By turns brilliant, erotic and piercing, this third novel from PEN/Faulkner award-winner Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi shines new light into how historical oppression, both at a personal and societal level, continues to dominate our present-day thinking.
Ostensibly a dissection of an exploitative relationship, the novel quickly broadens into a wide-ranging examination—and skewering—of master narratives around race, gender, sexuality and religion which dictate the way we live now.
The action begins with the Iranian-American narrator, Azeru, returning to Marbella, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, to take possession of her father’s apartment which he has signed over to her. Twenty years have passed since she was last there. Back then, at the age of 17, she was embroiled in a catastrophic love affair with her father’s 40-year old step-nephew, the handsome but cruel Omar. With her father being absent, and Azeru still raw from witnessing a devastating racist attack on her brother, Omar took advantage of her vulnerabilities. Grooming her for his own particular pleasures, he seduced and then discarded her.
Azeru has since struggled to come to terms with how Omar treated her. The closest word she can find to describe her experience is “rape”. However, this word carries some problematic connotations. Using it could allow the “Western gaze” to see Omar as just another violent Arab man. In addition, Azeru believes the word, as it is used in Western society, strips her of any agency in the event, when she knows she desired Omar and was to some extent complicit in her own abuse.
While complicity is no excuse, Azeru rejects taking the role of victim or that she was flattered by his attention. Instead, she believes that she welcomed Omar’s exquisite torture mainly as a means of accessing, and finally beginning to articulate, the unspeakable pain she had already received from her brother’s attack. This illustrates a major theme of the novel that pain and pleasure can exist in the same continuum and are of equal merit. At the point they converge, Van der Vliet Oloomi suggests change is possible, in that pain can become valuable or that justice can arise out of conflict.
Azeru also understands that Omar’s behavior could have resulted from his own suffering—about which she failed to ask him. She links his pain to the personal cost of surviving the Lebanese civil war and, in later years, being subjugated to the master narrative which still views the East in terms of a colonial project, a barbaric place requiring the civilizing hand of Western democracy. Omar’s way of dealing with the pain was to pass it on to her, as Arezu explains:
I was interested in how desire is shaped by the destructive logic of empire, how at times sex facilitates the transmission of historical violence from one body to another.
The return to Marbella is thus a physical manifestation of Azeru’s reappraisal of the affair. She describes it as a “recovery” journey or “a return to the sites of our traumas to map our stories in words, to reverse the language-destroying effects of unbearable pain”. Accompanying her on the trip is her best friend Ellie, an Israeli-American academic whose own experiences mirror Azeru’s. Ellie’s particular dilemma is that, in order to maintain her identity as an Orthodox Jew, she must support the eradication of the Palestinians from their lands. This she believes to be morally wrong, but stating that belief inevitably leads to accusations that she is an apologist for terrorism. It’s a lonely position which Azeru sums up:
I understood the feeling of being forced to decide between one’s own sense of integrity and the assumed modes of well-being expressed by one’s community, that when the two are at odds with each other it feels as though one-half of us is dying.
Adding a further facet to the pair’s challenges is the history of their location. Van der Vliet Oloomi reflects the co-existence of pain and pleasure in lush descriptions of the southern Spanish landscape which simultaneously evoke its post-Reconquista history of Jewish and Muslim suppression.
The novel closes on an image of a gallows pole at a museum of the Spanish Inquisition superimposed on a view of the Moorish Alhambra palace in Granada. The Inquisition used these gallows to execute Jews and Muslims yet the museum has failed to provide any historical context or boundaries for them. To Azeru and Ellie, it seems the gallows could be reactivated at any time, suggesting that their deaths, as Jews and Muslims, were, and always would be, imminent,
Azeru, for once, is lost for words. She realizes that the pain of the dead continues to be recycled because we refuse to acknowledge our wrongdoings. She also understands that we are all responsible for each other’s pain because we are fragile and obsessed with our “unfulfilled needs”. But the solution eludes her: it may be beyond words. That, importantly, does not mean it cannot exist. Azeru leaves us with the question: “isn’t it possible to turn the cruelty that had connected Omar and me back again into love?”
Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.