Moon Brow by Shahriar Mandanipour (tr. Sarah Khalili). Restless Books. 464pp, $21.99.
A quote from Ronald Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text has been my source of inspiration for years: “I am interested in language because it wounds or seduces me.” There were times that I felt seduced or wounded by the literature written in my mother tongue—Farsi. There were authors whose writing styles did to me what a tongue can do to a body. There were times that reading literature in my mother tongue felt like a flogging. But truth be told I didn’t have the same emotions for literature in translation. I often felt as though as I had been a little raped while reading translated works. And that left me with a pessimistic view about the language created by literature in translation.
That was how I lost my faith in translation. This lasted for a number of years, until by accident I started working as a literary translator—from Farsi into English, which I have been studying since childhood. Translation taught me about the concept of the meaning—first the words, and then the sentence in the original text. Richard Brautigan says somewhere that he started by learning how to craft a phrase, then a sentence, and then a paragraph. Maybe that was why he began with poetry, then moved to the short story, then to the novel and travelogue. Working as a literary translator taught me that translation is a kind of art—an art that requires creativity, courage, and cruelty. To translate well, you must be cruel enough to kill the original language in your mind, you must be creative enough to recreate someone else’s work in another language, and you must be courageous enough to find your own writing style in the process.
That’s what happens in Sarah Khalili’s recent translation of Shahriar Mandanipour’s Moon Brow. Not having read Moon Brow in its original Farsi, as a native Farsi speaker, this translation left me with two reactions. First, there were times that I really missed Mandanipour’s writing style, how his diction and sentences sometimes touched me, and how sometimes they flogged me. Even though I was unable to read Moon Brow in Iran—the book is banned here—I’ve read Mandanipour, and I know well that he utilizes a variety of languages and forms in both short stories and novels. In all of his writings, each character is given his own form, each narrator narrates her own story with a different language, such as slang or archaic. Mandanipour strives not to repeat the language he used in his other works. This is why the comic language in Moon Brow is very different from his other works. Beyond utilizing puns, metaphors, and symbols, Mandanipour invites the reader to play a literary game by shifting between different forms and languages. This has always been a remarkable characteristic of his style—yet reading the book in English I think I lost some of the pleasures of the text.
Second, I found another pleasure in the translation of Moon Brow—I was amazed that Sarah Khalili seemed to internalize the language and created an entirely new novel, one that shares Moon Brow’s concern with Iran’s political and social events before, during and after 1979. This novel felt as though it has been written for a Western audience, an American audience that knows little about Iran apart from the hostage crisis—the novel sometimes goes into details about the Eight Years War that an Iranian reader would never need.
But what I experienced most on reading Sarah Khalili’s style in Moon Brow is the gender roles that bear directly on Mandanipour’s style. Years ago, I read an article by Susan G. Radner that explored the idea of the feminine and the masculine in writing style. Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Radner compared the traditional roles of women and men in society, and asked how these affected style. For example, in the case of the translation of Moon Brow, descriptions written by the scribe on Amir’s right shoulder are sometimes precise and unemotional and would depict a kind of masculine style seen in Mandanipour’s other works, as well. But sometimes Khalili’s metaphorical and symbolic language reveal her feminine mind.
In her article, Radner discusses female authors who imitate male roles and masculine style, and this was how they sacrificed their gender identity in their writings. She called them “male-oriented women,” and described their writings as logical and well-organized. She also described male poets and dreamers whose writings were more sensitive and feminine. Radner believes that these stylistic distinctions are not absolute. This is the case with Khalili’s Moon Brow: there are times when her style is very neat, precise, and well-organized, and also there are times when her style is intuitive, emotional, and totally feminine. A combination of the two—the author’s mind and translator’s together—makes for a book that is not only a fine translation, but successful piece of literature all on its own.
* * *
Moon Brow is a story of lust, love, and loss set during three periods of time: Iran’s revolution, the post-revolution and Eight Years War with Iraq, and the post-war era. An Eight Years War veteran, Amir Yamini, who formerly drowned himself in sex and alcohol, is discovered in a hospital for shell-shock victims by his mother and his sister Reyhaneh, having languished there for five years. Suffering from mental injuries caused by the war, Amir is haunted by a woman in his dreams that he calls “Moon Brow” because he can’t see her face. Amir’s attempt to seek the truth of his past brings him to his old friend, Kaveh, who might know what happened in Amir’s past life. The search for a woman he truly loved before going to war takes him to where he lost his left arm—and his wedding ring—during the war. Amir’s relationship with his sister Reyhaneh is one of the best parts of the novel—a true companion, Reyhaneh helps Amir discover the truth of his life before the war. Moon Brow combines Amir’s journey into his past life with the history of Iran, and also it shares the trauma of war as it reveals the victims of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal ideology.
* * *
Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Man He Killed” tells the story of two men who don’t know each other but are told to kill one another. They might have been good friends, if they had met in a bar one day, but they’re instructed to be enemies. Like “The Man He Killed,” the Eight Years War is a traumatic story of two nations who were told to hate each other for years. Both Muslim and both Shia, Iran and Iraq used to be allies, but the onset of conflict in 1980 set both sides against each other.
