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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Symphony of the Dead
Abbas Maroufi

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To purchase Symphony of the Dead

Title: Symphony of the Dead
Author: Abbas Maroufi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 355 pages
Original in: Farsi
Availability: Symphony of the Dead - US
Symphony of the Dead - UK
Symphony of the Dead - Canada
Symphonie der Toten - Deutschland
  • Farsi title: سمفونی مردگان
  • First published in Teheran in 1989
  • Translated by Lotfali Khonji
  • This review refers to the 1996 German translation, Symphonie der Toten (trans.: Anneliese Gharaman-Beck)

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive panoramic novel of an Iranian family

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 29/9/2007 Adrian Turpin

  From the Reviews:
  • "What distinguishes the book from a typical domestic saga, however, is its structure. Based on symphonic form, with different narrators for each movement, it switches back and forth between first- and third-person with no warning. That can be an effective device in a story so concerned with memory. But itís also exasperating to have to re-read key passages, trying to work out who did what to whom. (...) Does this matter ? Not if youíre patient and can relax into the stream of consciousness." - Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

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:

       Abbas Maroufi's novel Symphony of the Dead tells the story of the Urchani family. Paterfamilias Djaber is a successful merchant, a respected man in provincial Ardebil. He has a dutiful wife and four children. The eldest son is Yussof, who was tragically injured as a child and exists in a barely human state. He is an enormous burden on the family, but refuses to die. There are also the twins Aida and Aidin, and then there is Urhan.
       The story is told in symphonic form, with four varied movements that repeat parts of the story from different points of view, offer various voices, shift in tone and time and place. The main focus is the conflict between the brothers Aidin and Urhan. Urhan takes after his father and is eager only to take over the family business. Aidin was a promising poet and dreamer, hoping eventually to go to Teheran to study. The father never understood Aidin's literary inclinations and several times burnt all his possessions -- books, writings, everything -- thinking to teach him a lesson.
       Aidin's spirit and ambition remains unbroken for a long time, despite his father's rants and raves and wanton destruction. His father allows himself to be convinced that the military would be a good place for Aidin, and Aidin disappears underground, finding refuge with a friendly Armenian at whose wood-mill he worked. For years Aidin lives and labours in the basement of a church, practically never venturing forth. He dreams of saving enough to go to Teheran -- and he falls in love with his benefactor's daughter, Ssurmeh, though he believes he is not good enough for her.
       Aida marries a wealthy man who studied in America, very much against the wishes of her father. Though the couple love one another deeply this union also comes to a tragic end, devastating Aidin as well.
       All the while Urhan connives and works to get complete control of the family business, and to rid himself of the burden of his siblings.
       Maroufi's atmospheric novel conveys life in the cold reaches of northern Iran in the middle of the twentieth century. Ardebil is a significant Iranian city, but provincial in comparison to the distant capital, Teheran, into which even then all the hopes of the country had been placed. World War II rages for part of the novel, around the strategic location of Ardebil, and Russian, German and English influences are felt. Nevertheless, this is very much a Persian story, with little concern for the outside world, indeed with even cosmopolitan Teheran kept at bay.
       Aidin's privations are convincingly described, as is the cold of the northern town and the hard life there. Maroufi is especially good in describing Aidin's life alone in the church. Several of the other characters also add to the novel, from the Englishman Lord whose factory is a centrepiece of industry in the area to the wicked policeman Ayas to the charming Ssurmeh (who also narrates part of the novel). Only the stubborn father is not entirely convincing, with his outrageous behaviour demanding more explanation: his fear of modernity, of education, culture, and the big city (Teheran) all need to be treated more thoroughly.
       The members of the Urchani family are ultimately reduced to a state of something like the living dead, some sooner, some later. Physically, emotionally, intellectually their lives are blunted, their hopes (and bodies) dashed, and even where there were the brightest possibilities there is no escape -- so with Aida, who moved away from Ardebil and still meets a tragic end.
       The symphonic framework is unusual for a novel that is otherwise so firmly founded in a different tradition, but Maroufi uses it effectively. The book is surprisingly like such a massive orchestral work -- a complex feat which Maroufi pulls off exceptionally well. The changes in voice and point of view, and the repetition are very well done: Maroufi relates a strong (though bleak) story with unlikely musical grace.
       Symphony of the Dead is very bleak -- perhaps even unnecessarily emphatically so, acts of kindness more than balanced out by often shocking cruelty. There are bright moments, but darkness (and cold) seems always just around the corner. Nevertheless, this is a rewarding and satisfying work. Recommended.

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Symphony of the Dead: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Iranian author Abbas Maroufi (معروفی ، عباس) was born in 1957. Editor of the magazine Gardoon, he was forced into exile in 1996. He currently lives in Germany.

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