It was a garden of sour and sweet cherries. In the garden was a house, half village house, half city house, with three rooms and a pool in front that was full of scum and frogs. The area around the pool was paved with pebbles, with a few willows nearby. In the afternoon, the light green reflection of the willows was in a silent battle with the dark green of the pool. This always troubled Mahdokht, for she could not tolerate any conflict. She was a simple woman, and wished that everyone could get along, even the myriad greens of the world.
Consider it a sort of pre-New Year's resolution: having spent most of 2012 blogging about the books I read during 2011 (or, in one or two cases, in 2010), I've vowed to devote December, at least, to discussing more recent reading material. I'd like to be able to do a year-end round-up post, after all; one in which I can actually link to reviews of books I'm singling out for best-of-the-year praise. I've written about a few of the current contenders for my top ten, but those were mostly for other venues, where I have actual deadlines to give me a boot up the reviewing backside. Granted, it's now already almost the end of the second week of December, and this is my first post, but even the best laid plans can't withstand the twin pressures of day job and moving house. (I'm currently heading south to finish the packing, and taking advantage of the train's onboard wireless service to write this post while I travel. Huzzah for technology.)
Anyway. The first of the books I want to talk about is Shahrnush Parsipur's splendidly subversive, funny and bitter little novella, Women Without Men (Zanan bedun mardan, 1989; translated from the Persian in 1998 by Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet). Set in 1953, it tells the intertwined stories of five different Iranian women. Each is introduced in her own little vignette, and then is gradually drawn in towards the rest through both the machinations of the plot and, thematically, through the similarities of their experiences: the various familial and broader social restrictions - expressed both through small, everyday slights and larger episodes of violence - that shape how women are able to live their lives and relate to other people. It's told with an arresting mix of anger, empathy, and a sense of humour that ranges from the wry to the surreal.
By way of an example of the latter, here is a snapshot of the train of thought of Mahdokht, the first of the women we meet:
Both the government and Mahdokht were worried about the children. If only Mahdokht had a thousand hands and could knit five hundred sweaters a week. Every two hands could knit one sweater, so that would make five hundred sweaters.
But a person cannot have a thousand hands, especially Mahdokht, who liked the winter and liked to go for walks in the afternoon. Besides, it would take at least five hours just to put a thousand gloves on.
"No, with five hundred of my hands I could put gloves on the other five hundred. Three minutes at the most."
These are not the problems. They will eventually be solved. It's the government's responsibility, they should open a factory to knit sweaters.
I love this passage: Mahdokht's big-hearted, impulsive urge to help, the impractical extravagance of her (imagined) gesture, and her awareness of this impracticality leading into the half-earnest, half-briskly amused little debate with herself over how she can put gloves on all those hands. At the same time, on reflection a more serious point emerges: repeatedly, throughout the book, we are shown characters mired in trivialities and pettiness, at the expense of their own best interests. I don't mean to imply that people must spend every waking moment thinking Serious Thoughts, but Mahdokht's distraction here, while funny, is expressive of the difficulty all these women have in thinking (and speaking) clearly about themselves, their desires, and the world around them.
Time and again, Parsipur suggests that this is not because they're women, and thus (it is assumed by the world at large) naturally inclined to be frivolous and speak only in 'gossip', etc etc. It's because they lack the tools to articulate what they want. Their lives are so circumscribed that they have only a limited idea of what their best interests might be, or even that they're entitled to have interests of their own. Mahdokht, an unmarried teacher, is a mass of longing and vulnerability, trapped by the cruel contradictions of a world in which women are condemned to a perpetual childhood until and unless they marry, forbidden the adult status and the freedom to run her own household afforded by marriage. Living alone seems to be right out for anyone except a widow or a prostitute, one each of whom feature among Parsipur's five women.
Of course, the prohibition on intimacy between men and women affects both sexes, but unlike a man in her situation, Mahdokht has absolutely no avenue to explore sexual desire and remain respectable: she cannot pay a surreptitious visit to a prostitute, and when her boss, Mr. Ehteshami, uses his authority over her to try to cajole her into a relationship with him, she could not indulge even if she wanted to. An obsession with female purity is drilled into women from an early age, through a host of improbable metaphors aimed at hiding the reality of women's lack of freedom to determine what they do with their own bodies:
Munis was staring at the flowers in the carpet. Then she said, "Virginity is a curtain, my mother says. If a girl jumps down from a height she’ll damage her virginity. It’s a curtain, it can be torn."
