[Bellevue Literary Press; 2022]
Tr. from the Persian by Sara Khalili
The story opens innocently enough. A former soldier hosts his old war comrade at his countryside home, along with the comrade’s wife and young daughter. One day, the group makes an outing to a nearby waterfall. The setting is fairy tale-like: smells of freshly harvested alfalfa and wild mint enfold the group, and the water’s mist is “intoxicating.” Blue-and-purple dragonflies flutter about amidst the oak trees, chased intermittently by the chubby, sweet little girl. The two men reminisce together as the wife dozes, and the girl plays by the water’s edge.
Then, there is “that scream.”
As the narrator tells it, the scream is brief, followed by a stretch of silence. When the men glance towards the girl, she isn’t there.
In a matter of several short, choppy sentences, the story swiftly clicks away from the bucolic, and into the nightmarish. The men see drops of blood, and see the pink of the girl’s dress moving up a mountain ridge, as if carried by the wind. There is the word “leopard.” Then, the words “frantically,” “shouts,” and “pleading.” Later on, “bones.”
Across the nine stories in Iranian writer Shahriar Mandanipour’s Seasons of Purgatory, collected and translated from Persian by Sara Khalili, there runs a steady undercurrent of unease, a sense that there is always some predatory presence waiting for an opportune moment to leap out from the margins and strike. Sometimes, the lurking presence turns out to be a literal, animal predator: the leopard, a set of vipers, animals that slip mysteriously, easily from their cages. When these predators attack unsuspecting humans, the terror is tangible, primal. A woman lies awake in bed, “surrendered to the horror” of the “dead eyes” of a viper hanging above her from a wooden beam. There is “that scream” of the little girl as she succumbs to the leopard’s jaws, and the resulting chills induced by reading of her “stripped and masticated bones.”
But other times, the predator hunting Mandanipour’s characters is something more ephemeral — loneliness, loss of identity or purpose, or the trauma of war. These more abstract predators tend to manifest in the stories as haunting, electrifying images: a “laughing skull” lying on the valley floor, a pair of boots with bloodied, severed feet in them, a man picking up “a pair of fingers” off the sidewalk, the far-off sound of someone crying. These suggestive images shadow the lives of Mandanipour’s characters, explaining why they constantly seem to be on high alert, ready to fight off a mortal threat. “The turning point in any creature’s life,” warns an eccentric, elderly man in the opening story of Seasons of Purgatory, “is the moment it is caught off guard.” This sentiment is echoed later on in the collection when a former soldier declares that “in battle, the most important thing is not to be caught off guard.” Because Mandanipour’s characters perceive (animal or metaphoric) danger all around them, the stories feel tightly-wound, driven by paranoia, suspense, and half-glimpsed hints of the climactic events to come.
This ubiquitous awareness of a hovering danger contributes to the dark atmosphere Mandanipour sustains across these nine stories. While each of the stories stands alone, unconnected to the others in plot or characters, they all share a predilection for the macabre. Descriptions of decay, rot, and filth are so abundant in these writings that the collection could even sit within the category of gothic. The stories vary in terms of setting (a decrepit palace, a prison cell, graveyards, underground caves, and a rural town turned black and sludgy from a nuclear power plant) but all are tied together by a common thread of gloom, fear, and death.
The story “Mummy and Honey,” for example, drips with aristocratic decay, evocative of Houshang Golshiri’s 1969 classic Prince Ehtejab (translated into English by James Buchan as The Prince). “Mummy and Honey” features a family trapped in a decrepit mansion by an authoritarian patriarch. The family is tormented by the knowledge that a hidden viper creeps among the floorboards and walls, once leaving a snakekiller’s “darkened corpse” in a cellar, “fang marks on his jugular,” “blood and dark foam” oozing from his mouth. Opium smoke floats throughout the ancient rooms, the ceilings “crowded with bright red phantasms that rippled into one another.” The environment of constant fear causes one woman’s “crystalline skin” to turn “haggishly sallow and dehydrated.” In these garish, ghastly sentences, the prowess of Khalili’s translation also comes through, as she renders Mandanipour’s grim, rhythmic language with satisfying strangeness into English: slugs are “shattered” across the bricks of the house, and a character has “eyes that from sleeplessness and a thousand thoughts had turned poppy red.”
But while the shadowy, allusive, and highly-metaphoric style that predominates in the stories collected in Seasons of Purgatory is what Mandanipour is best known for within Persian-language literary culture, this side of Mandanipour’s writing may not be as familiar to the English-language reading public.
Mandanipour has gained recognition among Anglophone audiences primarily for his 2009 novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story (also translated by Khalili). This auto-fictional book is narrated by a man named Shahriar Mandanipour who claims at the novel’s outset that he is “an Iranian writer tired of writing dark and bitter stories,” and thus sets himself the task of writing a “bright love story in which there is no sorrow.” The central tension of the book then plays off of the fact that the contemporary realities of morality policing and literary censorship in Iran often prevent everyday Iranians from living out — let alone writing and publishing — a “simple” or “bright” love story, as the narrator so wishes.
