Farnoosh Moshiri: At the Wall of the Almighty

“What did I do with my hands as a free man?” he asks himself.

– – –

A bearded guard leads him from his solitary confinement to another cell. He is on a leash, and he knows that he is in the central prison of the Holy Republic. This is all he knows. Severe torture has made him forget everything else, including his name.

With such a dismal opening, one can excuse why I shelved this, the heaviest volume on my Iran book stack, for over a year despite my deep fascination for the region and its extremely underrated writers.

My personal reading prompt for September was to go through an NYRB editions reading spree. But is there a more pressing reading prompt than the ongoing protests in Iran? I realize that we — as readers, and through our reading choices — have the power to call attention to things happening across the world and to rally with those who need all the support they can get.

I instantly felt it was time to meet this unnamed character who is forced to admit guilt to an unknown sin that, along with his name, he cannot recall. Through daily episodes of psychological and physical torture, he slips in and out of consciousness, reality and dreams. Fragments of his childhood and of his life tease his sanity, the key players of society whose ideologies and actions lead to the revolution take shape in his mind, and the story unfolds. He begins to remember Sahar, a twin sister whom he loved deeply; and by and by his desire to die begins to be replaced by the desire to know what happened to her.

‘Sahar is dawn,’ I say, ‘the end of darkness, when the sun comes out. Daylight trapped in night.’

Categorized as a work of magic realism, I find that the magic realism is, at first, subdued, but one which crescendoes into an anarchy. Readers who are not enthusiasts of the genre should not be dissuaded, however, because we eventually recognize that it is merely our tortured character’s memories and hallucinations merging with reality, metaphors, and childhood fantasies.

This is Farnoosh Moshiri’s first novel, but its depth and calibre surpass many works by more established writers. I have not read a more harrowing ending, but I also have not read a more excellent Iranian novel.

Here is an apt literary device condemning oppressive governments that incapacitate people to distinguish nightmare from reality, and condemning regimes that engender systemic mind-conditioning that edge a nation into losing its identity — those tyrannies that ultimately coerce you into forgetting who you are.

– – –

What are we doing with our hands as free men and women; what are we doing with our freedom? I ask myself.

First of all, we defend it.

Tayeb Salih Duo

“…and if we are lies we shall be lies of our own making.”

“Mark these words of mine, my son. Has not the country become independent? Have we not become free men in our own country? Be sure, though, that they will direct our affairs from afar. This is because they have left behind them people who think as they do.”

– – –

Could dictatorships in developing countries be a side-effect of colonialism?

The effects of colonialism do not end after a nation’s independence, the same way the effects of a dictatorship do not end after a people’s revolution.

Colonialism has defenders who maintain that they served whom they oppressed, dictatorships have the same apologists; but do not both warrant that succeeding leaders would grapple with a democratic exercise of authority — among many other ills they leave in their wake?

Perhaps I am late to these reflections, but there are many people still who do not understand that colonialism and dictatorships have a profound impact on political structures that one simply cannot move on from.

– – –


Season of Migration to the North was the catalyst for these thoughts; a dark and rather absurdist but lyrical depiction of the post-colonial struggle; not an angry tirade but one that challenges opposing views.

It overshadows The Wedding of Zein in many ways, tempting me to say that if there’s one Salih work you must read it should be Season of Migration to the North. On the other hand, The Wedding of Zein comes with two of his finest short stories: One of them is The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid that wistfully contemplates on the clash of social modernity and traditions.

“There will not be the least necessity for cutting down the doum tree… What all these people have overlooked is that there’s plenty of room for all these things.”

So, perhaps it’s wise to read these books together.

Sudan, the largest country in Africa that shares a border with nine other countries including Egypt. And yet we read so little of/from them. It’s time we do. We (I speak as a Filipina reader) share so much more in common than we think.

David Plante: Difficult Women, A Memoir of Three

Difficult Women. Difficult reader. This book and I did not mix well.

I found no satisfaction or pleasure in reading this, although I did not feel arrogant enough to consider it a bad book deserving to be consigned to the DNF pile. There must be something to be learned here.

To be appreciated, these sketches of Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and Germaine Greer through David Plante’s personal encounters with them in the 70s, should probably be read as a literary specimen: a study on the microscopic boundaries between honesty and invasion of privacy; a rare sample that lays bare the characters of these women at particular points in their lives; an excision of the writer’s intentions, for scrutiny; and the final diagnosis that literary figures are just as human and as difficult as the rest of us. And perhaps, that’s what makes this… well… difficult.

Magda Szabó: Abigail

“In any work of literature the most interesting bits are in the detail,” Kőnig had often said in his lessons. “Be sure to attend to them closely.”

If I had a daughter, she’d find this book in a collection I created for her.

