Many years ago, before international direct dial, two young telephone operators, a man in Zurich and a woman in Cairo, began to pass the milkman shift chatting together. They became friends, decided to meet, and married. The language of their courtship was French. This was the day when many international organisations, including the Global Postal Union that coordinated the national PTTs (Post, Telegram and Telegraph), considered French an official language.

“How did Ibn Battuta support himself on his travels?”, asked a student once. It’s hard to imagine a world where erudition and charm enable a man to travel the world as the honored guests of kings and scholars as well as humble folk, but that is how things worked in those days. It also helped to be able to sleep as soundly in silk sheets as on a crofter’s mat. A world like that, a man like that, does not belong to a remote past, but it may belong to a past that is fading fast. Tales from the Life is an outpouring of praise and sadness on the occasion of the death earlier this year of Bruce Wannell, the last great English traveler in the Orient. 

Not everyone takes to magical realism, with the “one hundred years” in Gabriel García Márquez’s groundbreaking work being taken as a description of the time needed to finish it. Since that, the “magical realism label” has been assigned to a bandwagon’s-worth of Latin American writers, from Isabel Allende to Laura Esquivel and, more recently, Junot Diaz. The influence has extended very far afield, it seems, for García Márquez’s book and characters are even alluded to in Shokoofeh Azar’s Farsi novel, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, now available in English.

Presented as a confession, this first novel in English from screenwriter and Iranian exile Javad Djavahery is a deeply nostalgic tale of love and loss set against the revolution of 1979. The unnamed narrator, relating events to an unnamed companion, has some odious wrongdoing to admit. He reveals himself to be self-serving and cowardly as the story progresses. Yet such is Djavahery’s skill that the reader never entirely loses sympathy with him.

Tehran bus driver Yunus Turabi, participates in a city-wide strike called by the union. The strike is forcefully repressed. Violence begets more violence. Yunus loses his temper in a bus ride as he remembers his peers beaten by police forces. He is imprisoned shortly after, in a life-altering departure from a previous existence marked by small pleasures and industrious routine. Thrown into a brutal prison world he has no previous acquaintance with, in the notorious Evin Prison no less (“the black hole of Tehran”), 44-year-old Yunus comes to grip with his charges in a story that carefully threads social justice, solitude, and draws on classical prison literature for its depiction of settings, nuance and conflict.