An I-Novel – Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Back in 2017, I was blown away by A True Novel, Minae Mizumura’s 800 page epic, a book that found a place on my ‘Best of’ list that year. And now, this year, it’s An I-Novel which has floored me, another fabulous book which is certainly a strong contender for my Best of 2021 list.

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s.

Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment.

Her relationship with a man having come to an end, and at crossroads in her academic career, Minae stares at an uncertain future. She has completed all the coursework required for her graduate term and all that is required of her is to take the orals. But she postpones this several times on the pretext that her mentor is ill. Now she has reached a crucial stage where any further delay will culminate in the withdrawal of academic support from the university.

The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country. She has vague plans of writing her dissertation while settled in Japan, but before she embarks on that project, Minae has ambitions of writing her first novel, and that too in Japanese. Minae is aware that the sooner she takes her orals, the sooner she can start thinking about beginning life anew in Japan. And yet she cannot bring herself to do so.

“You know, the fear builds up, day after day, month after month, year after year. It just becomes more and more insurmountable.”

Minae is plagued with guilt and foreboding – If she goes back to Japan, her elder sister Nanae will be compelled to fend for herself, all alone in America. On this front, she can’t shake-off the painful ghost of Nanae’s attempted suicide years ago when a romantic attachment goes awry. It’s an incident that only underlines how unstable Nanae can be. Moreover, with their family now torn apart (the father is in a care home, and the mother has left him for a younger man in Singapore), Minae and Nanae rely on each other for emotional support, having become quite close despite their varied personalities.

As Minae and Nanae regularly converse over the phone about the latest happenings in their respective lives, Minae fails to muster the courage to frankly confess to her sister the news of her impending departure for Japan. Meanwhile, as the heavy snowfall amplifies the silence and heightens her solitude, Minae saunters on a trip down memory lane – her nostalgia for the Japan of yore, the awareness of being unmoored in America and never quite feeling at home in her adopted country.

All through my girlhood, I was consumed by thoughts of the homeland I’d left. I longed for it with an intensity that worlds like “yearning” or “nostalgia” could not convey. I felt I was someplace I didn’t belong, where I should not be. Japan steadily grew to near-mythic dimensions in my mind, transfigured into a place where life transcended the smallness of the everyday.

Like the snow falling steadily outside her apartment window, we are gradually given a glimpse into Minae’s interior life, as she ponders over her family, particularly, her relationship with her sister, her thoughts on life in the US, which in many ways both embraces and perplexes her, and never quite assimilating into its society despite all the privileges she has enjoyed.

Slowly but surely, the sisters’ backstory is fleshed out. When both Nanae and Minae are young girls, their parents jump at the opportunity to begin a new chapter in America. Those were the years when the war had left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Japanese and so all things American held a dazzling allure. Given the father’s respectable position in the company which posts him to the West, the Mizumuras live in a comfortable home and are reasonably well off. The parents quickly adapt to the country – the father develops a taste for rich American food and shuns the simplicity of Japanese cooked meals, while the mother revels in a slew of luxuries, immersing herself in fashion, art and culture and transforms from a housewife to an independent working woman. The Mizumuras have hazy plans of returning to Japan eventually but never take any decisive step towards that goal.

But while the parents have no qualms about life in America, both Nanae and Minae struggle in their own way. As far as personalities go, Nanae and Minae could not have been more different. Being an elder child, Nanae is the cynosure of her mother’s eye, and the latter pins a lot of hope on her future, sort of relegating Minae to the sidelines. Nanae is admitted to a conservatory for expensive piano lessons, and when she later drops out to attend art school, her parents indulge that whim too.

Of the two, Nanae is more outspoken and prone to throwing tantrums, always sharing a difficult relationship with her mother, the one person she wants to please and defy at the same time. She engages in relationships with a string of men which her mother puts up with in the eternal hope that Nanae will eventually settle down with a respectable Japanese man. Furthermore, in stark contrast to Minae, Nanae takes the initiative to blend in with the crowd, immediately learn English and adopt a plethora of American manners however outlandish they may seem at times. 