Reading this, she’d be reminded that heroines do not have to be faultless; that the surest assumptions can often be wrong; that no matter how clever we think we are, there are people wiser still; that actions always have consequences; that friendship is precious; that even in the most repetitive of routines and what we deem the bleakest of days, life will find ways to astound or surprise us.

If she philosophizes and reads deeper into the book, as I suspect a daughter of mine will, she will venture to question where childhood ends and adulthood begins, and attempt to come up with answers of her own, or a hundred questions more.

If she develops an awareness of history and politics, as she must, she will be sensitive to Magda Szabo’s subtle activism and glean the lessons of sacrifice and duty.

And I imagine this book — so engaging and difficult to put down — will only fuel the love for reading in her.

– – –

Can you tell that I read this through the eyes of a wide-eyed adolescent, and not through the eyes of an adult still haunted by the painful and confounding strains from Iza’s Ballad and The Door but who, nonetheless, acknowledges that Magda Szabó has now become a favorite?

Iza’s Ballad and The Door gnaws at the soul. Abigail educates the heart.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time to Keep Silence

The book had me at its cover; a landscape distinctly Cappadocia, one of my favorite places in the world, however otherworldly.

It had me at the introduction by Karen Armstrong. Who else more suited to introduce such a book?

Patrick Leigh Fermor had me at, “The book was based — whole passages of it word for word — on letters I wrote at the time to a correspondent (whom I later married) without the remotest thought of publication.”

He had me the entire time because reading his prose felt like meditation.

A Time to Keep Silence is a lovely exemplification of that Thomas Merton line I encountered through Rebecca Solnit earlier this year: “The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.”

Known for traveling to Turkey on foot and for being one of the finest travel writers of the past century, this is a record of Fermor’s travels to a more inward direction. Through Europe’s monasteries with their divine libraries, chanting monks, cloistered lives, and vows of silence, and to Cappadocia’s abandoned rock monasteries, we are made recipients of their histories and these letters, too; but most of all, of the contemplation on modern man’s need for silence and solitude.

For someone who recently took three weeks off from social media to retreat from its noise and with only one foot back inside, this book expressed many of my unspoken thoughts, and I can only agree with a constant book friend who thinks that the only problem with this book is that it is too short. 

Here’s to places, experiences, or books where “…the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.”

Maxime Rodinson: Muhammad

A concern for truth did not always accord with political expediency.”

There is much to mull over and absorb that I took my time with this book. Maxime Rodinson does not only paint a portrait of realism of a man, but also a stunning landscape of a world and age.

The portrayal is constructed based on meticulous research, and because it is not always compatible with prevailing ones, he treads on dangerous ground. In fact, censorship issues led the American University in Cairo to halt its publication in 1998.

“The picture is not a simple one. It is neither the static monster of some or the ‘best of all created things’ of others, neither the cold-blooded impostor nor the political theorist, nor the mystic wholly in love with God. If we have understood him rightly, Muhammad was a complex man, full of contradictions… But there was a power in him which, with the help of circumstances, was to make him one of the rare men who have turned the world upside down.”

“Let us, with undue naivety or too many illusions, acknowledge the greatness of the creators of the systems which have played so large a part in the world; and among them, Muhammad.”

This is a work of history. But history is a tricky issue, especially in the Philippines right now. Rodinson, however, poses this challenge in the introduction: “If one is to criticize in turn, in order to reject its conclusions, one must study and refute its findings according to the same critical standards with regard to sources.”

_ _ _

A confession: While reading this, there was a constant imagining of how it would have turned out had Olga Tokarczuk written it. It would surely have been just as carefully researched but peppered with literary mischief and, perhaps, slightly more entertaining.

Only slightly because Rodinson, a historian of Islam, does not write drably either. For Edward W. Said to claim that there can be no doubt about this book being “the major contemporary Occidental work on the Prophet and is essential reading” was recommendation enough for this reader.

This reader, a nonbeliever of Islam and an amateur on the subject but who has, through an ongoing reading project, realized that even a humble comprehension in the war of succession after Muhammad’s death between his father-in-law and son-in-law that created the Sunni and Shia chasm can allow one to grasp better the complex relationships or conflicts between Islamic nations and organizations. And so, with this realization, the acknowledgement of how taking a small step can open doors to understanding.

With each book, another step. 

Borislav Pekic: Houses

I hadn’t built anything, I’d demolished myself. Here, look!

In that sublime realm where literature and architecture meet, Hugo’s Notre Dame and Calvino’s Invisible Cities occupy the high throne. I nominate Pekić’s Houses to sit with them.

One would expect this book to be political, Borislav Pekić being a founding member of the Democratic Party in Serbia. And indeed, it is.

Belgrade’s turbulent history of clashing ideologies is not an undertone in this novel but a counterpoint to an unusual but brilliant motif that is architecture — which is, of course, political.

