“They smell your breath lest you have said ‘I love you.’ ”
For many reasons, world audiences have had little opportunity to examine the work of Iranian poets, novelists, essayists and playwrights since the 1979 revolution. For one, writers under the Islamic theocracy are closely monitored; while, strangely, filmmakers have been able to introduce all manner of metaphor and allegory into their work, the censors parse literary work much more exactly, even if some surprising bits of subversion sneak through. For another, competent translations have been few. And for yet another, since they’re denied opportunities for cultural exchange, Iranian writers have been kept apart from world literary trends. The work contained in this ambitious anthology tends, in that regard, to a certain flat realism, almost reportage. (An exception is the exiled writer Shahrnush Parsipur, whom editor Mozaffari calls “a proponent of an Iranian magical realism.”) And there are plenty of real matters to record: Hushang Golshiri’s memorable story “The Victory Chronicle of the Magi,” for instance, touches on religious repression, public executions, corruption and resistance in the space of a few pages. (“Revolution?” one of his characters remarks. “This is more like vomiting one’s guts. Like taking a knife and sticking it into your own belly, then pulling out your innards and crying out, ‘Come and see.’ ”) Similarly, Mahmud Dowlatabadi’s evocative story “The Mirror,” in which a man seeks to replace a long-lost identity card and sheds the last of his own identity in the process, is an unveiled piece of political criticism, though foremost a work of art. The fine poet Ahmad Shamlu, from whose work the collection takes its title, writes, “The man who knocks at your door in the noon of the night / has come to kill the light. / Let’s hide light in the larder.” It seems remarkable that these writers have escaped the wrath of the authorities, given their candor.
A diverse sampling of contemporary Iranian letters, and a welcome tool for anyone seeking to understand a complex culture that has long been explained away as The Enemy.