“Revolutions are apt to take their color from the regime they overthrow.” — Richard H. Tawney
Are tragedies thrust upon us, or do we help to create them? That is the question. Shokooh Mirzadegi poses a series of themes, underscored with tragedy, in her excellent novel, “That Stranger Within Me” (Iran Books, January 2002) translated into English by her husband, the renowned writer and poet, Esmail Nooriala. Mirzadegi addresses the mysterious death of a husband, infidelity, sorrow, abortion, exile and a series of other social and political issues against the backdrop of a recently revolutionized Iran coming to terms with its anger against a fallen and greatly misunderstood monarchy.
The story begins with Luba, the narrator (a Czech native who has suffered the suicide of her mother, the brutal murder of her father, and Soviet — inflected woes on her native Czechoslovakia) whose Iranian husband Amin, a prominent doctor, is missing. Her search and eventually discovery of his murder by Revolutionary Guards as a result of his involvement with opposition exile groups, unfolds a series of harsh revelations about her husband's devotion, her worry about the fate of her sons — Bardia, the eldest, is the product of her first marriage: a secret only know to Amin (and Amin's cousin Saeed) who lies to his family in his claim that he is Bardia's father — and her inability to continue her life in an Iran rapt with revolutionary guards, Islamic codes of conduct, and consistent terror and insecurity.
Amin's presence, or ghost more likely, looms large throughout the story. He has lodged himself so firmly in Luba's conscience, particularly after his death, that she appears to follow his commands, and precedes every action according to his wishes. Even after discovering her deceased husband's illicit affairs, she has difficulty believing that this perfect (or so she thought) man had flaws which she refused to notice. Can a woman ever truly come to terms with the fact that a man she loves doesn't love her as much as she loves him? Luba's discoveries of her husband's true character lead her to slowly but surely distance herself from his memories, and gradually Amin becomes a faded photograph (or does he?), as she begins an affair with Amin's cousin Saeed, who, as Luba's sister-in-law describes: “has always been in love with you, but Amin took you away from him.”
In the end, Luba's attraction for Saeed appears to be only fleeting, whereas their friendship is the foundation that survives. (Mirzadegi provides a sketchy background for Luba and Saeed, and their sudden leap to an amorous affair after years of friendship soon after Amin's death seems perhaps sudden and questionable, not to mention a tad incestuous, in this reviewer's opinion at least.) Her love for Amin — whom she fell in love with immediately and quickly — is apparent, despite his shortcomings (and speculation about Saeed from delusional gossipers who claim to know the truth and don't), which solidifies the fact that when a woman loves a man, she loves him completely and tries to forgive him everything — something she will not and cannot do with other people whose affections are politely ignored.
The most intriguing personality is Bardia, Luba's eldest son (from a non — Iranian man) who, unaware of his actual roots, develops into a zealous Islamic fanatic, and is idolized amongst his revolutionary friends as the son of a martyr. As the story unfolds, we watch Bardia gradually undergoing brainwash by Islamic fundamentalist thinking to the level that endangers his family and friends. Mirzadegi has painted a realistic, though frightening, portrayal of the scores of youths who — especially at the onset of the revolution — became immersed in revolutionary ideology.
Bardia's unfortunate circumstances are double — fold. He has lost his father, and he seeks acceptance and attention from peers. His mother, wrapped in her widowhood and grief, doesn't seem to fulfill the teenaged Bardia's needs. He seeks solace, and more important, establishes a sense of his own manhood in the safe haven of mosques where fervent revolutionaries gather to preach and distinguish right from wrong.
Bardia's gradual distance from his family is unnerving, and Mirzadegi has chosen to depict his character in a sympathetic manner: as though he is lost, and lacks firm guidance. However, Luba's (and the rest of the family's) attempts to “save” Bardia from himself — “He considered himself a guardian of Islam and the revolution and honored this title as an inheritance bestowed to him by his 'martyred' father” — are to no avail.
What's interesting is that despite his foreign heritage, Bardia is a typical product of his environment, and the reader can't help wondering whether his behaviour would have been different if Amin was alive — would his rebellious actions been curbed had a male role model played a dominant role in his life? Luba faces not only the improbable task of controlling Bardia (at which she fails), but also steering Bahram (her second son, by Amin) in a different direction, thereby alienating herself — and having to accept the inevitable alientation — from Barida who has his feet firmly planted on the revolutionary road.
Mirzadegi's choice of a foreign narrator and heroine is intriguing and also sends a message: Luba can exercise additional freedoms (even within the strict confines of the Islamic Republic of Iran) than most Iranian women, and criticize and offer a glimpse of Iran which an Iranian narrator wouldn't provide so readily. (I wonder that had Mirzadegi chosen an Iranian heroine, would the consequences have taken a different turn.)
“That Stranger Within Me” is more than anything a political novel. Mirzadegi's life — and how can a novelist ever write without referring to their own experiences? — is worthy of a biography, and Luba appears to be to some extent a reflection of Mirzadegi and her political reflections. In the afterword of the book, Esmail Nooriala writes that in the 1984, Mirzadegi decided to “separate herself from direct political involvement.” Mirzadgi, who was imprisoned both during the Shah's regime and the current Islamic reign for opposition activism, may have distanced herself from direct political activities, but the political strain remains as a strong undercurrent in her prose.
In response to a few of my questions regarding both Mirzadegi and Nooriala's roles as Iranian exile writers, Nooriala offered the following sentiment: “We have to show our appetite and eagerness to preserve this beautiful language and to produce works of literary value within its confines.” Mirzadegi has accomplished exactly that. JFK once remarked that you should always forgive your enemy, but never forget their name (which essentially means we rarely forgive). Mirzadegi's literary efforts in “That Stranger Within Me” politely kill two birds with one stone: relating an enjoyable, intricate story while clearly stating actual truth and spilling political beans, knowing that this is exactly what makes the enemy squirm.
Iran Books has published “That Stranger Within Me” (a third reissue of the book which has claimed distinguished literary awards in London and Stockholm), and readers should encourage both the writer and her publisher to publish a biography of Mirzadegi, with the writer's artistic, and political, perspectives firmly intact.