On the other hand, Minae is left to fend for herself for the most part.  Even though she displays an aptitude to write and speak English based on her progress in high school, she shows least inclination to do so simply because her inner self rejects the idea of abandoning her Japanese heritage and language and letting English become a dominant force in her life.

Eventually, I became so consumed by this imagined past that my own parents struck me as frivolously modern. Yet I myself never suspected how obsolete I was becoming; I simply thought I was being Japanese.

An I-Novel, then, throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere. No place you can truly call home.

Throughout her formative years Minae spends her time alone, cooped up in the house, getting completely immersed in Japanese novels. These novels conjure up images of a Japan of the olden days, a Japan that has vanished, its remnants barely visible. The modern Japan, fed on a diet of capitalism and commercialism, is not the Japan of Minae’s imagination but her resolve to go back to her country does not diminish although she laments the loss of many of her country’s traditions.

The rebel in her questions the place of English as the most dominant language in the world. Post the war, Japan is clearly attracted by Western influences – not only in food and culture, but also in its bigger ideals of freedom and independence. But these influences don’t remain one-sided. Eventually many facets of the Japanese culture find a way into the fabric of American society. And yet, when it comes to communication and expression, English makes rapid strides to become the most widely spoken language in the world, while the Japanese language is restricted only to the archipelago or spoken by the Japanese expatriates. Minae expresses her desire to pen her first novel in Japanese, and is not daunted by the fact that she has barely spoken or written the language during her long sojourn in the US.

In the final analysis, did not literature arise out of the deep desire to do something wondrous with a language? In my case, it was a desire to be born once again into my language so as to appreciate and explore it anew. As I spent ungodly amounts of time assembling futile strings of words in languages that remained foreign to me, this desire had grown inexorably, year by year, until my craving to write in Japanese now seemed intense enough to move mountains.

Mizumura also ponders over the question of race in America, the dominance and limited worldview of the whites, and the inability of many Americans to distinguish between various people of the South Asian and Eastern countries. For Minae, who prides herself on being Japanese, it is a shock for her to discover that in the States, she is viewed through the wider prism of being “Asian”, how her Japanese identity is obliterated.

Ultimately, the novel explores the idea of identity – is Minae American or Japanese? Certainly, while her head is in the US, her heart is definitely in Japan. Minae acknowledges the community spirit of America, how her family is warmly welcomed in the town they settle in when they were very new in America, but she admits it’s not sufficient enough for her to settle there permanently.

Another aspect the novel dwells on is how Japanese customs widely differ from those in the States. For instance, in Japan, the education for women was largely relegated to grooming them as “women of accomplishment” to be eventually married to respectable Japanese men. For Japanese families residing abroad, the sons were sent to Japan for education, the daughters had the freedom to pursue an education in the US with the aim of ultimately settling into traditional Japanese families. Having grown up in that atmosphere, Nanae and Minae, pursuing art and French literature respectively, are forced to confront the fact that they will have to employ the education they received not to marry but to support themselves financially, something that becomes painfully clear to them when their family breaks apart. In this vein, other themes expanded upon are the concept of family and how its disintegration can leave an individual engulfed in alienation and loneliness.

The loneliness of such women built up gradually during the day, growing discernably as evening came on and finally exploding in the hush of night, making those lucky enough to have a confidant reach for the telephone. In the middle of the night, the wires across America were filled with the voices of women whose struggle with loneliness had proven too much to bear quietly alone.

Over and over, Nanae and I comforted each other with the same words.

“It’s so hard.”

“It really is.”

“But it’s hard for Americans too, I think.”

Yet were American women really as lonely as we were?

An I-Novel, then, is a deeply absorbing book with its stunning articulation of complex, relevant themes. Having grown and lived in Mumbai all my life, I haven’t experienced firsthand the feeling of being uprooted in a foreign land. But Mizumura has done such a commendable job of conveying the essence of that sentiment that you can actually empathize with the uncertainty and slew of emotions that flood Minae’s mind.  The book is also dotted with a myriad of atmospheric black & white photographs (also a notable feature in A True Novel) that enhances the overall reading experience.

