Book Review: The Book of Tehran

On their website Comma Press write about why they publish short story anthologies.

“an anthology of short stories has certain advantages over a novel: it is better equipped, for example, to give readers access and insights into new cultures, because it is able to embrace difference and diversity within any one culture”

In the introduction to this latest collection from Comma’s ‘Read the City’ series, Orkideh Behrouzan asks the reader to set aside the

“over-simplified accounts of Tehran […] in Western media: from click-bait cliches about veiled women to images of a youth in revolt”

What these ten stories offer is a window into ordinary life in the Iranian capital. Most are written from the points of view of young people – male and female. Their outlooks on life are, obviously, coloured by their upbringing. While some feelings expressed are universal, and the cultural restrictions are generally accepted, it was hard to read these tales as requested – without judgement. The men and women appear to regard each other as almost different species. The girls aspire to marriage despite the fact many of the older, married couples speak of their partners with disdain. Women are routinely locked in rooms overnight. A young female character is told

“a girl’s virginity is her most prized asset”

In one of the notes sections that accompany some of the stories it is explained that the term ‘girlfriend’ is regarded as an insult.

“Since the use of this word was and still is a taboo in Muslim cultures, it has derogatory overtones. Used by men of lower classes”

The book was therefore read with a chasm between the morality policed outlooks of the characters depicted and this liberal, feminist reader. Gaining a better understanding of why such differences in attitude are accepted in different countries is one reason why the series is so worthwhile.

“Great fiction doesn’t disguise: in revealing contradictory emotions and contrasting worlds, it urges us to imagine and to challenge what we assume to know about a people.”

The collection opens with Wake It Up in which a young man is looking forward to the heartbreak he expects to feel when his partner emigrates, and how he hopes this will ignite his writing. Finding that he simply sleeps better after she leaves, he moves apartments and comes to the attention of a small boy. There is much humour in the tale alongside a touch of pathos.

The Other Side of the Wall tells of a young girl from a wealthy family who is required to take piano lessons despite showing no musical aptitude. Each week she must wait for her lessons in the apartment of distant relatives. She observes the neighbours, so different from the affluent adults her parents socialise with. She is especially drawn to one lady of ill repute. Despite dreading her lessons, the girl wishes to please her family.

“what they do and where they stand is predictable and fixed, and we, the younger generation, will inherit this ‘fixed place’. That is a comfort to us”

Sharing her short life to date with the successful and respected, she is then shocked when hypocrisy is revealed.

Mohsen Half-Tenor offers a picture of addiction and greed based around ancient antiquities. As in several of the stories, certain characters regard women with contempt. It is not stated but I wondered if this was based on class or behaviour. There appears to be little social mixing between the sexes, except within families or what are regarded as the lower orders.

My favourite story in the collection was In the Light being Cast from the Kitchen. A man wakes in the night and observes a smartly dressed stranger sitting on the sofa in an adjacent room. He is afraid of what will happen if he confronts the unexpected and uninvited man, yet also fears for his sleeping wife’s safety believing it is his duty to protect her. He starts to feel guilty at his reactions and to dissociate.

Sunshine focuses on a man’s obsession with a woman’s looks. She is having fun, experimenting with hair colour and other changes. He grows annoyed that she will not settle to his ideal. Wrapped around their encounters are dealings the man has with guards who warn him about possessing a photograph showing a woman’s body.

Domestic Monsters is a tale of families and their resentments which are passed across generations. Written in the form of a letter from a niece to her aunt it describes how the young women’s eyes have been opened to the older woman’s manipulations over many years. This was one of the stories that made me question why marriage was seen as desirable. Could the life of a single woman in Iran be even worse?

There are tales of potential poisonings, of wanting to impress a neighbour, of an intended punishment that goes awry when a man refuses to be controlled by a woman.

