Touba and the Meaning of Night Paperback – Jan 1 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Eighty dramatic years in Iran—from the turn of the 20th-century to the 1979 revolution—are witnessed through Touba's chador-covered eyes in this bold, insightful novel, Parsipur's second to be translated into English. After her farther dies when she's 14, Touba—smart and spiritual, but barely educated—proposes, for financial reasons, to a 52-year-old man. Miserably depressed, she divorces him a few years later, and marries a Qajar prince; it is a loving relationship, but when he takes a second wife, she divorces him, too. Alone and impoverished as the prince's dynasty is displaced, she weaves carpets to make money, cares for her children and communes with a dead girl's ghost that haunts her property. As Touba grows older, she seeks truth with a Sufi master, but the demands of her crumbling household intervene. Initially published in Iran in 1989, this ground-breaking novel—which juxtaposes reality and mysticism, becoming especially fantastical toward the book's conclusion—was quickly banned by the Islamic Republic, which had imprisoned Parsipur before and did so again. Her 11 novels remain banned in Iran. Now an exile in San Francisco, Parsipur makes a stylishly original contribution to modern feminist literature. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
First published in Iran in 1989, Parsipur's novel carries the reader on a mystical and emotional odyssey spanning eight decades of Iranian cultural, political, and religious history. Educated by her progressive father, Touba is 12 when he dies. Her subsequent learning comes only in offhand remarks from the men in her family. Touba is intrigued by politics and her country's struggles with British and Russian colonialism but is told that women should remain apolitical. She is drawn to Sufism but is discouraged from personal religious pursuit until her children are grown. In a resolute but never strident voice, Parsipur lets her characters--a young girl drowned by her uncle because her rape by soldiers results in pregnancy, Touba's own daughter rendered infertile from a self-induced abortion caused by shame over her secret marriage to a servant--illuminate feminist issues both before and after the Islamic Revolution, in 1979. Replete with juxtapositions of mysticism and historical fact, Parsipur's novel is a rewarding and enlightening encapsulation of her country's recent past. Deborah Donovan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This book is an allegory for the complexity of change and resistance to change which has taken place over the past 100 years in modern Iran. The protagonist Touba is witness to and lives through all the changes. Her house is like her fortress protecting the memory of corpses from the outside world. At the same time her desire to find God which successfully manages to elude her all her long life as she fulfilled familial responsibility after responsibility through good economic times and bad is something which many of us despite nationality or cultural orientation can relate to. She is inspired by an elusive Khiabani who personifies progressive democracy for many decades only to be disillusioned by communism and then she pursues a Sufi Sheik who never let's her into his inner knowledge if he actually has any. The mystery and purpose of life has always managed to elude man and womankind since the beginning of time.
At various points in the story, certain characters who are like Bohemian free spirits socially speaking go on a trancelike rift like Prince Gil or his wife Layla, describing in a seemingly endless river of words, past life after past life as if undergoing depth psychological analysis under hypnosis and transcending time and place like disembodied souls skipping over centuries forward and back.
The author has an absolute gift for portraying the way life can be sailing along a steady course and then suddenly what was beauty turns ugly, what was soft, turns harsh. It makes her stories dark and hints at the style of Sadegh Heydayat. When I asked her about that, she admitted his influence on almost every contemporary Iranian writer. I was particularly taken in by the love story between Touba's divorced daughter Moones and the Azerbaijani Ishmael, which starts out so innocent and romantic until suddenly he is arrested for political affiliations and she induces an abortion and ends up barren. Then as if to acknowledge that there is also goodness in life they more or less become surrogate parents to three orphan children of a deceased stone mason. The relationships are beautiful but in the end, once they are grown up, all three turn on Touba and her daughter and son in law except the girl returns home in her dying moment. If there is ever a happy ending in life, it is fleeting and temporary. This rings true enough. The suspense builds as the reader waits for the other shoe to drop in sub plot after sub plot.
