Reading Missing Soluch in the U.S.

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Ja-ye Khali-ye Soluch
has been published this month in English as
Missing Soluch
by Melville House Publishing. Translator Kamran Rastegar teaches comparative studies of Arabic and Persian literatures at the University of Edinburgh >>> Book excerpt

Missing Soluch is a novel by one of Iran’s most celebrated living authors, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. This work has certainly not escaped controversy among Iranian scholars, but generally it has been seen to be one of the most important novels written by Dowlatabadi and perhaps by any of his generation. It narrates the experiences of Mergan, a mother of three children living in a small village in northeastern Iran, who finds that her husband Soluch has one day disappeared. By tracing the complex reactions of Mergan, her children and others in the village to this event, and by coinciding the disappearance of Soluch with migration of the younger generation away from the village, as well as the imposition of a new economic order within the village, Dowlatabadi delicately attempts to trace the significant changes to rural life in Iran over the course of one generation in the mid-twentieth century. That he does so without romanticizing the injustice and brutality of the previous social systems — including significant attention to the habituation of violence against and repression of women — and without simplistically treating his protagonist Mergan as either a saint or as a martyr, testifies to the singularity of this work.

Having translated the book, I may not be able to muster enough of a critical distance from the work to present an ‘objective’ perspective — English speakers interested in Dowlatabadi will no doubt wish to look at writing by scholars who have discussed his work in articles and books — including Kamran Talattof, Michael Hillmann, Hura Yavari, and a small number of others (of course there are many more who have written about Dowlatabadi in Persian). These scholars have tried in various ways to assess the significance of Dowlatabadi’s work — often through positioning his literary imagination against political currents in Iran, a move that is quite valid but which also risks oversimplifying our reading of literary work and preventing us from treating works of literature as art rather than political metaphor.

However, despite this concern, the tendency I note above is much to be preferred to that shown in the “criticism” exhibited in one further commentary about Dowlatabadi which I hope to discuss here. I would much rather simply ignore this example of commentary on Missing Soluch, but since it has been widely posted on the Internet, and is one of the few commonly-available sources of commentary on this book, I feel the need to point to its weaknesses and basic errors.

In her article “The Quest for the ‘Real’ Women in the Iranian Novel” (Social Research, Fall 2003)

Azar Nafisi discusses representations of women in modern Iranian literature, looking at Sadeq Hedayat’s Blind Owl and then moving on to more contemporary authors such as Shahrnush Parsipur, Ahmad Mahmoud and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. One thesis of the essay is that,  “in novel after novel, Iranian writers create and re-create two extreme and worn images of women: victim and bitch.” The terms here offered are a little short in grace, yet it’s worth mentioning that as cultural tropes the virgin/whore dyad and its various permutations are hardly unique to modern Persian literature. Nonetheless, it certainly is one framework by which we may begin to assess the problematic of representations of women in modern literature from Iran. Moving from this argument, Nafisi discusses Missing Soluch in brief, but uses strong language to make clear her assessment of it:

The women in [modern Iranian novels] are usually patient and strong; their contradictions are mainly external, reflecting the class conflict within the society. They lack what I call “interiority”: the individuality, the inner conflicts and contradictions that give Western realistic novels such amazing lights and shades. For example, Mahmud Dowlatabadi's Ja-ye Kali-ye [sic] Soluch (Soluch's Empty Place) (1979), published on the eve of the Islamic Revolution begins with Mergan, the heroine, waking up one morning to find that her husband has left her and her three children. The narrator turns a theme that has many dimensions into a purely social issue. When describing Mergan and Soluch, he tritely informs us of how love becomes meaningless between people without money. At every crucial stage of the novel the narrator upstages his characters with tedious moralizations and unnecessary elaborations. The dialogues are constantly interrupted by the narrator addressing the reader.

While the question of “interiority” (a term quite common to literary criticism and not innovated by Nafisi as seems to be indicated) is one that I cannot address in much depth here here. But it is important to note that although Dowlatabadi’s development of character interiority may not follow a classical ‘psychological’ character-portrait, Mergan is most certainly endowed with a remarkable degree of internal complexity which is signified to the reader through a variety of literary devices. The remainder of the claims made about the book in the passage I cite above are so unfounded that a generous understanding would lead us to think that Nafisi is actually discussing some other text.

It is very peculiar that Nafisi’s entire discussion of a rather long book (507 pages in the translation) is here reduced to what seems to be the analysis of one passage that appears on the page 8 (I refer to the translation). The passage speaks of the growing distance between the Mergan and Soluch, and the fact that they no longer shared their daily experiences. “Mergan no longer felt close to her husband. Her attraction to him had faded long ago, and now only habit remained.”