"What are you talking about? It’s a hole. It’s narrow, and then it becomes wide."
The way women are complicit in this system, inflicting on their daughters and peers the same restrictions that they have suffered through, is also seen in Mahdokht's story. It may be argued that this is a preventative measure, an attempt to protect daughters against the inevitabilities of the world they live in. Yet Mahdokht's reaction to discovering a young woman having illicit sex with a gardener, while she is out walking in the garden she describes in the quotation at the top of the post, is a confused mixture: her first impulse combines disgust with an urge to protect the girl by keeping it secret, but a certain vindictive, half-envious anger sets in, and she imagines with an unbecoming glee the fate that might befall the wayward young woman:
The sound of Fatemeh's shrill laughter came from the end of the garden. She had taken the children out to play, and God only knew what kind of games she was teaching them. Mahdokht paced back and forth in her room, beating the door and walls with her fists. She was worried about the children.
"I hope she's pregnant so that they kill her," she thought.
It would be good if she were pregnant. All her brothers would descend on her and beat her to death. How good that would be. Then the children would not be corrupted.
If I can't have that, why should she get away with it? Unfreedom has left Mahdokht half-crazed. Again, like Munis, the trigger for her decision to finally break with social convention - and, as it turns out, with the conventions of the mimetic fiction story she initially seemed to be part of - is thinking about a metaphor of virginity. "My virginity is like a tree", she thinks suddenly. "I'm a tree. I must plant myself." And so she does:
She would become thousands and thousands of branches. She would cover the entire world. Americans would buy her shoots and take them to California. They would call the forest of Mahdokht the forest of Mahdekat. Gradually they would pronounce her name so many times until it would become Maduk in some places and Maaduk in others. Then four hundred years later the linguists, with their veins standing out in their foreheads like twigs, would debate over her and prove that the two words come from the root Madeek which is of African origin. Then the biologists would object that a tree that grows in cold climates could not grow in Africa.
Mahdokht banged her head on the wall again and again until she broke into tears. Between sobs she thought that this year she would definitely take a trip to Africa. She would go to Africa so that she could grow. She wanted to be a tree in a warm climate. She wanted to, and it is always desire that drives one to madness.
This episode happens about a dozen pages into the novel, and it serves as a statement of intent with regards to how Parsipur intends to engage with her subject: a woman transformed by her rage and desire into something rich and strange; a series of portraits of women's oppression sublimated into surreal imagery and sometimes savagely dark humour.
A similar tone infuses the other vignettes. Each women's life offers another facet of the ways that prevailing sexual mores of 1950s Iran infantilise and damage women - poisoning relations between women, as Mahdokht's case shows, but also relations between women and their male relatives. Munis is 38 years old, but her unmarried status gives her brother absolute authority over her, and means that her behaviour reflects upon him:
"It's not a day for a woman to go out alone."
"It's not that bad, Amir."
He frowned. "It doesn't make sense for a woman to go out in the first place. Home is for women, the outside world is for men."
In this particular instance, it is indeed not a good day for anyone to be out; there is a riot raging in the streets, most likely in response to the American- and British-backed coup that overthrew Mossadegh in this same year. (That this is never directly stated in the novel - Amir, of course, feels no need to explain his reasoning to his sister - is a reflection of the simple fact that none of the women appear to know what is going on, another sign of the way their horizons are constrained.) But Amir's wish to generalise the point raises a red flag. And indeed, when Munis eventually disobeys him and leaves the house, staying away for several days, her brother kills her for what he calls her "shameless" conduct.
In a different novel, this might have been the tragic - and/or slightly prurient - climax. But Parsipur once again introduces an edge of the surreal to the proceedings which both leavens the horror to some degree, and also helps to emphasise, through the contrast it offers, how routine and mundane and all-pervasive this sort of violence is. For one thing, this isn't the first time Munis has died in the novel. In an arresting passage a little earlier on, we track Munis's turmoil as she struggles to get past the revolutionary idea that virginity might not be a curtain, after all:
Munis thought about how for thirty-eight years she had been looking out the window at the little garden, assuming that virginity was a curtain. When she was eight years old, they had told her that God would never forgive a girl who had lost her virginity. Now it had been three days and two nights since she found out that virginity is a hole, not a curtain. Something inside of her had broken. She was filled with a cold rage. She recalled how, when she was a child, she used to gaze longingly at the trees, wishing that just once she could climb one. But she never had, out of fear for her virginity.