In contrast to many of the short stories collected in Seasons of Purgatory, Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story is not ruled by a tone of darkness and horror, nor are its allusions left up to the reader to decipher. The novel is explicitly targeted towards a non-Iranian audience, and takes great pains to gloss and explain Iranian and Islamic symbols, metaphors, and cultural concepts for readers supposedly ignorant of these things: “for you to fully discern the symbols and metaphors of my story,” the narrator writes at one point, “I must introduce you to yet another form of censorship . . . the scissor blades of Moharram Ali Khan . . . you don’t know who Moharram Ali Khan is? Moharram Ali Khan is . . . ” The novel is thus playful and provocative, mounting a satirical critique of the Iranian government’s policies of cultural censorship while taking the (presumably) non-Iranian reader by the hand and explaining the “strange and outlandish” happenings of an exoticized version of Iran to them.
Censoring an Iranian Love Story was met with widespread popular and critical acclaim in a US context (it was the only modern novel translated from Persian into English to be reviewed by the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker in the last three decades), perhaps due to its direct, almost didactic way of addressing its non-Iranian target audiences. Or perhaps Censoring an Iranian Love Story was so thoroughly praised by major US literary media because its socio-political critiques align fairly easily with Western stereotypes of repression or backwardness in Iran, implying an endorsement of a “more free” US (literary) culture.
On the other hand, the short stories in Seasons of Purgatory feel refreshingly untethered from a “Western” audience, and the elements of socio-political criticism they contain are much more subtle.
The “drawn-out revolution, the dragged-out war” forms a part of the backdrop in Seasons of Purgatory, the bleakness of that backdrop itself acting as a critique of the post-79 Iranian government and its handling of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In “King of the Graveyard,” for instance, an aging mother and father search for the spot where their son was buried in a state-run cemetery. Labeled as an “antirevolutionary” and a “Communist,” the son had not been seen to merit an official gravestone following his sudden death, and so the two parents are forced to shuffle around amidst the “onion skins, cigarette butts, empty cans of beans, dried up crap” that litter the non-martyrs’ section of the cemetery, trying to guess at the location of their son. The non-martyrs’ section is not “a haven of beautiful and proper graves,” where each buried person bears a headstone. Rather, the final resting place given to non-martyrs is an insult, a governmental refusal to remember or acknowledge the suffering of those deemed to be antirevolutionaries. The strikingly articulated pain of the parents in “King of the Graveyard” is, for this reason, both a universal testament to grief, and a specific critique of the Islamic Republic.
Mandanipour also unsettles the Iranian government’s discourse of productive sacrifice and romanticized martyrdom during the Iran-Iraq War by presenting the war through the lens of a young Iranian girl. In “If She Has No Coffin,” a young girl walks through her city, surrounded by bombings, corpses, war anthems broadcasted from loudspeakers, and solemn photographs of martyred soldiers. But the true horror comes for the narrator as she witnesses the war-induced psychological unhinging of her sister. The narrator recalls that her sister would run into the street when the city was being bombed, would laugh at the sight of corpses. In watching her sister’s growing madness, and, eventually, in hearing of her sister’s death, the narrator shows us a side of the Iran-Iraq War that is far from the Iranian state-sanctioned narrative of wartime heroism or meaningful sacrifice for the nation. In “If She Has No Coffin,” the war does not have a romantic, heroic luster. Instead, there are only everyday people who suffer, twist, and break under the omnipresent, illogical conflict between nations.
So while political commentary does not take the form of an obvious declaration, as it does in Censoring an Iranian Love Story, it is still a palpable undercurrent throughout Seasons of Purgatory. However, in all of Mandanipour’s stories, meaning can never be limited to the strictly political.
In fact, a recurring theme across the collection is the impossibility of discerning meaning in a clear and straightforward manner. Often, the mere silhouette of meaning is glimpsed in a passing phrase or image, but certainty quickly falls into the shadows and layers of language. At the beginning of the story “The Color of Midday Fire,” the narrator speaks directly to his audience about “darkness,” saying,
“Are you tired? . . . Listen! . . . Don’t be impatient; once I explain the entire incident, you will get to know one of the world’s greatest darknesses.”
Although the narrator is later able to gesture at the aforementioned darkness — “That unknown darkness I mentioned is right here” — its meaning still remains cryptic. “Darkness may not be an appropriate word,” the man says, “I don’t know. I call things that are not clear and obvious to me “darkness.” Meaning, for Mandanipour’s characters, is always just out of reach. A symbol is located (a leopard’s eyes, a painting on a cave wall, an unmarked grave), but its significance is never entirely resolved or made explicit for the reader. As the narrator puts it in “Shadows of the Cave”:
“ . . . meanings, often, contrary to common perception, are the image of their own meaninglessness.”
In this way, Mandanipour does not guide the reader to a clear-cut narrative closure in Seasons of Purgatory. Instead, Mandanipour, in Khalili’s translation, cultivates an unsettling sort of ambiguity, an open-endedness that makes these stories rich with enigma, asking to be read, then read again.
Anna Learn is a Ph.D. student of contemporary Persian and Spanish-language literatures at the University of Washington. She received her MA in Comparative Literature in 2019 from the Universidad de Salamanca, in Spain. She is particularly interested in short fiction, women’s writing, and translation studies.