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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Island of Bewilderment

Simin Daneshvar

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To purchase Island of Bewilderment

Title: Island of Bewilderment
Author: Simin Daneshvar
Genre: Novel
Written: 1993 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 322 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: Island of Bewilderment - US
Island of Bewilderment - UK
Island of Bewilderment - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Syracuse University Press
  • Persian title: ساربان سرگردان
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Patricia J. Higgins and Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi

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Our Assessment:

B : an interesting and revealing pciture of the times and conditions it depicts

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 11/8/2022 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Daneshvar offers an immersive if didactic look at a young woman exploring the bounds of her independence in 1970s Iran. (...) Much of the plot, dialogue, and character interactions feels like vehicles for discussions and lectures (.....) Though as a novel it's a bit creaky, it serves as a rich cultural artifact." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       Island of Bewilderment is set in early 1970s Tehran and centers around Hasti Nourian. She works in the Ministry of Art and Culture, though she also paints and had originally aspired to become an English or painting teacher but, despite not being particularly politically active, found her path blocked because the officials found that: "Because of her political opinions, she is not qualified to be a teacher". She aspires to be a modern woman in a society in which many still cling strongly to strict religious observance and tradition, even as there are also large pockets of much freer behavior.
       Hasti is already twenty-six -- relatively old for her to still be unmarried (indeed, her mother already shaves four years off her age when introducing her). Mother Eshi remarried after the death of Hasti's father -- a supporter of Mossaddeq, shot to death in those times --, and Hasti lives with her devout and humble paternal grandmother, who has never quite forgiven her daughter-in-law for moving on so quickly after the death of Hasti's father. Hasti is in love with longtime friend Morad, but the novel opens around the celebrations for Persian New Year, when she is introduced to a new young man, Salim -- conservative enough that, when they are introduced and Hasti extends her hand to shake his she is rebuffed and told: "Dear, he doesn't shake hands with unrelated women". Though she explains to her mother: "How many times do I need to repeat that I am disgusted by traditional marriage ?" she finds herself drawn to Salim -- and he comes to pursue her. As she soon tells a mentor then:

I have come to announce that I have found another semi-suitor. If I give him a little push he will fall into the trap. I've come to ask you, should I give him a little push, or not ? Unfortunately, love for Morad has tied my hands behind my back.
       Salim is the kind of guy who believes: "The problem of humanity is not the arrival of the information age; the problem of humanity is Satan-strickenness", but Hasti is drawn to him, even as Morad laughs that he is:
Religious, ascetic, and Muslim. And you want to make a mystic in love out of him.
       Neither Salim nor Morad are over-simplified types; they don't simply represent the reactionary and the revolutionary. Morad is socially engaged and, like Salim -- if for different reasons --, opposed to the decadent upper class as well as the thuggish aspects of the regime.
       In the novel, Hasti moves through different circles and events, exposing her to everything from the influential foreigners to the slums of Tehran. From her humble grandmother's home to the wealthy lifestyle her mother now enjoys, Hasti moves easily -- or uneasily -- around, struggling to find her place. As independent as she tries to be, living the way she wants, she finds herself struggling to assert her will; insistent, for example, early on, when going out with Salim that she will not wear a scarf -- "He must accept me as I am. If he doesn't want to, all the better" -- she then still quickly gives in; later, she even puts on a chador to watch a performance (a scene then immediately contrasted with a party at which there are many Americans, and where there is a very different kind of audience and entertainment).
       When Hasti learns of the 'Island of Bewilderment' of the title -- an island surrounded by a lake of salt, which you can't walk across during the daytime ("You go down into slime and salt") and which is difficult to escape from -- she comes to feel:
She was certain that the Island of Bewilderment was connected to her own destiny. But right now, tonight, every night, wasn't she living in the midst of the Island of Bewilderment ?
       The novel moves along somewhat awkwardly, including when Hasti's own romantic entanglements are later somewhat overshadowed by her mother's pregnancy and the issues surrounding that.
       Hasti's own dance with Salim, and to a lesser extent Morad, does have some appeal, however, in particular as the characters involved are forthright in discussing the situation, as well as their issues and differences. As rigid as Salim is in some of his thinking, he too can come across as sympathetic, as when he observes:
     The girl I have fallen in love with has a thousand and one flaws, both religiously and socially. With respect to opinions also, she is the exact opposite of me. She isn't pretty, either. And she's old. Meanwhile, she is also in love with another man.
       And it is Salim who notes -- without outright pressuring her -- that, as he tells her: "Hasti Khanom does not know what she wants", as:
For now, she is vacillating between art and politics, love and office work, disbelief and faith.
       Daneshvar places Hasti in a variety of situations that are part of this tug-of-war -- as well as also being revealing about the conditions in Iran of the time, many of which are very openly and frankly discussed, making Island of Bewilderment of interest simply as a period portrait as well -- down to asides such as one character's comment:
Hasti, I'm disappointed by the kind of literature that has recently become the fashion in Iran. The poetry is so vague that one must get assistance from astrology and prose ... it's all pus, blood, and slime. How well they write about the poor and destitute.
       The most interesting aspect of the book, however, is that author Simin Daneshvar writes herself into the story, making herself one of Hasti's teachers. So, for example, Hasti's grandmother complains about: "All these nonsensical words that this wicked witch has put in your head; I'm fed up with this witch" (but Hasti defends her teacher).
       Among the richest scenes in the book has Hasti lie down on the bed of Jalal Al-e-Ahmad -- Daneshvar's husband, who had died in 1969, and himself a prominent writer, the other half of Iran's most formidable literary power couple --, in the room his widow has preserved just as when he was alive, with Hasti then even *seeing* him:
     "Mr. Al-e Ahmad," Hasti says, "I didn't know you were alive."
     "I'm alive in this house," Jalal says. "I'm alive in your mind and that of my wife."
     "And in the minds of many others," Hasti adds. Then she asks, "Is your ghost haunting this house ? Is your lost spirit wandering around in this house ?"
     "Ghosts are a lie," Jalal says "fabricated nightmares and dreams ..."
     "Have you visited Simin ?"
     "I'll let her go to sleep. Then I'll visit her in her dreams."
       Like Hasti herself, Island of Bewilderment isn't quite sure of what it should be, and the parts don't add up quite as neatly as one might hope in a novel. Nevertheless, there's a lot to the parts, and the various scenes and situations Daneshvar presents. If flawed, it is still a fascinating picture of those times and the tensions -- political, social, and personal -- in the air, and Daneshvar draws several of the characters (not least the drawer and painter Hasti) very well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 September 2022

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Island of Bewilderment: Reviews: Simin Daneshvar: Other books by Simin Daneshvar under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Iranian author Simin Daneshvar (سیمین دانشور) lived 1921 to 2012.

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