Fiction exploring the interior life of contemporary Iranians is not well represented in translations readily available in the West. The Book of Tehran aims to begin to redress the shortage by offering ten stories set in the Iranian capital, with the authors’ different voices maintained by having each story translated by a different translator.
Orkideh Behrouzan’s introduction, a gallop through the history of Tehran and its literary movements in the 20th and early 21st centuries, makes the point that—clichés about veiled women or the rhetoric of international tension aside—Tehran and Tehranis are a city and a population hard to imagine for Westerners. She highlights the challenges of providing Westerners with access to “the mundane that connects us all” given the persistence of the clichés.
The mundane is the basis of “The Other Side of the Wall” by Goli Taraghi, about a teenaged girl who loathes piano playing, although her mother insists she takes lessons, and who dreads a looming concert in which she seems doomed to perform. It is partly a coming of age story, in which what’s on the other side of the wall are the complexities, compromises and freedoms of adulthood, and partly a meditation on power, gender, class and deceit and its unmasking, in which what’s on the other side of the wall “thin as onion skin” is a less than respectable lone woman struggling to bring up her daughter in a home with lots of male comings and goings.
Payam Nasser’s Wake It Up by is another with themes that should seem familiar. It concerns a man’s life after his lover leaves him and explores loss, memory, and various types of waking up, including waking up to reality—or not. He hopes heartbreak will enable him to become a great writer, but, alas, it only causes him to sleep far more than he should. He moves apartments, and a boy in his new building brings him daily offerings of odd things: “a hand broom, a gas lighter and so on.” The narrator never accepts the gifts, until one day the boy arrives with a dead kitten and demands: “wake it up”!
Several of the stories, indeed, mention sleeplessness, or too much sleep. “In the Light Being Cast from the Kitchen” by Hamed Habibi tells of a man who wakes up at 3:35 in the morning, and sees a debonair stranger in his living room. His bewilderment leads to a crisis of personal identity—is or isn’t the protagonist living in his own life?
“Domestic Monsters”, by the collection’s editor, Ferteshteh Ahmadi, could almost count as an example, in Western terms, of the domestic noir genre—except one of the unnamed protagonist’s aunts was executed, so this is very noir indeed. The themes of women manipulating one another, breaking free from manipulation, and forming bonds, or failing to, down the generations feel urgent in Ahmadi’s hands.
A story of a poisoning gone wrong, “Circling that Heavily-burdened Tale”, by Mohammad Hosseini includes some arresting similes. Esmat, the elderly woman destined to die, says of her husband: “He treated me like a shadow, or one of those guns on the wall.” A photograph of Esmat in her youth was “brown and faded, like tanned skin gnawed by worms.”
“Sunshine”, by Kourosh Asadi, is set on a rainy night when a taxi driver is telling his Dutch customer about a torn photograph of the girl he dumped. “Guards” claimed the photograph was mowred, morally problematic, “So they tore off the head and walked away with the body.” The protagonist had initially been captivated by the girl because her left eyebrow had a bald slit at the corner, allowing Asadi to refer to the first line of a ghazal by the poet Hafez, (1315-1390):
When the shape of your beguiling eyebrow God drew
In your glances the healing of my ailing heart He threw.
This is not the only story with references to classical culture. The first of the nearly three pages of footnotes to “Mohsen Half-Tenor”, by Mohammad Tolouei, illustrates some of the problems encountered by the translators: “A pun is intended between “tenor” and the Persian word “tanoor” (a traditional Persian baking oven.)” The story concerns bread, and an opera-loving thief. The writing is controlled, but full of verve. In the opening paragraph we meet Mohsen lying on “an old metal-spring bed that notified everyone in the neighbourhood every time Mohsen rolled over or moved at all.” By the close of the paragraph we’re imagining Mohsen sitting in Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, watching Rigoletto, and signalling to his fence in another box. The soprano’s “ululation sounds like the wailing of bed springs that once whined beneath him.”
The final story of the collection, “The Last Night” by Atoosa Afshin Navid, is one of the most moving. Like most of the stories in the collection, it’s not immediately obvious what it’s about, nor where it is heading. We know the narrator is about to emigrate from Iran, to join her brother in Canada, but what is the significance of the photos, and the box of eye make-up she is hesitant about taking with her? The horrible answer to these questions reveals that “the last night” does not simply mean the narrator’s last night before flying to Canada. Suffice to say the narrator cannot set off in a spirit of excited optimism, but “with the hope that the new world will have enough room in it to welcome souls full of memories.”