Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Septembers of Shiraz: A Novel (P.S.)The Septembers of Shiraz: A Novel by Dalia Sofer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was excellent.  I had a hard time putting it down.  It is beautifully written.  In some ways, this book reminds me of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri -- language and style, caught between  cultures.

The story takes place in post-Revolutionary Iran and tells the story of a Jewish family -- Isaac, Farnaz, Shirin and Paviz -- living in Tehran.  Told in the voice of each of these family members, this suspenseful story begins when Isaac, a gemologist with associations to the Shah, is arrested by the Revolutionary Guard.  Early in the book, "Back in his cell, Isaac thinks of Rez and the thousands of revolutionaries like him -- men and women who thought they were part of something big, much bigger than their daily lives -- who thought they were changing the course of history.  And here they are, having replace crowns with turbans." (101)

Isaac is an educated man with knowledge of both Persian and Western literature.  When he was in prison, he thought of poems, including The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats and the Teachings of Hafiz (239) -- interestingly, Hafiz (also known as Hafez) was born in Shiraz.

(from The Lake Isle of Innisfree)

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made...

(from Teachings of Hafiz)

Can drunkenness be linked to piety
And good repute?
Where is the preacher's holy monody,
Where is the lute?

Later in the book (294), Isaac recites another section from the Teachings of Hafiz.  This time he recites to his father

Be not too sure of your crown, you who thought
That virtue was easy and recompense yours;
From the monastery to the wine-tavern doors
The way is nought

from The Divan of Hafiz (337)

Not all the sum of earthly happiness
Is worth the bowed head of a moment's pain

The book also has other art and religious themes throughout.  For example, the theme of the ghazal, a form of poetry.  "Five couplets, at the minimum, but no more than twelve usually.  The first couplet establishes a rhyme followed by a refrain, a scheme repeated by the second line of each succeeding couplet.  Each couplet should stand on its own, but must also be part of the whole.  At the end, the poet often invokes himself...'So what happens at the end, Baba?' and he had said, 'There is no end, Shirin-jan.  That's the first thing you should learn about ghazals.  There is no resolution.  Imagine the speaker simply throwing his hands in the air.'" (178-179)" 

Farnaz borrows a sixteenth-century miniature painting from an antique dealer.  She asks the dealer about the history of the piece.   "'That's the sad part of the story.  In 1962 an American collector bought it, and he had the audacity to rip pages out of the book and sell them individually.  He sold some to a museum in New York, others to private collectors.'

"She looks at the orphaned leaf, its counterparts spread around the globe, each adopted by one museum or another, or locked in a cabinet of a European or American collector who picks it up once in a while or looks at in his dime study..." (217)

Do the "orphaned leaf" represent Iranians spread around the world like pages of the book?  Does it represent American disrespect/misunderstanding of Persian culture?

This is only the tip of the iceberg.  There is a lot going on in this book (alcohol: banned after the Revolution, Isaac's father was an alcoholic -- apathy, fermented and distilled (106), Isaac's brother Javad was a bootlegger; Why didn't Farnaz send Parviz the money Isaac promised him?  She gave $10,000 to Javad and nothing to her son.; fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Islamics; 'worship' of Western culture)

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