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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Persian Requiem

Simin Daneshvar

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Title: A Persian Requiem
Author: Simin Daneshvar
Genre: Novel
Written: 1969 (Eng. 1991)
Length: 276 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: A Persian Requiem - US
A Persian Requiem - UK
A Persian Requiem - Canada
Drama der Trauer - Deutschland
Suvashun - Italia
Suvashun - España
  • Persian title: سووشون
  • Translated by Roxane Zand
  • Also translated by M.R.Ghanoonparvar, as Savushun (1990)

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Our Assessment:

B : a solid novel and story, with considerable well-observed detail

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Br. J. of ME Studies . (18:2) 1991 Charles Melville
Int'l J. of ME Studies . (25:2) 5/1993 Paul Sprachman
Iranian Studies A (27:1-4) 1994 Nassim Assefi
Middle East Journal* . (5:4) Fall/1991 A.Karimi-Hakkak
The Washington Post* . 17/11/1990 Taghi Modaressi
World Lit. Today . (66:3) Summer/1992 Nasrin Rahimieh

(* review of a different translation)

  From the Reviews:
  • "A Persian Requiem is a complex and satisfying story, written in conventional narrative form and steeped in the theme of martyrdom and mourning so characteristic of Persian sentiment. (...) For all its specific socio-political references, A Persian Requiem is worth reading as a successful novel that addresses timeless issues, full of action and tenderness, conflict and warmth. This is a colourful and accurate portrayal of Persian character and spirit, a beautifully evoked picture of traditional life in times of upheaval. Its popularity in Iran is eloquent of Persian perceptions not only of themselves but also of the role of the British in their country. Roxane Zand is to be thanked for giving the English reader the chance to enjoy this sensitive and important novel." - Charles Melville, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies

  • "As it moves from one domain to another, the plot of A Persian Requiem follows the path of classical tragedy. (...) The literary value of Savushun is also a matter of critical dispute. Many have noted that its characters, with the exception of Zari, are incapable of development, clichés who act and speak according to stereotype. (...) The English palette can hardly accommodate all this local color. Two types of translation are therefore probable: a literal rendering that treats the book as travelogue or ethnography replete with scholarly notes; and a freer version that mutes local color in favor of the literary aspects of the work. With the publication of Roxane Zand's first-rate translation, both aspects of Savushun are now available in English. (...) Its many merits as a "readable" translation notwithstanding, one minor drawback of Zand's version of Savushun is that it deodorizes the language of the original as well as bleaches it." - Paul Sprachman, International Journal of Middle East Studies

  • "Daneshvar's vivid and profound depiction of female characters is a refreshing contribution to the field of Persian literature, a largely male-centered tradition marginalizing the intimate realm of daily life. With her subtle descriptions of women's sexuality, emotions, friendships, and household and community responsibilities, Daneshvar not only colorfully portrays the female sphere of existence, but she also proves to readers of both sexes how enriching that previously unexplored perspective can be. A Persian Requiem abounds with vibrantly complex personalities that are masterfully created. (...) In her translation, Roxane Zand has captured the essence of Persian prose, making the novel accessible across cultural and linguistic borders. (...) (T)here is not a dull or unintriguing moment in A Persian Requiem, a masterpiece that should be read by anyone interested in Middle Eastern literatures or women's studies" - Nassim Assefi, Iranian Studies

  • "M.R. Ghanoonparvar's rendering of the story into English is unadventurous, correct, almost clinical; a result of experience and expertise gained through many years spent primarily in translating works of modem Persian literature into English. (...) And yet, Savushun will probably not make it to the best-seller list for reasons that are not far to seek. (...) Under such conditions, the best one can expect is for that most important of the marginalized institutions, the university, to carry the burden. Savushun does indeed have all the characteristics of a good reading for any undergraduate course in contemporary Middle Eastern cultures, provided it is placed in the context of the structure of power in modern Iran." - Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Middle East Journal

  • "It is perhaps a measure of the novel's popularity and success that it now exists in two different English translations: one by M. R. Ghanoonparvar, published by Mage Press, which preserves the original title and is a more literal rendition; and Roxanne Zand's version, which attempts to bridge linguistic and cultural gaps between the novel and its English-language readers, as evidenced in her title, A Persian Requiem." - Nasrin Rahimieh, 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:

