Sex and death, the twin yet conflicting human compulsions identified by Freud, abound in this vivid and sensual epic of love and loss set against the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Author Shahriar Mandanipour, a veteran of that conflict, starts the action in Tehran where a young Iranian lieutenant, Amir Yamini, has been brought home from a psychiatric hospital. Despite being resident there for five years, he remains troubled by his experiences. Not only has he suffered the loss of an arm, he is also haunted by the image of a woman he knows but cannot remember. He calls her Moon Brow and becomes convinced that finding her is the key to his full recovery.
Helped by his sister Reyhaneh, Amir begins to piece together his memories. He relives episodes from his playboy youth, where he did little other than chase women and abuse alcohol. Unluckily, both pursuits ended unhappily with his girlfriend, Khazar, committing suicide and Amir being whipped by the religious police for being drunk. An intense row with his family following the latter event sees him enlist and head to the front line.
Dogged by recurring dreams of Moon Brow, Amir begins to believe that he must find the arm he left on the battlefield. If there is a ring on its finger, it will confirm that, as he suspects, he was engaged to Moon Brow.
Together with Reyhaneh, he tracks down an army comrade in Tehran who was with him when he sustained the injury. The pair then head for the mountains of Qasr-e Shirin on the Iran-Iraq border a bid to find the missing limb and restore Amir’s mental health. Spoiler alert: they are successful and find a further clue to Moon Brow’s identity and location.
This relatively simple tale is layered with lush descriptions of nature and the pleasures of the flesh as well as heart-rending (and occasionally gory) depictions of battle scenes. Occasionally the prose veers into Persian folklore, sometimes muddling its evil characters with the army generals of the time and thus endowing the story with a kind of epic timelessness.
The real texture, however, is provided by the device of having the story told by two “scribes”. One sits on Amir’s left shoulder and “writes” in italics. The other sits on Amir’s right shoulder and uses a roman font. They reference the kiraman katibin of Islamic tradition who record a person’s deeds throughout their life: the left-hand scribe notes evil actions, the right-hand one records good work. At times, Mandanipour shows the scribes arguing about which one of them should be writing about what event. In this way, he calls into question any simple binary interpretation of good and evil (for how can we decide if angels cannot?) as well as the act of recording itself.
The uncertainty between the twin narrators and Amir’s problems discerning truth from imagination nicely deepens the mystery of Moon Brow. At the same time, Mandanipour is brutally clear about the cruel pointlessness of war in sharp sentences which betray first-hand knowledge. For example, he writes:
The sound of wood breaking is like the sound of bones splintering, a sound that will forever resonate in the bone’s marrow.
Despite the grueling episodes which Amir experiences, the novel ends on the expectation that Amir may, in time, be reunited with Moon Brow. There is hope, Mandanipour seems to be saying, that in time a balance or at least some kind of individual happiness can be found even after what has gone before.