What took me by surprise, despite the obvious title and the summary about an eccentric character who loves houses more than the average person does, was the non-perfunctory view on the subject. The discourse ranges from houses being compared to human souls, to the ideal harmony of a building with urban space and its character, to how preservation is of great importance to a place, to criticisms on the sacrificing of aesthetic quality for the sake of profit, to describing a particular house as like an erratum, a coarse printing error in the elegant context of the street, and even to the communion with buildings as if they were alive, which in fact they were!

_ _ _

Of course I can’t say that those books about architecture made me fall in love with houses. They only explained to me why I love them. From them I was schooled in houses’ physiology, their circulatory system, their epidermic defensive envelope, even their stomachs, their sensitive stomachs, not to mention their life process… From books, then, I had come to know the mysterious process of a house’s conception, initiated long before its violent birth on the building site.

_ _ _

Arsenie Negovan is an imperfect but intriguing man who will irritate you or gain your sympathy. He makes a name for himself as a builder and a lover of houses, but after an existential maelstrom, he withdraws himself from the world and allows himself to be oblivious to the unrelenting flow of time for twenty seven years.

When at last he decides to come out of his self-alienation, he is an old man in the process of writing his will, and he soon begins to suspect a great divide between the world in his mind and the world in reality.

Houses is one of the most intelligent novels I have ever read. With the absence of chapter breaks, I found myself being pulled steadily towards its exceptionally executed finale. Its abstract metaphors grant liberal spaces for contemplation as they convey nagging questions on possession, and on building and ruin, whether concerning a city, society, a house, or a life. 

While most of its readers describe the progression of the story as a descent into madness, I choose to see it as an awakening.

Intizar Husain: Basti

So, my friend, time is passing. We’re all in the power of time. So hurry and come here. Come and see the city of Delhi, and the realm of beauty, for both are waiting for you. Come and join them, before silver fills the part in her hair, and your head becomes a drift of snow, and our lives are merely a story.

Basti is a lovely Urdu word that hints at space and community, a human settlement of any dimension, from a few houses to a city. 

The word alone is enough to pique my interest. But because some books lead you to other books, that is exactly what Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand did for me. I stopped counting at six — the number of times Intizar Husain’s name was raised in the novel. 

Now I see why. Basti can be looked upon as a literary father of Tomb of Sand in the family of borderland literature. Both also defy the borders of literature.

Basti maps the life of Zakir who experienced the divisions that created Pakistan that created Bangladesh that separated him from the love of his life.

I have to admit that it took nearly half of the book before I was able to get into its rhythm and flow, but I allowed its poetic beauty to lead this reader from outside the Indian subcontinent to be drawn into its history and heritage; and sadly, into the tragic quotient of its divisions.

Magda Szabó: The Door

“But a door can hint at so much more.” — Geetanjali Shree, Tomb of Sand

Having come fresh from a streak of world literature for Women in Translation Month, which included Tomb of Sand, I have become more attuned to the implication of doors being more than architectural features. Doors as metaphors for boundaries.

But in contrast to Geetanjali Shree’s doors where, ideally, anyone came and went; Magda Szabó’s door was meant to remain shut.

The physical door of the latter was not only a boundary but the framework of a person’s dignity.

Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad turned out to be the most exquisitely written work from my WiTMonth selection, so I wasted no time in taking a peek into this door.

Curiously, Iza’s Ballad and The Door both have characters hired as household help who do not work for the money. One is a minor character in Iza’s Ballad, but in The Door it is the baffling, the imposing, elderly Emerence, one of the two central figures in the story. Adding to the intrigue is the younger and other main character, a writer, the author’s namesake.

Two decades of love-hate relationship yield misunderstandings and reconciliations, but also critiques on each other’s lives, on art, and on their clashing beliefs. At some point, the writer eventually achieves “the prize” and receives a prestigious recognition for her work, but not without the question of what it cost.

Reading Szabó is like a careful and deliberate peeling of an onion. The core is shrouded in well-executed layers where even the revelations continue to maintain a mystery that lead toward a confounding finality. But she is yet another testament to my hunch that 20th century writers remain unsurpassed. Even with a tinge of absurdism, there is that deep exploration into the dark of interior characterization, a delving in the psychological, spiritual, and philosophical condition of its characters, if only to pose the argument of what it is that really matters in life. 

Geetanjali Shree: Tomb of Sand

“Anything worth doing transcends borders.”

Samadhi, a word that denotes a meditative calm greets like a namaste on the first page.

And then, cacophony! An onslaught of sounds, smells, colors, and wordplay! You are planted right smack at the center of a palpable, household chaos — the matriarch sinks into depression, the matriarch disappears! Bickering. Finger-pointing. A familial upheaval. What samadhi?!