For all her exuberant, outgoing nature and her willingness to integrate herself into the ways of America, is Nanae the one who is really lost? Will Minae finally summon the courage to let Nanae know of her decision to go back to Japan and how will she respond?

Shimmering with a rich kaleidoscope of ideas, An I-Novel certainly is another winner from Minae Mizumura.

American settlers had left the fences of the Old World in search of freedom, making it imperative for them to accept loneliness as a basic condition of life. Perhaps more than an ideology, it was a faith. And what could fortify a human being against life’s adversities better than faith?

Untold Night and Day – Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith)

My knowledge of Korean literature is patchy at best and the only two books I have read are – The Vegetarian and The White Book – both written by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith.

Wanting to try out a new author and also attracted by the cover, I picked up Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day. It helped that this book was translated by Smith who did a stellar job working on Kang’s books earlier.

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a wonderfully strange and disorienting novel.

Perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating.

The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure.

 The story begins on a straightforward note. Our protagonist is a woman called Ayami who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. Before working at the theatre, Ayami was an actor. But the paucity of roles leads to that career fizzling out. Someone recommends an opening at the audio theatre and she ends up accepting the position. It’s a job that many actors before her abandoned as they nurtured bigger ambitions, but Ayami holds on.

As future job prospects look bleak, the director of the audio theatre recommends that she apply to the foundation for another position in the arts (something he plans to do as well since it’s a job loss for him too). However, she sees the futility of this move and doesn’t apply.

Meanwhile, Ayami has been taking German lessons from a teacher called Yeoni at the latter’s house in a rundown neighbourhood. Yeoni’s teaching method involves reading from a text rather than focusing on conversation – and the text she has chosen is Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl.

Yeoni appears to be suffering from a serious illness for which she is taking pills from a blue bottle. Then one day, she tells Ayami that she is expecting a poet to come at her place and could Ayami therefore go to the airport to receive him? Ayami and the director head over to Yeoni’s house first for the set of instructions, but find her place empty and the neighbourhood completely dark. They wonder whether she hasn’t admitted herself into the hospital.

That’s the basic outline of the plot, if it can be called a plot as such.

It seems simple enough but then the strangeness begins. We get a first hint of this when Ayami is at the theatre on what is to be her last day, and she sees an old couple outside peering at the notices and what’s inside. She begins to wonder if they are her parents, and the reader who until this point was coasting along is suddenly jolted. Clearly, there’s a sense that Ayami is not sure of her identity.

Then another amazingly peculiar conversation takes place between the director and Ayami in a ‘blackout restaurant.’

His lips could be seen to move. What was visible were not the words themselves but segmented syllables that his lips produced one after the other.

‘Have I ever told you that I used to be a bus driver?’

‘No, you’ve never told me that you used to be a poet.’

‘in that case perhaps I already said that at one time I was not only a playwright employed by a theatre company but also an actor-director? And that very long time ago I was a village pharmacist?’

‘No, you haven’t told me that you were none other than my father, who was a fruit hawker.’

The director’s lips moved sluggishly.

‘And you haven’t forgotten what I wrote in the letter, that I made the decision to leave you a long time ago, far longer ago than you imagine? So in that sense, we’ve already parted?’

In the second section, we are introduced to a character called Buha who was a trader in textiles and now is a temp in a pharmaceutical company. Buha is the focal point of this section, and in a way Ayami is absent and yet she is not. Buha aspires to be a poet even though he does not want to write poetry or take literature classes.

He chances upon a black-and-white photo of a poet woman in the newspaper, and when he spots her one day in the city decides to follow her. He sees her enter Yeoni’s house. Is Ayami, therefore, the poet woman?

The book the poet woman read from every evening was The Blind Owl.