However, if Nafisi had wished to seriously discuss Dowlatabadi’s representation of the relationship of Mergan and Soluch, she would have had to only read a little further into the first chapter to find a very beautifully-drawn passage where Mergan changes her mind and accepts that in fact she continues to deeply love Soluch. “Mergan was in love with her man! She sensed this clearly now. She loved Soluch! She remembered her love for him. A forgotten love.” (p. 30). Clearly, in this passage (and others throughout the book) love is an emotion that is not rendered “meaningless” despite their unavoidable poverty. In fact, through this kind of complexity of character — in both loving and not-loving, desiring and despising Soluch — Dowlatabadi gives flesh to the inner life of Mergan, who like any of us is a person who is self-contradicting, conflicted and subject to change.

While the novel is constructed entirely in an omniscient third-person address, it lacks an identified “narrator,” so the claim of such a voice “upstaging the characters with tedious moralizations and unnecessary elaborations” is also unfounded. For example, when Mergan’s two sons and she fall out with each other over selling a small piece of land the family owns, the author carefully refuses to present any one of them as right in his or her actions. The authorial voice in Missing Soluch is largely sublimated to character action — there are few judgments of these actions offered (much less “trite moralization”) in the authorial register, and in fact very little other than purely descriptive passages are presented outside of the dialogue.

The novel is largely built around sequences of action interspersed by representations of the interior worlds of a few characters, as well as exterior dialogue. One may in fact wish to critique Dowlatabadi’s style of reserving moral judgment over his characters in storyline such as when Mergan decides to give her young daughter Hajer to an older man to marry: we are given no hint of the author’s own stand on this matter, which some readers may (incorrectly, in my view) interpret as a lack of concern on the part of the author. Instead of resorting to “trite moralization” over this, Dowlatabadi allows the reader to understand the conflicting emotions, and the external forces that make such a decision possible. Again, Mergan is thus not represented as a monster or a victim (or, a “bitch” or a “victim” to use Nafisi’s terms), but rather as a complex and changing character.

Finally, the claim that any work suffers from “unnecessary elaborations” is of course subjective in literature, but for any reader of Melville, Woolf, Joyce or Delillo (to only name a few prominent if sometimes wordy, English-language authors), the level of detail that is presented about the daily lives of the characters of Missing Soluch would seem hardly excessive. For example, there are long and detailed descriptions of the work of harvesting, or of the clearing of snow in the village. These may appear “unnecessary” for the storyline, but contribute a great deal to the rich ambiance of the novel and its rootedness to a particular environment and culture. In addition, there is not a single instance of the “narrator addressing the reader” — at least as far as what is called the “Dear reader” mode of narration is concerned. So far off the mark are her claims about the work, one wonders if Nafisi had even read the book at all.

Since Nafisi doesn’t offer any further substantiation or elaboration — unnecessary or not — of her claims, I would have to conclude that this article is less a work of criticism than an unpleasant bit of polemics, offered so as to simple-mindedly prop up a scornful and disdaining posture towards this and certain other works of modern Persian literature, and thus to dismiss certain complex and rich books through simplistic and clearly uninformed claims about them. Clearly, there is much to discuss concerning the representations of women in modern Persian novels, including Missing Soluch — but one does need to take the works much more seriously than Nafisi does if one wishes to present a well-founded perspective on the issue. 

And yet, seems most disturbing to me in Nafisi’s argument is the fact that these erroneous statements about the book are prefaced with a facile claim that this and other examples of modern Persian literature “lack” qualities that give “Western realistic novels such amazing lights [sic] and shades [sic].” Is the measure of all modern world literature to be whether or not they conform to the framework of Western realistic novels? Is truly there no point in trying to sympathetically assess non-Western literatures as bringing their own “amazing” qualities that may be quite different than those of canonical Western writing? One has the sense from this article that Nafisi thinks not.

While hoping to simply set the record straight here, I also raise the issue of Nafisi’s article to illustrate the problem of how modern Persian literature is valued — both in and outside of Iran — and how this influences, for example, the economy of translation and publishing of these works. It is my sense that Nafisi is generally dissatisfied with these works for reasons that have little to do with the works as such — she is apparently trying to read what she sees as cultural traits into works of art, an act that is often prone to failure when dealing with complex or imaginative creative work. If our only judgment of good literature is presented by setting canonical “Western” literature as the measure for all literary work, we will certainly miss an opportunity to have modern Iranian literature contribute to the larger body of what has begun to be termed world literature. For by setting these limiting criteria as measures, we are only confirming — rather foolishly — that modern Iran is not modern Europe (or the US) and does not share their histories. This view concludes that Iranian literary productions cannot be worthwhile if they are not essentially imitative, which in fact very often they are not.

This is a significant problem, one that we may begin to address through supporting and encouraging translation of modern Iranian literature — if for nothing else than due to fact that perhaps by reading these works in English translation, readers such as Nafisi may have a chance to comprehend the richness and complexity of books such as Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch.

>>> Book excerpt


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