Wanting to learn more about Iran, I decided to read a novel by an Iranian author and had the good luck of choosing Savushun by Simin Daneshvar. Originally published in 1969, this historical novel takes place during the Second World War when the British and the Soviets were occupying Iran. The Allied forces were using the country as a passageway to get supplies into the Soviet Union. While the movement of goods over Iran’s eastern border helped the Soviets in their fight against the Germans, it devastated the economy in Iran. The occupying forces bought up much of the country’s grain, leaving many Iranians to starve. But as Daneshvar shows, not everyone in the country suffered from these shortages. She opens her novel with a wedding scene in which a large loaf of bread sits on display. The daughter of the governor is getting married, and the heroine of the novel, Zari, is in attendance with her husband Yusof. Zari thinks of the bread: “What a mound of dough! How much flour they must have used! And, besides, as Yusof said, ‘At a time like this!'”
Yusof is an outspoken critic of the government, while Zari remains silent out of fear. At first it’s not apparent how much of this fear is habitual and how much is actually warranted. What happens to those like Yusof who take a stand against the government? Daneshvar takes her time answering this question, letting the plot slowly unfold while keeping the narrative limited to Zari’s point of view. Many of the larger themes of the novel are political, but the scenes in the book are almost all domestic because of the nature of Zari’s existence. She spends most of her time in her beautiful home in Shiraz where she worries about her husband and three children. The narrative gains a dreamlike tension as the difficulties of the outside world start to seep into her confined, affluent life.
Also lending the novel a surreal quality is the volunteer work that Zari does at a mental hospital. She started going to the hospital soon after giving birth to her son Khosrow. She brings food to the patients as a part of a vow of charity that she made in the hopes of easing her labor pain: “For Khosrow’s delivery, the agonizing pain had led Zari to make a vow to take homemade bread and dates to the mental patients.” Zari has come into this hospital because she is a woman, and the sense of isolation that she feels within its walls soon becomes palpable. After one of her visits, she asks Yusof, “Why should there be so much misery?” She goes on to explain about how one of the patients, a midwife, mistook her for a woman who died in childbirth years ago. Zari always has viewed the patients with detachment and some measure of sympathy too, but as the novel progresses, the distance between her and the people whom she’s helping begins to break down.
Through the character of Zari, Daneshvar creates a dynamic narrative that starts to change as the heroine shifts from fear to bravery, from detachment to engagement. Zari’s point of view is complex and often poetic. “Time stood still, as if it had gone to sleep under the heavy quilt of the sky.” It is nighttime when this thought comes to Zari, and as usual, she is worried. She is thinking about her son, who has gone off somewhere. “She wished the wind would blow, or that, like the wind, she herself would stir up the people and the trees.” As usual, Zari is quiet and thinking in this moment. But she is such a strong presence, one feels this brilliant novel – the world of it – moving through her. “She wished the sky would clear up and become a garden with millions of eyes. She wished the trees would open their chattering lips and begin to talk.”