She worked in a place called an audio theatre. It had very few visitors, and only one performance a day; it was a small theatre whose audience never numbered more than ten.

In the third section, Ayami once again actively appears in the narrative and this time she meets Wolfi at the airport. She assumes Wolfi is the poet who she was to receive on instructions from Yeoni, but Wolfi writes detective fiction. Plus, Wolfi was expecting Yeoni to pick him up (he had never set his eyes on Yeoni before), and is perplexed to meet Ayami instead.

At this point, the reader begins to wonder whether Ayami and Yeoni are possibly the same person?

I’m here because my female protagonist dies. My female protagonist whose name and identity I still don’t know, that is. Where does she come from? Who is she? I have her living somewhere in Asia. More specifically, in some city in the Far East that I’m not familiar with, in the house of a woman called Yeoni. She’s an unlucky woman. Not Yeoni, but my female protagonist. Or maybe Yeoni is my “she”, my female protagonist?

One of the most wonderful things about Untold Night and Day is how the banal holds so much potential for strangeness. The characters in the book are ordinary people who don’t really stand out, but the conversations they have are extraordinary. Throughout the novel, there is a sense of déjà vu and many a-ha moments – the feeling that we have gread this description or come across this event somewhere before.

For instance, in the first section, when Ayami is in the audio theatre, a man presses his face against the closed glass doors. She observes that “the man’s eye sockets were like sunken caves in his gaunt face, and his lips were dry. The capillaries webbing the whites of his eyes were alarmingly distinct…”

In the second section, Buha saves a man from drowning and notices that “the man’s eyes were like sunken caves in his gaunt face, and his lips were dry. The capillaries webbing the whites of his eyes were frighteningly distinct.”

There are similar such instances peppered throughout the book. “Her thick black hair is secured in a low ponytail, and rough hemp sandals poke out from beneath the hem of her skirt” is another.

The ‘blackout’ is continually referenced in the novel and is an allusion to Korea’s past when curfews and blackouts were the norm. When Wolfi lands in Seoul, he finds that “the so-called international airport is in the middle of a blackout. Dark, pitch-black, blurred, all objects shrouded in shadow, a blind low-ceilinged space.” In the first section, Ayami and the director are having dinner in a restaurant that is completely blacked out. Then in the later sections, a lone white bus is described on the highway travelling at top speed at a time when the lights in the surrounding buildings are completely off.

Untold Night and Day follows the logic of a dream world and within that anything seems possible. People, objects and events seamlessly blur into one another. What’s impossible in reality is perfectly plausible in the subconscious. And on waking up, the essentials of the dream are forgotten but not the impressions it evokes. The book felt similar. There is a slippery and elusive quality to the narrative, a sense that that one can’t quite grasp what’s happening, it feels like the meaning is somewhere on the fringes of the mind but somehow refuses to come out to the front.

A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality. The language is flawless and the credit here surely goes to the translator Deborah Smith. Overall, Untold Night and Day is quite a remarkable book.

I have been quite impressed with my first foray into Bae Suah’s work and would welcome any recommendations on which of her books I should try next.

This Sweet Sickness – Patricia Highsmith

I love Patricia Highsmith. The first novel I read all those years ago was the one she is most famous for – The Talented Mr Ripley. That was a tremendous book and I subsequently went on to read the next two books in the ‘Ripliad’ – Ripley Underground and Ripley’s Game, both excellent, though I still rate the first book higher.

But Highmith also wrote non-Ripley books. And many of them are brilliant. The Cry of the Owl, Deep Water, Edith’s Diary come to mind. And to this list, I will also add This Sweet Sickness.

‘For eliciting the menace that lurks in familiar surroundings, there’s no one like Patricia Highsmith.’ – an apt quote displayed in the opening pages of my Virago edition.

In This Sweet Sickness, we are in classic Highsmith territory. The opening paragraph immediately draws the reader into her dark, troubling world…

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed out of the dark and silent boardinghouse to walk the streets.

He had so long lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years. No use bothering with the details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night.

