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Book Review: The Gardens of Consolation by Author Parisa Reza


Book Review Darius Kadivar

The "Gardens of Consolation" is a poignant family tale of love, survival and shattered dreams set against the backdrop of a nation’s struggle for independence.

Seen through the eyes of one rural family, the Aminis, this novel is a prequal to a saga which spans over a century. We follow a young couple Sardar and Talla’s rural exode in Pre WW 2 Persia from their rose blossomed native village Ghamsar to the rumbling capital Tehran. The birth of their unique son Bahram leads them from Shahre Rey to Shemiran set in the soon to be prosperous districts of the capital. Sardar finds work as a shepard to a powerful landlord. He raises his family, sends his son to school and purchases cheap land, unbeknownst that it will secure his son’s fortune. As a gifted student Bahram grows into a prototype of the state’s intellectual elite before revolting against everything it represents. With his charm and good looks he seduces Firouzeh and Elaheh, two rival university girlfriends, who in turn introduce him to a world of wealth and intellectual refinement. Further distancing himself from his rural roots, Bahram embraces western cultural stereotypes embodied by onscreen Hollywood movie stars whose lifestyle his generation seeks to emulate. However unrest breaks across the country as social inequality, religious dogmatism, foreign power meddling and authoritarian patriarchy of the ruling class, contribute to his political awakening. A military coup follows and topples Bahram’s role model: Muhammad Mossadegh. As the nationalist prime minister’s cabinet falls apart, so does Bahram’s dreams of democracy. Little does he know that the events of 1953 will shape his own family’s destiny as depicted in the novel’s sequel “The Perfume of Innocence” (*). In the meantime Bahram’s parents Sardar and Talla have earned their well deserved happiness as they console themselves in the gardens of Shemiran for a lifetime of hardship.

Digging into her own family’s past author Parisa Reza depicts Iran’s rapid transition towards modernity as it marches away from it’s traditional roots. She examins their setbacks in the pursuit of social progress, freedom and individual happiness. At first sight these setbacks can be traced back in time: the rise and fall of an enlightened yet authoritarian ruler ; foreign intervention and invasion; or the overthrow of a deemed "democratically elected" nationalist leader. Yet in hindsight the author offers a more subtle explanation to her country’s ills much of which she believes are rooted in self inflicted wounds. Nurtured over centuries, these wounds have shaped a national character sadly incompatible with the enlightenment ideals of freedom and democracy the author herself aspires to.

Reza doesn’t try to take a moral highground by judging the strengths or weakness’ of her characters. Nor does she use history as a convenient excuse to categorize individuals into “good” vs “bad” as often is the case when discourse about the events of 1953 arises in her community. The novel refuses to set ideological scores for or against established political beliefs given that the author herself was born more than a decade after they occurred. Instead she unearths embedded truths about our collective behavior by peeling off layers of social taboos, and existing psychological barriers. In hindsight the novel operates like a mirror extended to the reader’s own judgment.

The difficult transition from a traditional lifestyle to a modern one is echoed throughout the novel.

The Gardens of Consolation

Author: Parisa Reza
320 pages, Gallimard
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Reza Shah’s authoritarian rule tried to emulate Attaturk’s secular policies. However unlike Turkey, Iran was invaded by Allied troops in a world war which was of no concern to it. Never a colony like India, yet British, German and Russian presence in Iran dated back prior to the Pahlavi Dynasty. Their exotic presence was at worst tolerated by even the most traditional elements of society particularly given that 95 % lived under the poverty line and was illiterate. Hence Talla’s amusement at the sight of Europeans in top hats while her son Bahram eavesdrops blond Germans bathing in pools on Shemiran’s diplomatic compounds.

Talla’s mistrust of technology is rooted in superstition. Her fear of automobiles or of moving images projected onto a makeshift cinema screen and in later years on her son’s tv set contrasts with Sardar’s open minded thrill when acquiring his first radio set.

