Fariba Vafi's "Die Reise im Zug"
Portrait of a mother

Iranian author Fariba Vafi is adept at describing everyday scenes and concealing within them something ambiguous, in parts strange and grotesque. She writes novels – which have been translated into many languages and received numerous prizes (most recently the LiBeraturpreis Litprom for Tarlan) – and short stories. Vafi's skill for subtle understatement shines in her 'Train Ride'. Volker Kaminski read the book

Women in Fariba Vafi's novels may dream of a free Tibet (as in the 'Dream of Tibet', as yet only published in German translation) or be desperate to become writers (as in Tarlan); they may imagine themselves setting off and leaving forever, sick of playing the role of sister, daughter, lover or wife. This awakening usually only manifests in the protagonist's mind at first and it doesn't happen all that much in the stories of the lives described. Yet the texts reflect an abundance of thoughts, longing – and a rich inner world, such that we feel we're following an exciting tale nevertheless.

In Die Reise im Zug ('The Train Ride'), two long-distance journeys act as mirror images. On both occasions, the journey begins in Tabriz, Iran, with the narrator’s mother sitting on the train, but these two journeys are separated by a period of twenty-two years. What makes this remarkable is that both journeys bear a direct connection to the daughter; on the first occasion, the woman travelling is pregnant with the narrator and the daughter is "already taking shape inside her body", "a secret that my mother savoured". The second journey takes the mother to visit her daughter, now living and studying in Berlin.

The narrator makes no secret of the fact that her mother is a capricious, highly complex person who often escapes into a dream world, losing herself there while continuing to function outwardly "like a machine". She keeps her large family, accompanying her on her first journey (there are two compartments reserved, each seating six people), on tenterhooks.

However, while the others are chatting noisily and enjoying old family anecdotes, she feels uneasy. She often fears being teased by the others and is naturally shy. "When they laughed, my mother laughed too. She wanted to be one of them. But when they fell silent, she was afraid. She was scared of becoming the butt of their jokes".

Cover of Fariba Vafi's "Die Reise im Zug", translated into German by Nuschin Mameghanian-Prenzlow (published in bilingual Persian/German edition by Bubul)
Fariba Vafi's latest work is a touching story, effortlessly translated by Nuschin Mameghanian-Prenzlow and published by Bubul in an illustrated, dual-language – German-Persian – edition. The colourful illustrations by Ina Abuschenko-Matwejewa are whimsical and intriguing; expressing much of the protagonist’s hidden defiance as she stubbornly refuses to give up on her dream world

Few words for an expressive portrait

In fact, the woman had wanted to keep the pregnancy a secret, but her husband, who hasn’t joined them on the journey, blurted the news out at the station. And so she is forced to endure the usual speculation from her relatives about whether it will be a boy or a girl. Though the narrator makes do with short sentences, we can feel the woman’s anguish: "the white, dead light of the compartment illuminated their faces".

As the loud voices of her uncles and aunts fill the compartment, the young woman tries to find some peace. Eventually, the bright light is extinguished: "My mother harkened to the sound of the train in the darkness, she felt her belly and thought of me. I wasn’t a secret anymore. But it no longer mattered".

The narrator’s mother has very sensitive hearing; she is able to home in on particular sounds as her gaggle of relatives clamours and shrieks around her. One day, the television is on at home and she suddenly hears the march that used to ring out in the Eighties during the Iran-Iraq war. No one around her notices the tune, just as no one listens to the birdsong outside or hears the neighbour playing the piano, the sound of which travels "through the wall".

Vafi succeeds in creating an expressive portrait of the mother using a minimum of words, without vilifying her for her shyness and passivity. Yet the narrator is not uncritical of her mother. "My mother’s passive tricks and cowardly reactions irritated me," she writes. However, she also accepts the circumstances as they are. Some people’s lives take place in the smallest of circles and a train ride to a wedding makes for a singular highpoint.

Decades later, the mother takes a similarly long journey (this time to Berlin) and it is, of course, quite natural for her to recall the past journey and make comparisons. What has life granted me in the years since? What happened to my other relatives? Have they realised the dreams they had back then?

Die Reise im Zug ('The Train Ride') is a touching story, effortlessly translated by Nuschin Mameghanian-Prenzlow and published by Bubul in an illustrated, dual-language – German-Persian – edition. The colourful illustrations by Ina Abuschenko-Matwejewa are whimsical and intriguing; expressing much of the protagonist’s hidden defiance as she stubbornly refuses to give up on her dream world. Vafi also spent 2021 as a DAAD fellow in Berlin – maybe it was her stay there that inspired this wonderful, melancholic tale.

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2022

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu

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