The ‘Situation’ in a nutshell is like this – David Kelsey is deeply in love with Annabelle and at one point they even briefly courted. But a job change, promising a better pay, compelled David to move to another city. In the meanwhile, Annabelle married another man Gerald and set up home with him. David, therefore, is distraught and deeply jealous.

David is a chemical engineer at Cheswick Fabrics, very good at his job and also respected. On weekdays, he resides in a boarding house in Froudsburg run by the chatty and jovial Mrs McCartney. As far as the other boarders and Mrs McCartney are concerned, David is a model resident. He does not drink, does not entertain women late at night in his room, and visits his ailing mother in a nursing home without fail on weekends.

But nothing is as it seems in Highsmith’s universe. The reader soon realizes that there is something fishy about the last bit. David’s mother died ages ago. So, he spends his weekend, not in a nursing home, but in a house he has bought in Ballard, some miles from the boarding house in Froudsburg.

It’s his own home, cozy and comfortably furnished, a home he plans to settle in with Annabelle once she divorces Gerald. Because you see, David is dead sure of this happening. For him, the husband is just an inconvenience to be straightened out.

Life was very, very strange, but David Kelsey had an invincible conviction that life was going to work out all right for him.

But there’s more. When David is living in his house, he is no longer David Kelsey but rather William Neumeister. It’s the alias he used when he purchased the property too. It’s a secret existence and nobody in his life (not even Annabelle) know of his ‘other’ identity.

And sometimes, after the two martinis and a half bottle of wine at dinner, he imagined that he heard Annabelle call him Bill, and that made him smile, because when that happened, he’d gotten tangled up himself. In this house, his house, he liked to imagine himself – William Neumeister – a man who had everything he wanted, a man who knew how to live, to laugh, and to be happy.

There are other characters who get embroiled in David’s drama, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. There’s his best friend Wes Carmichael, also his colleague at work, who is stuck in a bitter, joyless marriage. And Effie Brennan, who also lodges at the same boarding house where David stays and is secretly in love with him.

David, meanwhile, continues to write to Annabelle, continuously expressing his wish to see her.

‘Dave, this business about your house – that’s why I’m calling. You don’t seem to understand when I write to you. I can’t ever come to your house, Dave, not the way you want me to come.’

‘Naturally, I was thinking – you’d finally get a divorce.’

Dave, I don’t want a divorce. Can’t you understand that?’

Listen, Annabelle, would you like me to come to Hartford? Right now?’

‘No, Dave, that’s why I’m calling. How can I say it? You’ve got to stop writing me, Dave. It’s just causing more and more trouble. Gerald’s fit to eb tied and I do mean that.’

‘I don’t give a damn about Gerald!’

‘But I do. I’ve got to. Just because you can’t understand—-‘

Things come to a head when one day Gerald turns up at David’s weekend home. How did he learn of David’s secret house? And how will their confrontation play out?

In This Sweet Sickness then, Highsmith is once again at her riveting best as she explores the themes of identity and dangerous obsession. It’s a novel with great psychological depth, a genre Highsmith clearly excels at. Can different identities really change at the core who you are? In what way does disturbing obsession make a person lose his touch with reality?

The focus on obsession brought to mind another brilliant novel I had read a few years ago – Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, although David Kelsey is neither really down on luck nor does he spend his days in seedy bars as Hamilton’s protagonist does.

I found shades of similarity with The Talented Mr Ripley too, in that both David Kelsey and Tom Ripley seamlessly live double lives even though their motives are different.

There was another maybe significant difference. One of Highsmith’s greatest strengths is her uncanny ability to make the reader root for the psychopath or the murderer. It happened with Tom Ripley. In a way, it also happened with Vic in Deep Water. Interestingly though, I didn’t feel the same with David Kelsey, although he was a fascinating enough creation.

That in no way suggests that the book is any lesser for it. It has all the trademarks of Highsmith’s writing – prose that is hypnotic and compulsively readable, the sense of palpable unease and creeping dread oozing from the pages, and characters so unhinged and enthralling that the reader is interested enough to find out how it will all turn out.