       A Persian Requiem -- also available in a different translation, as Savushun -- is among the best-known modern Iranian novels (touted on the back cover copy of this edition also as: "the first novel written by an Iranian woman"). It is set during the Second World War, in the then-British-occupied half of Iran (Britain and the Soviet Union invaded together, with the Soviets taking control over the northern half of the country). The main figure is Zari Khanoum, the wife of Yusef Khan; they have several children: young twins Mina and Marjan, and older son Khosrow, with Zari soon also finding herself pregnant again.
       The novel opens at wedding ceremony -- of the local Governor's daughter -- and closes with a funeral; throughout, the contrast between true (and arbitrary) power and right comes to the fore. Zari and her family are relatively well-off and live comfortably enough, given the times, but are not part of the ruling classes; among Zari's first observations at the wedding is about a huge loaf of bread ("Presented by the Bakers' Guild to our honourable Governor"), as she wonders: "How much flour did it take ? Yusef's right -- what a time for all this ! A time when a loaf like that would make supper for a whole family, when getting bread from the bakery is a major feat".
       The power-disparity also manifests itself early, when the bride's family gets Zari to *lend* the green emerald earrings she is wearing -- which mean so much to her, as they were: "a special gift from Yusef's poor mother" -- even as she knows she is unlikely to ever get them back. Zari knows who is behind the request -- "I bet it was that woman Ezzat-ud-Doweleh's doing" -- and the earrings play a role again at the end of the novel when manipulative Ezzat-ud-Doweleh thinks it might be more useful to have them returned to Zari after all. A horse that Khosrow tames and takes to is then similarly also claimed by the Governor's family, and they are not to be denied.
       Already at the wedding ceremony we see that Yusef speaks his mind, and those around him try carefully to keep him in line, worried especially about not upsetting the British occupying forces. Yusef is particularly outraged that the British claim practically all the local foodstuff -- and he seals his fate by distributing it to the peasants instead.
       Outspoken -- though letting himself (just) be kept in check by some of his relatives -- and a man of action, Yusef stands in some contrast to Zari, who is frustrated by how she finds herself unable to bring herself to stand up to the various powers that be. As Yusef tells Khosrow:

The teachers who've trained your mother have always tried to steer her away from reality, filling her instead with some etiquette and coquetry and embroidery. She can only talk about peace and quiet ...
       (Zari's father had been an English teacher, and Zari had attended the local British school.)
       Zari does, however, try to take some steps towards more active resistance -- including distancing herself from the midwife-surgeon who, "quite keen on using the knife", had butchered her the two times she had given birth, as she required Cesarean sections. Zari also brings food to the inmates at the prison, as well as those at the mental hospital; several of her visits to the latter are recounted here in some detail.
       'Savushun' -- the Persian title of the novel -- is: "a mourning ritual", and while A Persian Requiem also celebrates much of daily life, even in the face of hardships, the overall feeling is indeed one of mourning, even before the dark ending. It is a lament for Iran itself, and what has happened here: as Yusef notes, looking at a map of the Iran of the times: "How they've disemboweled her !" and beside the larger world war there are also local conflicts being fought out. While Zari is the central figure, several chapters are devoted to accounts by others, of their lives or experiences (and, in one case, a kind of fable -- narrated by one of the occupiers, with Yusef diagnosing: "You're trying to atone for the sins of others"); at one point, Zari has fevered hallucinatory visions and dreams (as also mental unbalance is repeatedly shown in the novel).
       As one character says: "Yusef is ahead of his time", and in these times that is dangerous. The outsiders' war is not being directly fought there, but the British occupiers nevertheless have imposed themselves on the locals and greatly limited their freedom -- culminating then also in trying to thwart the funeral celebrations at the end of the novel.
       With Yusef often away, the novel is well dominated by Zari, who shows both some independence but also struggles with her senses of obligation, some of which she recognizes as ones that have been drilled into her and which she would be better off not being bothered by. Family life is nicely described -- the twins are very young and largely oblivious to the greater goings-on, while Khosrow is already more adult but, for example, easily obsessed by something like his horse -- and Daneshvar also gives a good sense of the uneasy relationship with the occupying forces. The story does stretch rather far and wide, however -- Daneshvar at times over-reaching with her panorama, in trying to cover too much.
       With strong characters, a variety of interesting tensions, and a great deal of well-observed local detail, A Persian Requiem is a solid novel with many bits that impress greatly. Aspects of Zari's life are particularly well-captured -- not least the physical; A Persian Requiem is very modern in its treatment of that. The overall picture is pulled in a few too many directions -- one senses that A Persian Requiem should either have been a bigger work, more fully exploring its various threads, or a smaller, more tightly focused one -- but it does have considerable appeal and one can understand why, especially in Iran, it has proven an enduring and important work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 February 2024

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A Persian Requiem: Reviews (* review of a different translation): 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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© 2024 the complete review

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