But cacophony, if we listen closely and do not shut it out immediately, can turn into polyphony; and we chase after as many melodic lines that make themselves heard to us. Although sometimes, as in the case of the old woman, just one particular melody line, the one that meant most to her in her last days, the one that muffled all others, the one she pursued as the path to her own personal samadhi. 

– – –

Tomb of Sand, winner of the 2022 International Booker Prize; written by Geetanjali Shree and translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell is the culmination of Women in Translation Month that came to me by chance, but just in time.

If not for a dear friend who mailed me her copy for infinite adoption after reading and reviewing it insightfully, then I would not have rushed into acquiring one.

Tomb of Sand turned out to embody in its polyphony the leitmotifs explored in my significant picks for #WiTMonth:

Egyptian Nawal el Saadawi’s The Fall of the Imam and Moroccan Leila Slimani’s Sex and Lies on gender and the freedoms or, to be more accurate, non-freedoms that come along with it.

Georgian Nino Haratischwili’s The Eighth Life on the topic of how we are all reflections of our own time but inheritors of intergenerational memory. In Shree’s words, “I feel as though a bullet was fired in some other century but didn’t stay in that century. It keeps hitting the people who came later…”

Hungarian Magda Szabo’s Iza’s Ballad on the relationship of mother and daughter and the collision of old and new.

Palestinian Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail on the painful subject of encroached boundaries and artificially imposed borders; reminding me that there were two massive Partitions in world history that transpired in 1947, and that both involved religious segregation. “Divisions. A jubilee of hatred. The joy of rifts.”

But Tomb of Sand’s old woman, whose life and interfaith romance was a victim of the Partition, has this powerful thing to say about how borders should be: “Do you know what a border is? What is a border? It’s something that surrounds an existence, it is a person’s perimeter…. However a border is not created to be removed. It is meant to illuminate both sides…. A border does not enclose, it opens out… Where two sides meet and both flourish. 

Every part of the body has a border. So does the heart. A border surrounds it but it also binds it to other parts. It doesn’t wrench the heart from the rest. Fools! If you cut a border through the heart, you don’t call it a border, you call it a wound…

Asses! A border stops nothing. It is a bridge between two connected parts…

A border is a horizon. Where two worlds meet. And embrace.

A border is love. Love does not create a jail… A border is a line of meeting… It is a confluence…

A border, gentlemen, is for crossing.

The border exists to connect, one to another. If there’s one, there’s another. Through love.

If you hate, the blood that flows through arteries to deliver strength from here to there will flow out and away; each side will die bit by bit. What fool would want this?

But this is what you fools want. You’ve made the border a sort of hatred. Not an exquisite border enhancing beauty on both sides, but one that kills them both, a murderous beast cutting the artery. Ignoramuses!

…borders running with blood can have only one consequence. The blood will burst their borders and seep away, all the limbs will dry up and stiffen, but everyone will keep chanting Allahu Akbar and Hare Rama Hare Krishna.

Though it marches to its own rhythm, the literary symmetries it shares with the works of other women authors across borders only pronounce the universality of this novel.

It is life, crossing the boundary to literature.

Thank you, Gabi, for passing on the tears and the lessons along with a pretty bookmark!

_ _ _

WiTMonth Wrap-Up

It is my first time to observe Women in Translation Month since its birth in 2014. I’ve never felt the need to participate because of a consistent presence of translated works by women in my literary diet. But now that I’m back to maintaining a book blog, I feel this is the time that observing #WiTMonth will make a difference.

Meytal Radzinski started this tradition after a critical assessment of the publishing world led to the discovery that only thirty percent of translated literature were works by women authors.

So here I am, along with those celebrating, reminding the publishing community that there is an overwhelming readership eager to tip the scales.

Freya Stark once wrote, “No medium has yet been devised for the translation of life into language.”

Most of this month’s selections come rather close.

_ _ _

Minor Detail – Adania Shibli (Palestine) | Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

Life with Picasso – Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake (France)

The Fall of the Imam – Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) | Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata

Fire in the Blood – Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine under the Russian Empire) | Translated from the French by Sandra Smith

The Mirador – Élisabeth Gille (France) | Translated from the French by Marina Harss

Embroideries – Marjane Satrapi (Iran) | Translated from the French by Anjali Singh

Sex and Lies – Leila Slimani (Morocco) | Translated from the French by Sophie Lewis

Love – Hanne Ørstavik (Norway) |Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aiken

Celestial Bodies – Jokha Alharthi (Oman) | Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Iza’s Ballad – Magda Szabó (Hungary) | Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes

The Eighth Life – Nino Haratischvili (Georgia) | Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

Sculptor’s Daughter – Tove Jansson (Finland) | Translated from the Swedish by Kingsley Hart

Tomb of Sand – Geetanjali Shree (India) | Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell