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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


By the Pen

Jalal Al-e Ahmad

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Title: By the Pen
Author: Jalal Al-e Ahmad
Genre: Novel
Written: 1961 (Eng. 1988)
Length: 136 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: By the Pen
  • Persian title: نون والقلم
  • Translated by M.R.Ghanoonparvar
  • Introduction by Michael C. Hillmann

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Our Assessment:

B+ : neat allegorical tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Middle East Journal . Summer/1990 M. Beard
World Lit. Today . Summer/1990 William L. Hanaway

  From the Reviews:
  • "(W)hat concerns the author is the recurring cycles and patterns of Iranian history. (...) By the Pen shows how a writer very concerned with the problems of his own time can sense the larger patterns of history and use them to structure an appealing fiction." - William L. Hanaway, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jalal Al-e Ahmad's fiction, By the Pen, is a very different one from the naturalistic social novel, The School Principal (see our review). Set in some indistinct Persian past, it tells of ancient power struggles and the difficulties of ruling justly. With very different devices from those he employed in his realistic contemporary tale, Al-e Ahmad crafts an allegorical novel that is also a remarkable reflection of modern Iran.
       Michael C. Hillmann's informative introduction provides much of the necessary background, first about Al-e Ahmad himself and then about this particular work. As Hillmann notes, the action in By the Pen closely parallels:

first, a specific period in the reign of Safavid Shah 'Abbas the Great (ruled 1587-1629) and second, the rise and fall of Mohammad Mosaddeq (1882-1967)
       Political and religious conflicts as experienced in these two periods, specifically between Shi'i and Sunni powers, dominate the novel. Despite being written some two decades before the last Iranian Revolution, there are also fascinating parallels to recent events in Iran -- suggesting their very fundamental (because recurring) nature in the history of that country.
       The religious intricacies, in particular, may appear obscure to non-Persian audiences, but the fundamentals of the novel are simple enough. By the Pen basically recounts the story of two scribes, Mirza Asadollah and Mirza Abdozzaki, who get swept up in events in complicated times. The country is in some turmoil, as a sect (called, in an unfortunate translation, Calenders) gains evermore power, eventually leading to His Royal Majesty and the court fleeing and the Calenders assuming power.
       Ideals are different in this new age. Mirza Asadollah says: "defending one's property and life is considered as important as holy war", but he is corrected:
No, Mirza. Those times have passed (.....) This belief was fabricated by the nouveaux riches Worldly possessions are not worth the spilling of human blood. Nowadays a martyr is a person who is martyred for his beliefs and who sacrifices his wealth for his beliefs.
       After cleverly foiling a plot to defraud some villagers, the two scribes eventually get fairly significant positions in the new regime. However, they -- and the Calenders -- find power is not easily justly wielded. By the end, the status quo has returned.
       By the Pen offers the exotic, both in subject matter and presentation. It begins: "Once upon a time " ..., and the folk-tale like tone and progression of the story nicely mask the historical and contemporary reflections found throughout the story.
       In his translator's preface, M.R.Ghanoonparvar believes: "By the Pen is Al-e Ahmad's most mature work of fiction, the one most likely to withstand the test of time." Perhaps true: it is an interesting, often cleverly presented novel -- and yet (perhaps in part also because of the translation) it lacks the simple, gripping power of Al-e Ahmad's unadorned novel The School Principal.
       Worthwhile, if (in this form) not fully engaging.

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Jalāl Āl-e Ahmad: Other books by Jalal Al-e Ahmad under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Seyyed Jalaloddin Sadat Al-e Ahmad (جلال آل احمد) (1923-1969) was a leading Iranian author.

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