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: Compass

Compass, by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell), narrates the thoughts of a middle aged academic as he spends a sleepless night in his apartment in Vienna. Franz Ritter is a musicologist suffering from insomnia. He believes he is ill, possibly dying, although doctors have yet to diagnose any specific ailment. As he lies in his bed he thinks back over key events in his life. These include travels in the Middle East, acquaintances he spent time with there, and his obsession with a woman he has been friends with for many years. Franz met Sarah, another academic, when she was working on her thesis for her PhD. She has since gone on to enjoy success in her field. Despite being an intelligent, articulate and personable colleague, Franz regards her through the lens of desire. He has an image of how she should look and behave, expressing annoyance when she diverges from this construct. His supposed love for her is based on possession; he grows jealous when she expresses interest in other’s work.

As the night progresses Franz recounts conversations and adventures with other colleagues, many of them fellow academics. They take themselves and their work very seriously, assuming each will be remembered for what they regard as important contributions to obscure studies. Franz is often condescending, self-aggrandising and self-pitying. When Sarah laughs at his habits and conceits he feels hard done by. When others show an interest in Sarah he develops a dislike for them.

Despite travelling extensively himself, Franz complains of the activities of tourists in Vienna. His arrogance would be amusing if this story were not so heavy. Franz’s melancholic nature permeates each rambling recollection. There is a huge amount of detail provided. Some of this is interesting if sieved from the surrounding asides.

As with anyone’s tired night-time thoughts, the discourse wanders. Franz considers the lives of musicians and composers alongside the histories of Middle Eastern countries. He remembers his encounters with eastern natives and the reactions of the westerners he travelled with. All are explored in depth, piecemeal, alongside his memories of Sarah. The night drags on, as did my progress through these pages.

It was not the quality of the writing but rather the garrulous pretentiousness of the narrator that stifled engagement. Franz’s devouring passions may be interesting but were drowned by the relentless intensity with which he shares. He is easy to dislike with his opium habit, hypochondria, and treatment of female colleagues. Given this, the denouement was unexpected.

“better to publish well-chosen, brief articles than vast works of erudition”

A book about an insomniac that offers a cure for insomnia; reading this felt like hard work. There is much about the Middle East that piqued my interest, but I felt relief when I turned the final page.

Compass is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.