Modern Persian literature

Five Farsi novels and their impact on Iranian pop culture

Thinking of novels about Iran, the first titles that spring to mind might be "Persepolis", "Reading Lolita in Tehran" or "Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America". Internationally acclaimed books they may be, yet few will have heard of them inside the Islamic Republic. Changiz M. Varzi selects some seminal modern works penned in Farsi

Each of the following books has played a vital role in defining the cultural, social and political transformation that Iran has undergone during the last century.

The Blind Owl

There is no mention of Sadegh Hedayat and his magnum opus The Blind Owl in Iran’s Farsi Language school textbooks, but his legacy is far greater than the bans that governments before and after the Islamic Revolution have imposed on his work.

The Blind Owl, narrated in the first person, is the story of an unnamed painter who talks about his nightmares, sickness, love and his profound hatred of the life outside the confines of his room.

Cover of Sadegh Hedayat's "The Blind Owl", translated into English by Naveed Noori (published by Iran Open Publishing Group; based on Bombay edition)
Written in the first person, "The Blind Owl" is a profoundly pessimistic and Kafkaesque novel. It closely reflects the mental state of its author, Sadegh Hedayat, a deeply melancholy man, who lived with a vision of the absurdity of human existence and his inability to effect a change for the good in Iran

This surrealist story is widely regarded as the first example of Iranian modernist literature. Hedayat wrote the novel back in 1930, yet owing to his anti-monarchy stance, he was banned from writing and publishing his works by the then king of Iran, Reza Shah. Six years later Hedayat travelled to Mumbai and published just fifty copies. A few years later, the book was also published in Iran.

Hedayat’s suicide in 1951 only added to the mystery surrounding The Blind Owl, and nowadays its opening sentence is for many Iranians akin to Hamlet’s phrase "to be, or not to be". The Blind Owl starts with these lines: "In life there are wounds that, like leprosy, silently scrape at and consume the soul, in solitude."

My Uncle Napoleon

My Uncle Napoleon, with its unique sense of humour, contrasts dramatically with the dark mood of The Blind Owl, but is just as famous. Iraj Pezeshkzad published the book in 1973 and it became a bestseller almost overnight. Three years later, a television miniseries was made based on the novel, which added to its fame.

Although My Uncle Napoleon has been banned since the 1979 revolution, all street book vendors in Iran sell illegally printed editions of the book.

My Uncle Napoleon revolves around a simple love story in the 1940s. The central character, unnamed in the book, but named Saeed in the television series, narrates how he falls in love with Leily, the Uncle Napoleon’s daughter. The uncle is a paranoid retired military officer who admires Napoleon Bonaparte and loathes the British.

With this simple story, Pezeshkzad humorously pokes fun at Iran’s patriarchal society, at religious traditions and the role of foreign powers in Iran’s domestic politics. Certain characters and catchphrases from the book have become enormously popular in Iran, so much so that even those who have not read the book or seen the TV series use the phrases in their daily life.

"This is the work of the British" is the most famous catchphrase from the book and is widely used by Iranians to sarcastically put the blame of any disaster on the British. A slightly different variation of this phrase was also used by former British Secretary of State Jack Straw in the title of his 2019 book The English Job: Understanding Iran and Why It Distrusts Britain.

The Little Black Fish

The Little Black Fish (1966) is the most well-known Iranian children’s book. Samad Behrangi, a primary school teacher wrote the book and Farshid Mesghali, internationally acclaimed Iranian graphic designer and animator, illustrated the book. In 1969, Mesghali’s illustrations for this story scooped the top awards at the Bologna children’s book fair and the Biennial of Illustrations in Bratislava.

 

Despite its international success, the book was blacklisted during the first three decades after the revolution due to its strong political message.

The book follows the protagonist, namely the little black fish, who does not believe that the entire world is the small pond which is home to its family. Despite vociferous discouragement by the elderly, the little fish decides to leave the pond in search of the sea. When the little black fish finally reaches the sea, it joins a group of other fish that are fighting a vicious pelican.

Behrangi wrote the book at the height of a leftist guerrilla movement against The Shah’s totalitarian regime. His affiliation with certain members of the movement turned the book into the unofficial manifesto of the Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas.

Since the book’s first publication, the character of the little black fish has entered Iran’s public culture and the lexicon of activists. Over the last decade, the original illustration of The Little Black Fish has reappeared in Iranian society and is frequently used in the design of earrings and bracelets. It is also popular among young Iranians as a tattoo design.

Ahmad Mahmoud, author of "The Scorched Earth" (photo: Omidsbz; source: wikimedia.org. GNU Documentation License, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) )
Anti-war – and an exception to the rule: in "The Scorched Earth", Mahmoud uses realism to tell the story of ordinary residents’ sacrifices when defending their town, the greed of merchants and middlemen in exploiting the misery of the poor, and the residents of other cities’ indifference to the plight of those unfortunate enough to live in the war-hit regions

The Scorched Earth

In the Islamic Republic’s official narrative, the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) is called The Holy Defence. Inside Iran, books written and movies made about this war must follow this official framing. Ahmad Mahmoud’s The Scorched Earth (1982) is the unusual exception.

This anti-war novel narrates the story of the first three months of the war in a poor neighbourhood of Ahwaz, the capital city of Khuzestan province in the southwest of Iran. Mahmoud was born and raised in this city and the war claimed his brother as one of its many victims.

In this book the author uses realism to tell the story of ordinary residents’ sacrifices when defending their town, the greed of merchants and middlemen in exploiting the misery of the poor, and the residents of other cities’ indifference to the plight of those unfortunate enough to live in the war-hit regions.

One of the most famous chapters in the book is where residents of the neighbourhood arrest two thieves, who broke into the houses of those who had fled to refugee camps. The armed civilians are divided over whether to hand the thieves to the authorities or to execute them on the street immediately.

The Leopards Who Have Run with Me

Prior to publishing The Leopards Who Have Run with Me, Bijan Najdi was an unknown high school mathematics teacher in the small town of Lahijan in northern Iran. Even this book did not instantly bring him fame. The Leopards Who Have Run with Me – a collection of 10 short stories and the author’s first book – was published in 1994, while Najdi died just three years later of lung cancer.

He only became known in Iran after his death. It took several years for Iranians to appreciate this book, which employed a writing technique ahead of its time. In twenty-first century Iran, Najdi is known as the father of post-modern Farsi literature.

 

In Najdi’s world, all objects become alive, and nouns and adjectives are used in a way which was unknown before his writings in Farsi. Instead of saying Taher was taking a shower, Najdi writes "the water drops falling off the shower, hugged Taher", or in one of his stories a doll misses the sound of the sewing machine of its owner’s mother.

The Leopards Who Have Run with Me is also famous because of its catchy title. Many Iranians are familiar with it, even though they may not have read the book. The book’s title is taken from one of Najdi’s poems, which is also his testament:

       "The caves, the limestone, stalagmites and solitude,

        I give them all, to the leopards who have run with me."

Changiz M. Varzi

© Qantara 2020

More on this topic