiraz that offers the more starkly black-and-white picture of Iran's recent past.