Despite Mossadegh’s “democratic” leanings we learn that he discouraged peasants to vote because of their illiteracy. Some like Sardar refuse to do so despite adopting the Pahlavi hat and passport. As for Talla she accepts emancipation but on her own terms. Her rejection of Reza Shah’s veil ban is not motivated by religious belief but to protect her privacy. “Women rights” in Tehran are as alien to her as was the veil when it was not imposed in the fields of Ghamsar where she could set her hair free. In a Chaplinesque scene she escapes a cop’s scrutiny as he chases her through the market place but fails to recognize her once she takes off her “roubandeh” around a street corner.

Both Pahlavi Kings encouraged education. Bureaucracy could be lifted upon demand to improve living conditions of the vast majority. Running electricity through remote villages or offering children like Bahram equal educational opportunities was impossible prior to the new dynasty. Yet the emergence of a modern elite is accompanied by social and economic disparities. Bahram’s frustration translates into political opposition to the very system which improved his parent’s life.

His inner conflict emerges during the eventful days following the coup. Although named after a mythological persian king, Bahram sees himself more like a ‘Spartan hero’ or the ‘Runner of Marathon’ in his fight against his own monarch. Albeit his loyalty to the nationalist Prime Minister, the young idealist appears culturally as "westoxicated" as his "enemy" the Shah. There’s a constant dichotomy between Bahram’s enlightened beliefs and his own patriarchal behavior rooted in personal frustrations nurtured over decades. Some are self inflicted as is his inability to love. He views woman merely to satisfy his sexual desires yet envies a fellow medical student Homayoun for his lack of political commitment which will ensure him a happier life than his. He is torn between his lust for the elitist Firouzeh toasting friends to champagne upon Mossadegh’s fall and the ideologically stern Elahe endoctrined by pro communist views. Overwhelmed by his superstitious mother’s exclusive love yet unable to understand his silent father seems in conflict with his humanistic compassion and socialist beliefs.

Ultimately Bahram’s true personality is embedded not in his fists but in his tears as he runs to warn his comrads on the Shah’s army cracking down on Mossadegh and his allies. Having escaped arrest he seeks advice from his spiritual mentor Mr Tabarrok but is stunned by his comments. "The Shah is not the only one to blame for this sad outcome" say’s the old man before conceding "we all are". Tabarrok laments that In wanting to speak for "all Iranians" the protagonists of this persian tragedy including Bahram himself have "failed to truly understand their countrymen". "Have you ever bothered asking what your own parent’s want ?" he continues.

The narrator’s own observations thoughout the novel substantiate Tabarrok’s bitter assessment.

Bahram’s own school masters reproduce the same authoritative mindset of the ruling class. They suppress voices of dissent in the classroom using "The Falak. This is the case when punishing the school bully Hassan Rahnama or when the "left handed" Bahram who has a gift for drawing is forced to use his "right hand". Bahram’s potential and interest in World War II is acknowledged only to fit their own ideological standards. As for intellectual elites represented by Elaheh’s aristocratic father turned "communist", he appears out of touch and manipulated by foreign interests. Mossadegh himself is not immune to criticism. By stubbornly refusing a 50-50 % deal he jeopardized the chances of a peaceful settlement with the British. For Tabbarok everyone took progressive western ideas for granted thinking they could be implemented overnight. Hence why the very same clerics who cheered Mossadegh and opposed the Shah ultimately switch sides. For Tabbarok both the leadership and the opposition are guilty of favoring rapid change to gradual transformation of a once "great empire" into a fully independent modern state. In the process all failed to fully understand their own nation’s genuine apirations let alone give voice to 95 % of it’s population as represented by the likes of Talla, Sardar or Kokab (Mr. Tabarrok’s own maid) whose views were ignored.

The author’s bitter sweet observation that "all Iranian men cry" is an echo to John Donne’s meditation "No man is an island" quoted in the sequel to this first novel.

Parisa Reza brilliantly demonstrates that the fate and destiny of men is linked by tragedy. There are no losers nor winners. For Persian men it translates into self inflicted wounds because they refuse to admit that their once "mighty empire" is no more but an illusion of the mind.

(*) “Le Parfum d’Innocence” edited by French publisher Gallimard awaits and English translation.

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