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.
Sustained by a fast-paced, first-person narrative, Then The Fish Swallowed Him is a deserving English-language debut for Amir Ahmadi Arian. In a nod to Kafka and Orwell, and drawing on themes from totalitarian regime-inspired literature, the novel depicts being crushed under bureaucratic elements unstoppable once set in motion, the hundred shades of right and wrong, and looming dystopia interwoven in real events and places. Rather than a dystopian near future or a Soviet gulag , the story takes place in contemporary Iran. Events unravel at a tragic speed for Yunus, now left with a choice between resisting charges of conspiring against the state with the help of foreign powers, thus meeting a certain death, or confessing and living in shame.
Can one truly be innocent? The moving scenes of plight of the antihero Yunus as he navigates through the different conditions of his ordeal while revelations of his past are unearthed, contains a myriad of moving scenes are well rendered through the close point-of-view adopted by the author: he is suddenly unable to remember his father’s name, and verbalizes outloud to his interrogator his inner-struggle in admitting wrongdoings.
The left-inclined readings forming the core of Yunus’ political education – Fanon, Foucault, amongst other Iranian intellectuals such as Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, and Bijan Jazani – recall the importance of socialism and radical thought in pre-revolutionary Iran, as was the case across the Middle East (though here much could be said about Foucault’s support of the 1979 Islamic Revolution).
Iran-born Arian, who regularly visits his native country, deploys, in a legacy from his journalistic career, well-directed research and sensitivity when tackling the complex societal and political developments of Ahmadinejad-era politics and the emergence of the “green wave” movement following the contested 2009 presidential elections. The book sheds light on individual abuse and struggle, while offering a glimpse of the Iranian judiciary system. The continuous pressure between conservative and reform-leaning camps, and everything in between, yields conflicted dialogue and provides nuance in how characters situate themselves and how their opinions and interests evolve through the narrative.
To great relief, the story steps away from a good-vs-evil caricature. The interrogator is humanized, while the books’ most significant relationship is the one Yunus nurtures with himself.
In the backdrop of the novel, along with (geo)political and human rights considerations, lies Tehran. As a bus driver of 25 years, Yunus keeps a keen and experienced eye on space and geography—the city is his backyard. We see it, we breathe it, its face ever changes. Isolation then, deprives him not only of his common surroundings, but in many ways, of his cradle. His bus had developed female attributes, which exemplifies how Arian’s creative use of imagery and metaphor illuminates the story, further deepened by lingering descriptions. Yunus remembers his mother in a powerful evocation, before he joins the study group and understands the marxist-leninist view of shaping history to class struggle, “she stared at the world without seeing it, the way she had followed the revolution on TV.”
Day-to-day deprivations pertaining to the economic sanctions are a subtheme. We feel Arian inspired by the tradition of the French intellectuels engagés in the way he intertwines literature, politics, a defense of the hard-working regular people and a piercing scream for dignity, stripping Yunus to his bare human condition. Here, the novel echoes current difficulties faced by average Iranians, as they fight against the health impact of another crisis.
“He needs to go through another round of chemo with a new drug, but that drug is not on the market.”
“Because we don’t import it anymore.”
The impact of solitary confinement on Yunus’s physical and emotional well-being are among the hardest pages to read. His naked body reveals absolute vulnerability and humiliation. The main character’s descent into depression and madness is gripping. While a work of fiction, they reflect the reality of the hardships experienced by arbitrary detainees, and abductees across the world: an important read, in a time of self-isolation in many countries.