"Her eyes were so black they seemed to drain the room of
all its light"
October 4, 1999
Excerpt from James Buchan's A
Good Place to Die, published by The Harvill Press, London. This
is the first major British novel to engage with contemporary Iranian society
for a generation. It is an epic love story that opens in Isfahan in 1974
and closes in the same city twenty-three years, a revolution and a bloody
war later. The author studied Persian literature in Isfahan in the 1970s
and was for 12 years a correspondent of the London Financial Times
in the Middle East, Central Europe and the US. In recent years, he has
made several visits to Iran. His novels have won major British literary
awards and been translated into the main European languages and Japanese.
He lives in Britain. See reviews (1)
[ It is the spring of 1974. John Pitt, an 18-year-old Englishman, leaves
his foster-home in Britain and travels overland to Isfahan. Though he does
not know it, he is an accident waiting to happen. Short of money, he finds
work teaching English to a class of teenaged girls.]
At break, I was led by a servant to the sunny staff-room. It fell silent
as I entered. I did not want to disappoint my colleagues.
"I cannot teach them, Mr Jamalzadeh. They are too beautiful."
The room shimmered in delight. Mr Jamalzadeh was beside himself. "Ladies
and gentlemen!" He waved his arms for quiet, but could not himself
" 'Je meurs de seuf aupres de la fontaine..'
" 'With water all around, I am dying of thirst'."
And he plunged his dipper into the water jar.
"You must marry, my dear," said Mrs Mohrabba, who took the
infants in Persian.
"How can I marry, madame, if you are married already?"
"Oh, for shame," she said, and giggled. "Take a goddam
sigheh, man." Mr Parvin had studied in San Diego.
"What's a sigheh?"
"For love only."
"But not from the class, dear John, or I shall release you."
"Aren't there any boys to teach?"
The room disintegrated. I blushed.
"Enough!" shouted the headmaster, waving his arms. "We
have embarrassed our dear friend." The klaxon rattled. He led the
way and, as he passed me, I heard him mutter "je meurs, je meurs."
The hilarity disgusted me. This was not the Isfahan I had imagined.
I thought the manners of the place were the natural consequence of oppression,
of the seclusion of women and an autocratic regime, of all of which I advertised
my disapproval. I hated the tourists forever debarking from air-conditioned
buses outside the Shah Abbas Hotel and the American officers picking fights
at the Irantour on Thursday nights or sobbing for Indochina. I hated the
Pahlavi crown picked out in fairy lights on the mountain to the south of
the town. I did not know what could bring the place to life for me, disrupt
it, give it meaning and motion. Perhaps if I read more, learned more, spoke
to more people, learned the slang of the city and four ways of writing
it, I would pierce those veils of tourism and industry and military power
to an Isfahan of my own. I suppose I knew that I had exchanged the solitude
of home for the solitude of Isfahan; but the deduction, that solitude was
a condition for life, was not one a boy of eighteen will easily accept.
I was glad to be abroad, far from my generation in Britain with their girlfriends
and record collections, where my personality and actions might take shape
without witnesses; for I thought myself to be special.
Fridays, when the monuments, shops and cinemas were closed, exhausted
my ingenuity. I would stand on the rickety old bridges that marched across
the river, hungry and light as air, repeating over and over, out loud,
some lines from Forough Farrokhzad I'd been reading:
Oh how my life flowed, so calm and proud,
A foreign stream through the heart of those Fridays!
That the poet was a woman, bad and beautiful and dead in a motor accident
in Tehran, who I'm sure never giggled and drew in her chador when spoken
to, reassured me: if there had been one such person in Iran in my lifetime,
there might be another. Already, by April, the river was turning to marsh.
I would walk up the shore, turned away from the Pepsi cans, cold picnic
fires, twists of newspaper, dried sheep's gore, fruit-skins and shit, or
follow paths that ran off between small melon fields or mud walls, where
pomegranate trees were in flower and little boys would break from their
games and run, puffing, after me to practise their Good-Mornings, while
I affected some ulterior purpose. In one such village, there were three
walnut trees and, beneath them, the tomb of a saint, shut in by green railings
and bleached banners. I asked who he was, but nobody could remember and,
though a name was at last mentioned, it was to please me; and I thought
I would be glad to sleep through eternity under those immense trees and
a succession of fanciful names.
Even on Fridays, I was not bored or lonely, because I did not believe
in such sensations; and because I did not always feel alone. At times,
say, picking up a letter from my old French teacher at the Poste Restante,
and sitting down with it fluttering in the breeze on the bench beside the
broken fountain, I was aware of my visibility: that somebody, not the gardener
clipping the box-hedges or the postmaster at his transom, was watching
me with interest. That was not a religious sensation, for I never thought
about God; and the watcher, for whom I made my gestures larger and more
complete, was a person, a woman to be precise. At times, say, walking beneath
the oriental plane trees of the Hasht Behesht, if I saw a girl carrying
a violin, threading the planes, absorbed in herself as completely as in
her polka dot chador, then my existence became intolerable to me; and I
didn't think I'd be able to endure it, even in this faraway town.