All in all, an excellent book. I intend to take a break before pulling another Highsmith from the shelves, but when I do it will be a toss between Strangers on A Train and The Blunderer.

The Death of Murat Idrissi – Tommy Wieringa (tr. Sam Garrett)

I first came across The Death of Murat Idrissi when it was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.

Two factors piqued my interest in the book. It was short – always a plus point because well written short novels pack quite a punch. And it touched upon the topic of immigration – contemporary, given the times we live in.

And although the novella did not make it to the shortlist, I was very, very impressed. I have been thinking about it ever since.

Death of Murat Idrissi

Ilham and Thouraya, two young Dutch women, have been vacationing in Morocco, the land of their forefathers. It is an extended holiday that has now come to an end.

Right from the start, the two girls are forced to come to terms with the fact that the freedoms they enjoyed in Europe as women, does not hold much ground in Morocco. In Morocco, women travelling alone are frowned upon, and the girls have no choice but to rely on a man to take them around. The man is Saleh.

Saleh, meanwhile, has his own agenda that he wants to push forward, and he uses the girls as bait. Saleh is knee deep in illegal activities involving smuggling Moroccans to Europe. He takes the girls to the home of the very poor Murat Idrissi, another Moroccan looking to escape the confines of his surroundings with hopes of a better life in the European continent.

Saleh proposes using the girls’ car as a mode of transporting Murat across continents. Ilham, in particular, strongly objects to this dangerous mission, fearing getting caught by officials. Thouraya is more willing to go along. But increasing persistence of Murat’s grandmother and the lure of money weaken Ilham’s resolve and she relents.

That is just the beginning of their problems. It is hardly a spoiler to say that Murat dies en route (as is evinced from the title). Saleh abandons them. The girls barely have any money, they have to travel all those miles from Southern Spain to the Netherlands in their car, and there is a corpse in the boot.

Could this really be them, whose lives have turned into a nightmare at the snap of a finger? There is a dead boy in the back of their car, they’re going to end up in prison, everything they had in terms of hope, expectations is ending right here.

Does it end badly?

The author Tommy Weirenga is much more interested in how the girls confront the crisis they are in rather than its resolution.

He uses the tragedy as a vehicle to examine the roots of Ilham and Thouraya and the complexities of the immigrant experience.

Although Ilham and Thouraya are born in the Netherlands and are therefore Dutch, they have a sense of not really belonging to either culture.

Even though they were in their parents’ homeland and staying with relatives, even though they identified with the people there, they were not Moroccans. That is what they had in common. That they were seen as tourists. That they had to pay tourist prices. They were the children of two kingdoms, they carried the green passport of the Royaume du Maroc and the red-lead one of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but in both countries they were, above all, foreigners.

Gradually we get a glimpse of their backgrounds, of how both sets of parents were immigrants themselves having navigated the change in continents successfully. Of how an accident with their car while holidaying in Morocco drained the girls’ finances, and so they had to team up with Saleh.

Thouraya and Ilham have different personalities. Thouraya is more confident of the two, both in her overall outlook towards life as well as in her sexual encounters. Ilham, meanwhile, worries about circumstances that will compel her to accept a traditional marriage despite her attempts to break away from precisely that very thing. And yet, there is a common thread that binds both the girls. And that is the shared feeling of being out of place in their adopted European country.

At barely 102 pages, Wieringa has composed quite a powerful novella. There is a hypnotic and dreamy quality to his prose packed with sufficient tension to propel the narrative forward. Not a single word is wasted. And in a taut offering of this kind, he has thrown in many ingredients to chew upon – the question of identity, the dilemmas of immigrants in everyday life, the dreams of hoping for a better life in Europe, and how those dreams in many ways do not always come to fruition.

Then two planes drilled their way into the heart of the Western world.

