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.
The novel opens several years before the revolution in Chamkhaleh, a village on the coast of the Caspian Sea, where the narrator lives. Every summer, his cousin, Niloufar, comes with her family from the provincial capital Rasht to spend the holidays in their mansion, the Villa Rose. Beautiful, rich and cosmopolitan, the teenage Nilou (as she is nicknamed) is an exotic presence which drives the local male youth into a frenzy.
Being family, the narrator, then aged 13, has unfettered access to Nilou, her house and even her bedroom. Such intimacy endows him with a “magic power” over his peers which he exploits. He pilfers Nilou’s possessions, even her underwear, to sell them to the other boys or distribute them as favours. By relating anecdotes of her daily life, he ensures he has the best seat and the most arak to drink at the nightly beach bonfires.
The narrator himself is not immune to Nilou’s charms although she shows no interest in him. Instead she is intrigued by a particularly ardent suitor, Mohamed-Réza, who stands outside the Villa Rose at night to serenade her. To remove his rival, the narrator shows Mohamed-Réza a better vantage point for seeing into Nilou’s window—and then tips off her father that she is being watched. Mohamed-Réza is caught in the act, punished and removed from the scene—or so it seems.
Unable to possess Nilou’s body, the narrator focuses on her mind. Without really believing or understanding the concepts, he takes a stand against the Shah’s regime and recreates himself as an intellectual with communist leanings. Nilou embraces his arguments, a step which ensures both their imprisonments, and a final confrontation with Mohamed-Réza, when the Islamic Republic gains power some years later.
According to the preface, written by author Dina Nayeri, the novel’s style harks back to traditional Iranian storytelling techniques. As such, she explains it may seem “unrefined” to the Western reader. This is not the case. The characters are so vividly drawn and their setting so comprehensively realized that any stereotyping appears entirely credible and not necessarily naive.
Having said that, Nilou is an obvious metaphor for Iran. Before the Revolution, she can speak, dress and act as she chooses. Afterwards, her liberty—both mental and physical—is severely restricted, for which the narrator feels culpable. Djavahery writes:
Ah, those ideas that I sprinkled like live grenades that she filled her pockets with. Yes, I let her do it. Rather than warn her about the danger looming over her.
Only in hindsight does the narrator realize that his own quest for personal power contributed in a small way to the subsequent loss of paradise. He admits that the socialist brethren
with our complicity, were only feeding the monster that was growing in the shadows, secretly multiplying.
Yet they are not the only ones at fault. Djavahery makes it clear that the wider Iranian population also played its part:
A people whose promises you should be wary of, for the masses are desperately short-sighted … The proof is that for two hundred years, at each major turn of history, they always make the worst choices.’
My Part of Her should perhaps be read as a warning. It is a novel of realities, not ideas—and certainly not the kind of false ideas which Djavadhery shows lead to the collapse of pre-revolution Iran. If we wish to preserve our own paradises, we must question the ideologies which claim to better them.