At times such as those, I would open the letter or turn for the river
and, as it were, withdraw from a position too advanced to be defended,
abandon the present and seek a sort of historic future. I sensed that I
was a tough guy and the sights and sounds and tastes and smells of Isfahan,
that now meant nothing to me, would years from now convey the most intense
sensations; and I would taste happiness in the form of regret. I thought
that certain formalities of the place, perhaps just a strip of three wall
tiles surrounded by unfired bricks, or the blue of the skies and the domes,
and a certain wintriness beneath the hottest afternoon, would return to
me in the future and give me my fill of sadness and pleasure. Isfahan then
had for me the character not of experience but of adventure: that is, it
would gain its meaning for me only in its telling, back home, in my house,
when I had one, before an audience of imaginary Britishers. One day, for
sure, I'd say, Ah that, that is a minute-repeater watch, made in Berlin
in the 1890s, don't open the case if you are easily shocked or offended.
I got it in Isfahan, in the '70s, from a fellow who had a shop in the upper
arcade of the Meidan-e Shah, died of drink, poor man, name of Mo'in.
For such an exisence within parentheses, Mr Mo'in would do. I called
at his shop one day after class, intrigued by some Russian china in the
dusty window; and I left in time for class the next morning. The shop troubled
me. Under its high vault, it was as dirty and chaotic as its master, who
was sleeping on a pile of carpets in a drift of saffron filaments and rice,
unshaven, drunk as a prince. I longed to organise both shop and shop-owner,
to separate the obviously good from the obviously bad, as once, shifting
through a pile of modern gelims for a couple from Ulm, I came on a baby's
quilt spilling batting from its rotten chintz, whose blues and reds had
faded before the 1750s; or amid the dirty objects on the shelves in the
thick darkness, the brass jugs, trashy Chinese porcelain of the type called
famille rose, chipped pencases and mirrors of painted papier-mache, an
ante-bellum Smith & Wesson revolver with two brass bullets nestling
in a box of cotton wool. For I saw those objects had to stand for the values
I'd abandoned for lost, such as the experience of great event, a war or
revolution or a candid audience with the Shah, or the memory of the sight
of a girl shaking off her veil.
It occurred to me that Mo'in might be right; that good and bad matter
only to the solitary; and the Germans were more content with their rug
that I stitched up in sailcloth and took to the Post than I with the quilt,
bought for a joke that made Mo'in laugh and a kebab dinner from the cook-shop.
The gun I hid in a dish, for I did not want it sold. Mo'in found me comical.
He used to talk about me under my nose, for he could not comprehend that
a foreigner, pale as a woman, might understand his language or indeed know
anything about anything. When one of his "brokers", as he called
the numberless little creeps who brought things to him, staggered in under
a cast-iron chandelier and I said it was rubbish, I overheard my word
"ashghal" in Persian repeated for days in wonder and delight;
or when I mended the selvedge of a rug in chain stitch, he laid the piece
out on the balcony to gabble over with his friends. He trusted me with
the key to the shop, but only because, left to himself, he would forget
to lock up. I saw he liked me, not for my pale face and the reassurance
it gave to European tourists, but for my novelty. I liked him, because
he always had vodka, and dishes of pistachio nuts from Kerman, and lunch
cooked by his wife and sent in covered dishes by taxi (though he referred
to that kind lady as the Minister of War); because he did not proposition
me; because we went on buying jaunts to Kurdistan and Abadeh; because he
was so disreputable; because of his chequerboard teeth; and because I did
not like to go back to Julfa and Mrs Mohandes during the day. I detected
in his drunkenness and utter contempt for town opinion, in his anarchy
and scorching blasphemies, the degraded remnants of an old, old cast of
mind. Mo'in was a Khayyam, minus the gift and the jug of wine multiplied
into a dozen of vodka. While he snored away his lunch, I worked at my Persian
on a tottering throne of carpets or tip-toed barefoot between the soft
canyons, effeminate, luxurious and insecure.
One afternon, 19 April, 1974, 23 Farvardin 1353, I fell asleep and woke
to a shop full of angels. Their voices had the character of light in the
dingy shop. I staggered up and saw, leaning against the high doorpost that
separated the two rooms, a girl in a black prayer-chador. I thought: She
thinks she's too tall, but she's not. Behind her, the bright voices of
girls wheeled and swooped like the pigeons in the courtyard of the Shah's
Mosque, but the person in the door was still. She had pulled her chador
up across her face and where the hem had risen up I saw the edge of a light
blue skirt, the uniform of the girls' secondary schools in Isfahan, and
white ankle socks. Her eyes when I looked at them were black, so black
they seemed to drain the room of all its light: their blackness was not
an absence of light, but was itself a light, of a kind I had not up to
that moment experienced or known to exist, beneath which the objects of
the solar world took on a melancholy futility.
In the main shop, about twenty girls were seated in a circle on the
carpet. Mo'in, in a flurry of elbows, thumbs and legs, was rolling out
the tobacco from a cigarette into his right palm. My heart stopped; but
there was her black chador, kneeling a little back from the circle, rigid
with deportment. She's not popular. She's stiff or difficult, poor, or
maybe rich, too clever or too dim, not pretty or too pretty, Bahai perhaps,
or Christian, and so very tall.
Good Place to Die, by James Buchan, published by The Harvill Press,
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