She watched as the little opportunity, the crack that had posed a possibility, sealed over; people looked away and kept their distance, as though her body had, from one day to the next, become a hostile object. The discussion ground to a halt, the bellicose language of the daily news trickled into everyday life. Either you are with us, said the most powerful man in the world, or you are with the terrorists. The plans, his words – thy broke her world, the whole world, in two, into ‘we over here’ and ‘them over there.’ And Ilham became ‘them.’

Disoriental – Négar Djavadi (tr. Tina Kover)

My parents lived the first couple of years of their married life in Iran, when my father bagged a plum posting there. They led a vibrant and dynamic life, fond memories of which they cherish even today. That posting and their life would have continued had it not been for the dramatic change of plans that Fate had in store for them.

As the winds of the Iranian Revolution began blowing harder, my parents like the rest of the ‘outsiders’ in the country were compelled to flee. Things came to such a head that when plans for the actual departure were put into action, my parents realized that the demand for airtickets had increased dramatically…meaning they had to grab whatever tickets they were able to lay their hands on.

That meant my parents would have to settle for tickets in different planes. In other words, they could not travel together, but had to do so separately. To add to the drama and the overall state of anxiety, my mother was pregnant with me at the time.

Having no choice, my parents went ahead with the plan. It was a wise decision. The next day, the airport in the country shut down.

My parents, travelling in different planes, landed safely and a few months later I was born.

Now, typically children are always interested in their parents’ story, and this particular one continues to fascinate me even today. It has consequently piqued my interest in literature which has been set in the country around that time.

Disoriental by the Iranian-French author Négar Djavadi fit the bill perfectly.

(Meanwhile, the author replied to me…Scroll down to the end of this post to see her response to my personal story…)

Disoriental
Europa Editions

Disoriental is an enthralling tale of an Iranian family spanning generations, touching on themes such as the consequences of revolution, adapting to a life in exile, and being comfortable with how different you are.

Our narrator is a young woman called Kimia Sadr, and in the first few pages itself we realize that she is in an unusual place, a fact which is not lost on her either. Kimia is in a fertility clinic in Paris carrying a tube containing sperms. But unlike the other people in the waiting room who are couples, Kimia is alone.

The time spent waiting in the clinic gives Kimia time to reflect on her past, a past that is rich and multilayered. Kimia’s roots are Iranian and she goes on to give an absorbing account of her sprawling, multidimensional family across generations based in Iran, her parents Darius and Sara and their revolutionary fervor, various political upheavals in Iran at the time, how Darius and Sara along with Kimia and her elder sisters migrated to Paris, and their life there trying to adjust.

When describing her family roots, Kimia goes back as far as her paternal great grandfather Montazemolmolk and his harem of 52 wives based in Mazandaran, Iran. His last wife dies in childbirth but not before giving birth to his daughter Nour, a child with blue eyes. The obsession with blue eyes is a feature that is carried on down the generations.

Nour has six sons, one of whom is Darius, Kimia’s father. We are then given glimpses of each of these sons, referred to as Uncles but numerically. Uncle Number Two features more often than not, a tragic figure who is very close to his mother Nour, and harbours a deep secret, which cannot come to the fore in Iranian society.

But the main focal points are Kimia’s parents Darius and Sara. Darius is a well-respected journalist, not afraid of putting forth his views against Iran’s political system. He is shown to be a rebel right at the outset. Unlike his brothers who believe in living a traditional life that involves marriage and children, Darius is the bookish, intelligent child, preferring a life that revolves around writing and reading. That is until he meets Sara, marrying her and going on to have three daughters – Leili, Mina and Kimia.

Iran is as much a character in this story as are the Sadrs. We know that Mossaddegh, the Prime Minister of Iran in the Fifties was deposed by the British and Americans to pave the way for the Shah, who proclaimed himself King. The atrocities against the Iranian people continued, sparking the flames of the Iranian revolution, and the ascent of the Ayatollah Khomeini. In some instances, the author Djavadi provides the historical and political accounts in footnotes, a strategy that works very well.