The author manages all the complexity and cast of characters all painted with intricate detail in a very masterfully accurate and believable way. Her ability to slip in and out of reality and fantasy in her magical realism style makes the book alive rather than just an historical account. The struggles of women to gain financial security and acceptance and respect are universal. Of interest to the non Iranian reader, is the portrayal of the complexity of modern Iranian society with its class structures, taboos, social restrictions and the traditional ways that commoners and nobility interact, the way traditional marriages are planned, young people leaning left or right politically, the religious and the agnostic, the mixture of religious devout and unconventional mysticism, tradition versus modernity.
The surprising thing is that issues like veiling which troubled the Iranian society a hundred years ago, are still issues today as are the same struggles of progressives versus conservatives, religious versus secular...wealthy versus poor, women versus men...these are all universal struggles found in all societies however they have a particular unique flavor in Iran. Things like old men marrying young girls by arrangement, things like men taking on more than one wife, things like fathers getting custody of their children instead of the mother. Some of these troubled customs arise from centuries of huge disparity between the rich and the poor. Iran is never short on drama. The highs are very high and the lows are very low. Kindness and generosity are immense and so is the capacity for cruelty. It's a schizofrenia.
Iran has so many thousands of years of history. It was overrun by Arabs and by Monguls and dominated in turn by the USSR, the British and the Americans and yet retains its character by an elaborate system of public versus private. Things are never what they seem. Keeping up appearances is all important. It gives life a surreal quality which the author captures like a lovely old rose whose petals slowly cascade down into the open running sewer making momentary ripples. Life in the raw, like a kaleidoscope always changing and what can we take with us in the end but a few memories of the high points and moments of happiness in our futile little lives provided our minds do not reach senility and dementia first. The author captures the reality that most of us sleep walk our way through life living by myths and false hopes and those of us who attempt to buck the tide get punished with an awful swift vengeance. Girls who run away from home get raped along the road; radical political views are accompanied by arrest and torture or social censure.
In the end Touba's story has no happy ending or even an ending, she dies and her spirit asks if she is dead and her undead friend says yes. As such it is the Samsara, the spinning wheel of life which the author describes which each individual or a culture dresses up in one manner or another to avoid looking into the abyss of nothingness.
The irony of her situation is that while she makes every attempt to exercise that independence, she is restricted to a domestic life, running a household and raising children, while married to a member of the Royal family and a faithless husband. While self-reliant of necessity, especially as her husband's political fortunes force him to leave the country for a while and his wealth evaporates, Touba fails to escape the most crippling demands that her culture places upon women. She is not only party to the honor killing of a young girl but must hide the girl's body in her very own garden.
It's a compelling story, and this is only the beginning. But a caveat or two for interested readers: 1) At 300+ pages, it is a densely worded novel that reads more like a synopsis of a much longer book. 2) The style is very much in the manner of tell-don't-show. Instead of setting a scene in which characters speak and interact, the narration goes on for paragraph after paragraph, telling instead of showing: "She did this and then she did that, then she thought this, and she said that, etc." If you enjoy a long, complex, multi-character story, it will hold your interest, but not in the way you may be used to. This is no page-turner.
Meanwhile, Western readers will have an opportunity to see something of the traditional domestic lives of many women in Iran, where for much of the 20th century they were expected to remain unschooled, given in marriage at an early age to men who were permitted to have several wives, and segregated from the outside world, jealously dominated by males, and forced to be the keepers of their families' honor. Not surprisingly, the book has been banned by the authorities in Iran since its publication in 1987, and its author has spent time in prison there. All in all, a major work that is well worth the time and patience to read and absorb.
The author has a beautiful language of expressing the characters. The dialogue and narrative are excellent, fluid. The style is very much reminiscent of Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, only told from a Persian woman's point of view, over the course of about 100 years of Iranian history.
It is a shame that only one other title by Parsipur, Women Without Men, has been translated. She is clearly one of the most important authors of our time. I recommed this book fully and wholeheartedly.