Ultimately, Munis doesn't merely leave her brother's house; she throws herself from it. Or rather, she leans forward out of the window, letting herself fall out. "Five seconds later", we're told, "she was lying flat on her back on the alley pavement. But her eyes were still open, looking up at the clear blue sky." This marks a rebirth for her; she spends the next three days wandering the streets quite unharmed, reading, over and over again, a book she finds by chance on a roadside bookstall about sex and the body. It's a liberating, uplifting interlude ("On the third day she looked up. The trees and sunshine and streets all had new meanings for her. She had grown up") - but it is, indeed, just an interlude, and one that ends with her murder.
But the murder, too, is offset with surreal farce. As Amir stands over his sister's body, knife in hand and paralysed by indecision over what to do next, no fewer than three people - his mother, his father, the maid - enter the room, take in the scene, scream, and collapse into a dead faint. Only Faizeh - the third of Parispur's unmarried virgins, a sort-of friend of Munis who really only hangs out with her because she has the hots for Amir - keeps her head, albeit in a callous way. In another example of women betraying other women in service to internalised patriarchal oppression, Faizeh promptly helps Amir bury Munis's body, although the narrative can't resist telling us that Faizeh's hope that Amir will marry her is due to be dashed, because he has a younger and (he thinks) more pliable target in mind. (Almost) equally promptly, Munis then resurrects again, and Faizeh finds herself digging her now highly gnomic, mind-reading ex-friend up. So that's all utterly bonkers then.
Further moments of pitch-black humour include a pair of men getting mown down by a surprise!truck just after they've finished raping two young women; and Farrokhlaqa, the sole married woman in Parsipur's group, being so disconcerted by the unexpected event of her husband showing a hint of kindness to her one day ("She was certain that he was planning something") that she reacts out of alarmed reflex and inadvertantly pushes him down the stairs to his death. The prostitute Zarrinkolah, meanwhile, goes through a period of being visited by inexplicably headless men ("From that day on, all of the customers were headless. Zarrinkolah didn't dare say a word about it"), then leaves the profession behind to visit a shrine and emerge, touchingly, as "a small woman of twenty-six with a heart as big as the sea". Later she has a healthy relationship, gets pregnant, turns transparent, and gives birth to a lily.
It is Farrokhlaqa who brings the women together, using her freedom as a widow to buy the garden in which Mahdokht is planted and turn it, for a time, into a haven where women might live without men. The result is by no means utopian: the women do not all get along simply because they're women, and Farrokhlaqa and Zarrinkolah, at least, find at length that it is possible for them to have more egalitarian, or at least not actively oppressive, relations with men. This, I think, is central to Parsipur's portrait of her characters: that desire can be a vitally important and self-affirming part of life for many women; fulfilling and taking pleasure in desire can be a way for women to take control of their bodies and thus their selves.
Mahdokht the tree, meanwhile, underlines this point as the season change in the garden; she sprouts, flowers, fruits, and ultimately connects everyone who visits the garden:
The gardener went away, and the tree started to sing. All over the garden, the guests fell silent. It was as if there was a drop of water seeping down into the ground, and all of the people were within this one drop, which was like an ocean containing them all. The drop that was like an ocean went down to the depths of the erath, where it mingled with the sensation of the soil, millions of particles were the guests in the water and the soil, in a dance that began and would never end.
[Postscript: It's entirely possible I'm reading too much into this, but I think Mahdokht has a symbolic name befitting her symbolic role in the novel: the 'dokht' part calls to mind the Persian word 'dokhtar' (daughter), while 'mah' could perhaps - it's difficult to say without seeing the Persian original - be 'us/our'. Possessive pronouns are usually suffixes, but arguably her name could translate to 'our daughter'. Of course, t could also have a much more obvious meaning I'm missing - my grasp of Persian is pretty shaky...]