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In Iran an idyllic year, and then despair

BY: Colin Walters
The Washington Times
September 24, 2000

John Buchan is a novelist, award-winning in Britain, whose sensuous prose tumbles onto the page in great, luxuriant mouthfuls. Sometimes it is given its cadence, and bolstered by, lines from Persian poets the writer has read, from Sanai'I and Anvari in the 12th century to the modernist Forugh Farrokhzad in the 20th. At other moments one hears echoes of the dreamlike ardor, daring the reader not to believe any of it, in the pages of "Justine," the novel with which Lawrence Durrell began his "Alexandria Quartet" that briefly held a world in its spell 40 years ago.

"One afternoon, 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 the girls wheeled and swooped like the pigeons in the courtyard of the Shah's Mosque . . ."

The speaker is John Pitt, a young Englishman who has drifted into Iran and the beautiful old city of Isfahan. There he borrows someone else's university degree long enough to fake a copy in his own name and get a job teaching English to air force cadets and young ladies.

In his free time, he wanders the city streets, where, in the tree-lined Hasht Behesht he sees "a girl carrying a violin, threading the planes, absorbed in herself as completely as in her polka dot chador."

John, as is common among visitors making their way about a strange town, fancies himself unnoticed by the locals, but how can that really be? He also helps out in the shop of a friendly dealer in carpets and other wares, which is where he is when the party of schoolgirls bursts in, looking for or a bit of sport with the young Englishman.

Among the pleasures of Mr. Buchan's novel are revealing insights into the culture of Iran, a country that for Westerners has become even more mysterious over the two decades. For example, the chador, a combined head covering, veil and shawl: "Certain words - pushidegi covering, and by extension the mental attitudes in girls that are the counterparts of veiling, such as ambiguity, inversion, concealment, intrigue or deceit . . ."

John makes the acquaintance of a Mr. Ryazanov, Soviet consul-general, who has been resident in Iran for 33 years and during that time become disillusioned with his communist masters and addicted to opium, which he calls "the Remedy." John is invited to the house of the Russian - or former Russian, for Iranianization of those who stay on long enough is one of the novel's thematic threads - and is ceremoniously served tea. When the guest takes a sip, it is vodka. His host, taking pleasure in the younger man's shock, also warns him that he is being watched by the Shah's secret police, the Savak.

Easy as it is for the reader to forget in Mr. Buchan's warm bath of lush literary writing and his portrait of an exotic culture which he knows well from having been there, the pieces of a political thriller are being put in place. Hardly less disarming is the youth of the two principals and the affecting nature of their love story. John is only 18, and the girl standing in the doorway between rooms of Mr. Mo'in's shop, her chador concealing her light-blue schoolgirl's skirt not quite entirely and her white ankle socks not at all, is 17.

She is Shirin Farameh, elder of the two daughters of an air force general and "The Persian Bride" of the title. Gen. Farameh, a powerful aide to the Shah, speaks English with a Texas twang, having been trained here as was common back in those years. At any rate the young couple elope on the strength of a kiss or two, the first through the cotton of that black chador. Fleeing south in a jeep provided by the old Russian, they spend their wedding night in the desert near an ancient ruin, and next morning, on the road again John recalls:

"The desert through the open windows was merely the projected arena of our privacy, across which we stumbled, bumping against garbled prejudices and unfathomable taboos, misunderstandings, mistakes of grammar, syntax, word order and Arabic, unconscious offense: offending, sulking, teasing and yet coming together under the irresistible force our curiosity."

The pair are driving to Beshehr on the Persian Gulf, and a long-empty house by the sea - this too provided by Mr. Ryanazov - where they will spend an idyllic year in hiding and Shirin will give birth to their baby daughter. The situation can't go on, of course, and they should be trying to get out of Iran instead of dallying there. One night, John meets up with a couple of Frenchmen with a boat, and Shirin agrees to give escape a try.

The character of John is persuasively drawn. He is the latest in a long line of solitarily-inclined English travelers to the East, looking to be disencumbered of their countrymen, seeking a sort of "death without dying." It is Shirin though, both intoxicating lover and possessor of unexpected initiative, competence and courage, who is far and away the novel's outstanding character. This makes what comes next all the more difficult to bear.

A novelist takes an enormous risk when radically changing the course of his narrative around the halfway mark. The reader is shocked and disappointed that characters to whom he has become accustomed are not going about their usual business. There is rupture, shock, depression. Mr. Buchan takes that risk anyway, for that effect is exactly what he is aiming at, no less upon the reader than the fated John.

The clock leaps forward three years to November, 1978. The Iranian Revolution is underway with banks being burned and paper money blowing about streets that reek of the alcohol thrown away. John, a lonely wanderer again after being imprisoned by the old regime, is a man "in search of news of my family." Two years after that he again is imprisoned and this time tortured and interrogated, put through bloody mock executions. "Where is the slut?" his tormentors insistently demand, and John realizes that Shirin, for whatever reason, is the cause of his years-long persecution.

Here the reader belatedly recalls that there was talk of prison in the novel's opening pages: John Pitt, "the English spy" so-called, has been incarcerated on and off all along, plus enduring a spell of front-line army service in the war against Iraq, and a journey to Pondicherry, India, and Kabul, Afghanistan, looking for the two Frenchman, Lachat and Fann.

The closing pages find John back in Isfahan and more than 20 years elapsed since he last saw his wife and daughter. He fights to hang onto his memories, while hoping against hope that the two women yet will come back to find him. The Englishman lays in tatters. So does Iran's revolution, having failed to revive religion, having made it "hateful to all but the portion of the population that has a material interest in it, that gets its bread and water from the mosque."

Mr. Buchan's novel was published in Britain with the title, "A Good Place to Die," which in a way is truer to John Pitt's experience in Iran, a troubled country to which he has, accidentally in many regards, given the best years of his life. Americans, one imagines the U.S. publisher reckoning, might respond better to something less fatalistic, more upbeat. Under either heading, the book is very good reading, at once romantic, suspenseful and real. Excerpt from Buchan's earlier book "A Good Place to Die"

By James Buchan
Houghton Mifflin, $23, 343 pages


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