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Book review

In search of missing persons on a runaway orient express

By Shusha Guppy
The Independent, London
October 2, 1999

JAMES BUCHAN'S A Parish of Rich Women won the 1994 Whitbread First Novel Award. Then Heart's Journey in Winter, a stylish Cold War thriller, received a shower of plaudits. It was followed by the equally accomplished High Latitudes. This new offering, [A Good Place to Die], is a high-class thriller concocted with Buchan's distinctive ingredients - passionate love, political intrigue, picaresque adventures and thoughtful comment. The novel's tutelary geniuses are the author's grandfather, John Buchan, and James Morier, who wrote The Adventures of Haji Baba of Isfahan in 1824.

John Pitt, the young hero, arrives in Iran in 1974. It is the tail-end of the hippy era and its trail to India and beyond in pursuit of drugs and nirvana. Persia, "paved with petro-dollars", is a place worth lingering in, and making some money.

Pitt gets a job teaching English at a language school in Isfahan. "Isfahan is half the world", goes the Persian adage, and Pitt falls under the spell of the beautiful city. His blond good looks and courteous manners win many friends, among them Mo'in, a bazaar antique dealer in Omar Khayyam mode - drunk on vodka and spouting poetry - and the Soviet consul Ryazonov, an opium addict.

One day, Pitt falls asleep in Mo'in's shop and wakes it "full of angels": a bevy of nubile high-school girls, wanting to learn English. A tall, ravishing girl, fetchingly swathed in chador, catches his eye - Shireen (her name means sweet, and belongs to one of a legendary pair of lovers). It is love at first sight, but the girl's father, a general at the nearby airbase, has promised her to his louche deputy. Shireen "wishes to be free". The romantic Englishman's chivalry is aroused, and he recklessly embarks on an adventure whose twists will consume his youth.

With the help of Ryazonov, Pitt marries Shireen. They elope to the Persian Gulf and hide in the abandoned Soviet consulate. While waiting to escape, Shireen gives birth to their baby daughter, Layly - named after another legendary lover. Buchan's lyrical descriptions of high mountains, fertile valleys and parched deserts conjure up the Persia of old travellers, while his assessment of the Persians is often perceptive, if lapidary: Their "weakness of spirit, its melancholy and indolence... is the burden of too much history".

Similarly, Shireen seems the creation of a 19th-century Orientalist: sensuously beautiful, "willow and gazelle", with eyes "so black they seemed to drain the room of its light". Virginal, yet proficient in erotic arts, she writes classical poetry, "wears a knife across her bosom", and treats Pitt like a prince. She is enchanting, and totally unreal. Nor are any of the few women more substantial. The couple get involved with French drug smugglers who offer to take them to Dubai, but somehow lose each other. The rest of the story is Pitt's search for Shireen and Layly. It is also a mystical quest - for reunion with the Beloved, the unattainable Other, the marriage of East and West in peace and harmony. Meanwhile, the country is convulsed by the revolution of 1979 that toppled the Shah and brought Khomeini to power, and then war with Iraq. Pitt is arrested as a "spy", tortured, and nearly executed.

Buchan's observations on Middle Eastern politics and psychology are shrewd. ("You British make a point of leaving a festering wound when you go: Kashmir, Palestine, the white government in South Africa," says an Indian border official.) Pitt travels to Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan; has an affair with a lovely French doctor; finds the drug dealers who cheated him; takes his revenge. It is utterly riveting, and would make a terrific movie. Perhaps that is what the author has in mind - hence the flashbacks and flash-forwards, abrupt cuts and time-lapses. But who is the actress who could play the paragon Shireen? Or Pitt himself? Surely not Brad Pitt?

* Back to "A Good Place to Die" excerpt

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