The collection finishes with The Last Night – a tale of four young college students who are together in their dorm for the last time. These women are educated yet long for marriage, worrying it will not happen for them. They talk of being brides rather than dreaming of future careers. One of the women plans to emigrate suggesting this is the only way to attain any sort of personal freedom.

These portrayals of life in Tehran were well written and interesting but so far removed from my own experiences as to throw up many further questions. Few of the characters, male or female, talk of how they earn a living – several of the men seem to sleep a great deal, even in the day. Morality plays a significant role in life choices, as do family expectations. I pondered, is their culture a choice or an imposition? What role does the acquisition of wealth play in acquiring status as happens in the west?

The stories offer a taster and I would be keen to learn more about how those living in Tehran, particularly the women, view the lifestyle they are required to adhere to. As the introduction states

“To solely read Tehran’s stories through the lens of politics and censorship, therefore, would be to overlook the tenacity of the life that pulsates through them.”

Readers are invited to immerse themselves

“in the deep and complicated currents of these stories.”

I struggled to empathise with many of the characters’ attitudes and wondered how they would view my supposedly liberal perspectives.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Comma Press.

Book Review: The Book of Havana

“‘What does a woman think about,’ I ask, ‘when she believes nothing and no one can hurt her?'”

So asks one of the male characters in a story from this collection. I pull out this particular quote because many of the stories depict men regarding women only in terms of their own sexual gratification. Acts are, in places, described in vivid detail. The women are ‘taken’, and in ways that they object to, although the writers then portray them as having found it pleasurable. These scenes are a little too close to male fantasy land for my tastes. As anyone who follows my reviews will be aware, I do not wish to encounter graphic sexual imagery in my reading material. I too ponder if women’s thinking would alter if we could be confident of our agency and safety.

Having got that out of the way let’s look at the many positives in this short story collection. It is the latest addition to Comma Press’s A City in Short Fiction series. The ten writers featured belong to different generations so have experienced life in Cuba from different eras.

The book opens with an introduction to the country and its capital city. Over the centuries Cuba has been occupied and had its assets plundered by Spain and, briefly, Britain who introduced slavery as a means of increasing production of goods taken. The wealth generated was then squandered in endless European wars. The revolutionary triumph of 1959 halted international interference although support from the Soviet Union was required following a US embargo. Cuba suffered a lengthy period of deprivation when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. With the ending of the Castro dynasty hope emerged for a better future for the country and its people, quickly dashed with the arrival of Trump.

All of this has had an an effect on the morale and psychology of the people who must continue to live within deteriorating infrastructure. Tourism is one of the few industries unaffected by events of the last few decades but brings with it comparison and discontent. Many residents wish to leave creating difficult relationships with those who stay. Havana has become a magnet for the country’s disaffected.

The stories in the collection offer

“A textual kaleidoscope of different sensitivities, and multiple observation points, hinting at the many layers and complexities developed by Cuban society over the last 30 years”

It opens with Into Tiny Pieces. Set in 1977, this tale offers a picture of a city where neighbours act as spies for the state and lives are lived in fear. A patriotic couple wish to replace their flag, throwing the old one away before the new one is purchased. Such an act is viewed as rebellion and retribution is threatened. The man blames his wife for the difficulties they now face but fears for her safety if he voices such an opinion. Although offering a thought-provoking portrayal of life in Cuba at that time, the ending felt somewhat abrupt.

Love in the Big City tells of a country boy who travels to Havana with no real plans for how he will survive once there. He meets abject characters, and is complicit in his dissipation.

All Because of that Fucking Spanish Kid is an incredible story about a professional killer employed to plant bombs by the CIA. Inspired by watching The Day of the JackalĀ the killer feels no remorse for his actions, believing he is relieving his victims of a need to live their unhappy lives. The writing is powerful – this is my favourite in the collection.

The Trinity of Havana portrays the endless bureaucracy that ensures people are employed but little gets done in a bloated state system. A women is trying to register her ownership of the home her family have lived in for generations. The procedures she must follow are endlessly detailed and stymied at every turn.