Darius is strongly opposed to both the political regimes – that of the Shah earlier, and Khomeini later – and Kimia highlights the consequences this has on the family. Darius is not alone in his rebellion though. Sara, a teacher while in Iran, proves to be an equal partner in their marriage, fiercely supporting her husband in his endeavors as well as writing her own account of that time.

If he, the black sheep of two horrendously rich families, raised among people who cared nothing for the future, crammed with book-learning, a doctor of philosophy from the Sorbonne, didn’t do it – didn’t tear down the Empire’s insolent red curtain to reveal the nauseating infection beneath – then who would?

In the midst of all this, Kimia gives a perspective on her own life – growing up in the Sadr family, her relationship with her sisters, her attempts to understand and bond with Darius, and her struggle trying understand her true self, trying to find a balance between her familial roots In Iran and the modern life she is now leading in Paris.

Coming from a traditional Iranian family, Kimia realizes she is different in an environment where uniqueness is not necessarily appreciated. She is trying to figure out who she is – her identity, her sexuality – whilst immersing herself at first in a lifestyle revolving around punk rock, drugs and junkies. All before she finds her partner with whom she wants to spend her life and also raise a child.

While Disoriental is a tale about family and rebellion, it is also a tale about exile. In their new life in Paris, Darius and Sara struggle to blend in with its people, finding it difficult to completely cut off ties with Iran, while Kimia’s sisters learn to adapt to a Parisian way of living in their own ways.

She (Sara) doubtlessly didn’t know who we were anymore, or what she had a right to expect from us, now that our promised land had turned out to be a road to nowhere. Our uprooting had turned us into strangers, not only to other people, but to one another. People always think hard times bring you closer together, but that’s not the case with exile. Survival is a very personal matter.

Disoriental, then, is a wonderfully and intelligently rendered tale. There is so much going on this novel…it’s a story about Iranian culture and a way of life simmering with rich flavours. In Kimia, the author Djavadi has created a strong raconteur whose voice is engaging and chatty immediately drawing the reader in. Her storytelling is not linear because Kimia chooses to go back and forth across time focusing on a particular topic rather than sticking strictly to a timeline…all building up to THE EVENT which is alluded to earlier on in the novel, but revealed only much later. But at no point did the narration feel loose or baggy, Kimia is well in command of the story she wants to tell.

All I know is that these pages won’t be linear.  Talking about the present means I have to go deep into the past, to cross borders and scale mountains and go back to that lake so enormous they call it a sea.  I have to let myself be guided by the flow of images and free associations, the natural fits and starts, the hollows and bumps carved into my memories by time. 

In terms of the writing, Djavadi’s prose is lush, passionate and immersive enabling the reader to get completely caught up in Kimia’s high-spirited personality and her heartbreaking and sensitive portrayal of her family and the slew of upheavals they have to grapple with.

Indeed, the novel raises the basic question of the challenges of displacement. In countries embroiled in war, immigrants flee to safer places looking to escape death and persecution and hope for a better standard of living. Those who manage to secure asylum have certainly crossed the first hurdle – they don’t have to worry about the possibility of death every day. But then steadily, the next hurdle has to be crossed – how to assimilate themselves in the society of the new country where they have sought refuge. It’s not always easy. Change is tough and challenging, and not everyone can successfully manage it.

In fact, Disoriental is an apt title for the novel signifying a clever play of words. It is a tale based in Iran, which is in the East, a region otherwise known as the Orient. But it also means how refugees or people in exile are disoriented by the displacement and the challenges of starting life afresh in a new country with a completely different culture. Dis-oriental could also mean shedding off your Eastern origins and embracing the Western way of living.

All in all, Disoriental is a vivid, pulsating novel and one I am unlikely to forget anytime soon. Highly recommended!

Translation credits from the French go to Tina Kover.

P.S.: This is one of those posts which has a personal touch – a story about my parents in a country they would have settled in (and where I would have been born) had Fate not decided otherwise.

I put this post up on Twitter, and here’s how the author Négar Djavadi responded…

Djavadi reply