Amir Yamini shares with us his comedic, albeit tragic, memories of war. He experienced a very deep trauma in Dallaho, the Kurdistan region of Iran, which was invaded and ravaged by Iraqi soldiers. “When was it that I saw two Iraqi soldiers trying to screw a donkey?” he recalls, barely. Amir’s observation of a ruined village after Iraqi’s bombardment and the images of the animals left in the village, and what Iraqi soldiers did to a captured Iranian woman, remind him vaguely of his own former life: “Did I do to Khazar what Iraqi soldiers did to a captured Iranian woman?”
Khazar is a Persian name for Caspian Sea, and she was the first girl Amir truly loved before going to war. Khazar is also the ethereal “Moon Brown” of Amir’s dreams. The Khazar of Amir’s past depicts clarity and holiness, and she loses her virginity to Amir on the night the revolution happens in Tehran. The detailed descriptions of Khazar and Amir’s lovemaking take us to Tehran in February 1979 and reveal how political events—revolution, war, and coup d’état—affect personal lives and romantic relationships.
* * *
I was born several years after the revolution, and I’ve been always interested in what happened during those years in my motherland. When I was in university, I had a revolutionary professor who was very old and very strict. I called him the “Revolutionary Prof” because he taught a course called The Islamic Revolution of Iran and was himself one of those revolutionaries. It was a requirement to pass the course whether you studied literature or engineering. The Islamic educational system wanted the young generation to learn about the revolution.
Sometime during my teenage years I picked up Hannah Arendt’s book On Revolution, about the French Revolution and the idea of revolution itself. As an American literature student who was very Westernized, I became quite dear to my revolutionary professor because I attended all classes, participated in the discussions, and also gave two lectures during the semester. I had many theoretical disagreements with my revolutionary prof, but he tried to have a sense of humor about it, and would respond my questions with “Yes” or “No,” and would sometimes jokingly use English phrases, such as “Laici, absent or present?” These words were the only English words my revolutionary professor knew, and that made me and the rest of the class laugh sometimes.
I remember one class discussion: he told us his memory of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who visited Iran in 1978. Foucault observed Iran’s revolution at its birth, and wrote about the Iranian Revolution for the Italian journal Corriere della Sera, and also for some French journals and newspapers such as Le Monde and the leftist weekly Le Nouvel Observateaur. My revolutionary prof and I discussed this a lot in the class, and I wondered why a Western philosopher like Foucault would support the idea of revolution in Iran without any concern about replacing a non-religious system with a religious one.
Truth be told, it was not only Foucault who supported the revolution but also many Western progressive and leftist intellectuals. To Foucault, the concern would have been the different social classes in Iran who participated in anti-Shah uprisings. Foucault traveled to Iran twice in 1978, and he believed the coming revolution might be very different from revolutions in other modern countries. Obviously the aim of the revolution was far removed from Iran’s financial problems, and in my long conversation with my revolutionary prof I mentioned that I saw two versions of Foucault during Iran’s revolution—the one before 1979 Revolution and the second after 1979. Before 1979, Foucault wrote and spoke enthusiastically about the revolution, but less than a year after 1979, Foucault wrote an open letter to Mehdi Bazargan—Iranian scholar and the first prime minister—to protest what was happening in post-revolution Iran. The post-1979 Foucault seemed to regret his initial enthusiasm.
Like Foucault, there were two versions of Iran, before and after 1979, and, like many Iranians, there were two different versions of Amir Yamini, before and after 1979. The first version is the Amir Yamini who used to be an Iranian playboy, who broke women’s hearts, who drank alcohol like water, who had affairs with married women, who read Marxist books. The second Amir went to war to defend his country, lost part of his body, killed so as to not be killed, and who felt truly the cruelty of war. Amir Yamini changed because Tehran and Iran both changed. He finds himself a stranger in post-war Tehran. It’s not the Tehran he used to know, from the street’s names—Qods Street which used to be Anatole France Avenue—to his description of women’s dark outfits and veils in the streets. Some of these changes were the result of changes to the law, and some of the changes were unconscious and psychological.
I never had the chance to live in pre-1979 Tehran, though I’ve heard a lot about it from my parents, who experienced a very different lifestyle. I was raised during war and I came to know danger and insecurity. I remember the Eight Years War as much as a two years old kid remembers her earliest fears. I feel lucky that I wasn’t killed by one of Saddam Hussein’s missiles, fired from Iraq to Tehran to slaughter Iranian civilians. In the winter of 1988, Saddam slaughtered many Iranian civilians, including kids in my age. It is easy to understand why men like Amir Yamini—and my father—changed after they found themselves on the front lines war.
* * *
I never lived in pre-revoution Iran, but there is a kind of literature which can rebuild memories in your mind, and Sarah Khalili’s Moon Brow felt exactly like that. I think of the English version of Moon Brow as a wholly new book, not merely a translation. Sarah Khalili’s style and description created Tehran for me in those years. I may have lost the pleasure of reading Mandanipour’s Moon Brow in Farsi, but to be honest I feel that the pleasure I took from reading Sarah Khalili’s Moon Brow is more.
Shohreh Laici (b.1986) is a Tehran-based author and literary translator. Her translations have been appeared in Asheville Poetry Review, Two Lines, and Statorec (Statement of Record), and they are forthcoming in Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation. Her article “Trout Fishing in Tehran” has been published in March issue of World Literature Today, and her article “Albee and Our Grandma” is forthcoming in The Millions.
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