Island of Bewilderment is a recent English translation of Jazire-ye Sargardāni, a historical novel by the late Simin Daneshvar, originally in Persian and published in 1992. Daneshvar (1921- 2012) was considered Iran’s first female novelist. Her books were about the lives of ordinary people, especially women, through the lens of political and social events in the country. She was also a renowned translator and counted Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard among her translations into Persian. She was the wife of the famous social critic and writer, Jalal Ale-Ahmad, also a writer of acclaim.
The novel is set in Tehran during a tumultuous period in the mid-1970s that led to the eventual fall of the Pahlavi dynasty and the subsequent rise of the Islamic Republic. Daneshvar examines Iranian society, through the eyes of a young, secular-minded Iranian woman, who bears witness to a society awash with petrodollars with noticeable extremities in wealth between the English-speaking urban elite and the conservative Farsi-speaking poor.
Hasti Nourian is a twenty-six-year-old college graduate, artist and employee of Iran’s Ministry of Art and Culture and aspires to be an independent, strong woman with control of her destiny. Following the death of her father and her mother’s subsequent remarriage, Hasti lives in modest accommodations with her paternal grandmother in central Tehran. Throughout the story, Hasti’s grandmother narrates her son’s death as a martyrdom, following a tragic shooting at a political rally held by Dr Mohammed Mosaddeq, Iran’s nationalist Prime Minister.
Hasti is deeply in love with Morad, a young architect and former college classmate with radical political leanings. Morad is a staunch critic of Iran’s Westernized bourgeois class, to which Hasti’s mother ironically belongs. In many ways, Morad reflects the ideological leanings of Daneshvar’s husband Jalal-Ale-Ahmed, who in his influential work Garbzadeghi (“Westruckness”), he criticizes the Westernization of Iran under the Shah. Echoes of this critical essay appear to pervade parts of the story.
Hasti’s mother Eshrat and her wealthy husband live the good life with their young son and half a dozen servants in an affluent part of Northern Tehran. Apart from learning English at the Iran-American Society so that she can converse confidently with American and British expatriates, Eshrat’s life revolves around hairdresser appointments, shopping, and planning glamorous parties. Keen to see her daughter marry well, Eshrat introduces Hasti to Salim, a British-educated young man from a wealthy family, but one who is also religiously conservative with an interest in Islamic mysticism.
On visiting Hasti at her grandmother’s home, Salim states:
I don’t want my wife to work, whether at home or at the office. She will be tired enough if she only takes care of the children and the husband, think about it: waking children from sweet sleep at the crack of dawn and passing them like footballs from aunt to grandmother so that woman can go to work – is that right?
Despite Salim’s orthodox views, Hasti nevertheless finds herself increasingly attracted to him, despite having already proclaimed her love for Morad. Both men are in love with Hasti, and their virtues are compared and considered throughout the novel by Hasti and those around her.
Scenes of Hasti’s life at the Ministry and Tehran University are featured throughout the novel and the dialogue portrays the rich intellectual life of the period. An element of tension comes from the lurking presence of Savak agents (secret police). Daneshvar, candidly writes about Savak in the novel, commenting on their ability to interfere in an individual’s life based on ideology or religious sentiment. It is within this setting that the author appears as a character in her own novel as “Simin”, a professor at Tehran University and one of Hasti’s professors.:
Finding Simin alone was never easy. She had tried it many times. Usually, students, both male and female, surround her after class and pour down the wide staircase beside her and behind her. And in the corridor, another crowd joins her and assails her with questions. Simin’s eyes shine. These are all my children.
Simin becomes a close friend and mentors Hasti as she negotiates turbulent emotional and political waters.
Other individuals, drawn from the author’s life appear throughout this intriguing semi-autobiographical novel, historical fiction merging successfully with factual as the reader gains insight into intimate literary circles that once existed. From beginning to end, Hasti moves through different social circles and events, from meeting influential foreigners at parties to helping undocumented rural migrants inhabiting the slums of Southern Tehran.
The new translation by Patricia J Higgins and Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi brings Iran’s most successful female novelist’s work to an English-reading audience. Considering the heavy censorship that existed at the time the novel was published in 1992, and as well as the recent social media blackouts in Iran, this novel is remarkable in its portrayal of a society at the cusp of revolution.