Sunday, November 27, 2005

Back soon, and Golshiri

I've been away for three weeks, travelling through Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, and haven't had much time for my blog, but I'll be back on Tuesday with a post about my days in the town of Puri in Orissa.

In the meantime, here's my review of the Iranian novelist Hushang Golshiri's novel The Prince in today's Scotland on Sunday. An edited version appears in the paper; my original piece is here:

The Prince
Hushang Golshiri (translated by James Buchan)
Harvill Secker, £ 12.00

In this stark, hallucinatory work the late Iranian novelist Hushang Golshiri, a leading figure of modern Persian prose, compresses the events of an entire era into a single night, showing us the nightmare world of an ailing prince, the last of a deposed dynasty, as he sits cloistered in his room at night surrounded by the photographs and the artifacts of his forebears.

Golshiri's Prince Ehtejab, like Lampedusa's Prince Fabrizio (The Prince first appeared in Persian in 1969, about a decade after The Leopard), is the representative of an order that no longer commands power, but he has none of the consolations of family, of the only slightly diminished respect of the world, or of astronomy that Prince Fabrizio possesses - his world is impoverished not just materially but morally, emotionally. He is peevish, whimsical, nervy, and something of a recluse. While his rapacious ancestors - 'Grandfather' and 'Father' in the narrative - murdered and pillaged at will, Prince Ehtejab has no taste for such things, but this does not redound entirely to his credit. He is something of a petty tyrant. Taunted about his weakness and impotence by his cool, sardonic wife Fakhronissa, he responds by taking on their servant-woman Fakhri as his mistress, inflicting upon her the arbitrary cruelty that is something of a family trait. After Fakhronissa dies, he insists that Fakhri impersonate her departed mistress.

"Prince Ehtejab was sunk in his armchair, his scalding forehead in both hands, coughing away. Once his maid had come upstairs, and once his wife." The novel's opening sentences show us the prince wracked by the fatal consumption that runs in his family, and also that there is no longer any boundary line between imagination and reality for him - his wife, we soon come to know, is dead. As he sits in the dark Prince Ehtejab's imagination conjures up scenes from the lives of his ancestors and his late wife; like Scrooge, he also sees his own childhood self pass before his eyes.One of the influences on Golshiri's work was the contemporary French nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon, works in which conventional character exposition and plot lines are abjured and the reader's sense of point of view and chronology muddied. In The Prince this narrative style is naturalised, as it were, by the delusionary mind of the protagonist.

But Golshiri also seeks other points of view. In one of the novel's most striking scenes, we see the plump, healthy Fakhri seated in front of the mirror trying to approximate, through dress and make-up, the frail, bony Fahkronissa. We hear the agitated burr of her thoughts, and see her, guilt-stricken, carrying on an imaginary dialogue with her late mistress - her world, too, has become disordered. She is not satisfied until she puts on Fakronissa's thick glasses which, even as they distort her vision, present to her something like the image of her mistress in the mirror. Glasses, photographs, mirrors: these abound in this novel of ghosts, visions and whispers.

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