My Night conflates the dreams a newly graduated student has with his lived reality on a night out with a friend. This and the following two stories require the reader to go with the narrative inside the heads of the male protagonists. A degree of sympathy may be evoked given the limitations of their lives but their two dimensional attitudes towards women irritated this reader.

The List was more to my tastes, exploring the impact of emigration on those left behind. I also enjoyed Of Princesses and Dragons which, although depicting a couple, looks at their wider relationship and expectations.

The final story, You’re Leaving Then, chronicles a break-up that the man is struggling to process. He regards what is happening as a defeat. I felt little sympathy.

These tales provide a picture of life in a country that has endured isolation and hardship. Reading it as a British woman I am aware that the criticisms I make may be a result of failure to empathise with cultural differences and the lack of progress in Cuban personal attitudes as well as opportunity. The writing is authentic and often bold, the protagonists desires and difficulties honestly portrayed. I would have preferred more from a female perspective, how they feel about the way men view them, but the struggles chronicled focus on aspiration in a place where choices are limited and pleasures are sought as a balm. The selfishly portrayed sexual attitudes may be, depressingly, tenable.

One of the aims of this series is to offer the reader a better understanding of a city from the point of view of its residents. In this the book succeeds. Given my reaction to what I have learned I feel no desire to visit Havana. The stories were educative but I found them dispiriting.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Comma Press.

Book Review: The Book of Riga

The Book of Riga is a collection of ten short stories written by Latvian authors and set in the country’s capital city. It opens with a history of the region written by a former president. As I am unfamiliar with the background and local culture, such information was of interest, although at times I still struggled to place each of the stories within the time-frame intended.

The authors write with a distinctive, Baltic voice yet their themes are universal. They explore the frustration protagonists feel at family, particularly the older generation with their undeviating demands and expectations.

In The Girl Who Cut My Hair a group of young people indulge in what they consider meaningful discussions whilst polishing their personal vanities and youthful if frivolous preoccupations.

“We were virgins with condoms in our handbags.
Our parents had not read either Freud or Henry Miller, absolutely not.
We were always at the ready – what if life should suddenly start?”

Westside Garden revolves around a place once owned by a wealthy family, now subdivided but still housing an elderly relic of that era. The events narrated differ between the lived experience and what is recalled with the benefit of hindsight and shared reminiscences. Sexual encounters are described as a sometimes necessary irritant. The women are still expected to adhere to a standard of presentation and behaviour.

“don’t fool around with slacks and bobbed haircuts, but act like a real woman.”

In The Birds of Kipsala Island, new build homes in the city housing young families and professionals are evocatively described

“like lockers in a gym changing room”

Within the changes imposed on the historic city, a creative community seek out places were they may indulge their conceits together. Self defined artists and intellectuals eventually realise

“no one in real life is as happy, as witty, or as capable of making sound judgements, as characters in fiction.”

The Shakes is set in an office where a successful businessman observes an increase in street demonstrations and tries to see into the future using history and detailed reasoning. In trying to draw his assistant into his endeavour he risks being seen as unhinged. She too feels something out of kilter in the air but prefers to perpetuate, while she can, the comfort of accepted roles and routines.

A White Jacket With Gold Buttons offers a picture of a writer’s hubris yet sensitivity to criticism, particularly from a rival he refuses to rate.

“Writing is, in a sense, close to psychoanalysis: the power of the written word comes exactly from the fact that an author spits out his most hidden feelings, without the shiny veneer that comes from pretending.”

The collection finishes with a supernatural tale, The Night Shift, that could be a metaphor for the realities of life, and inevitability of death.

The writing throughout presents with a distinctive cadence that is somewhat mordant yet arresting in the themes explored and characters developed. The city shines through as a beguiling survivor of its history, adapting whilst retaining its hold on certain citizens and visitors. I had never before considered visiting Riga. After reading this collection, I am tempted.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Comma Press.