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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Touba and the Meaning of Night

Shahrnush Parsipur

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To purchase Touba and the Meaning of Night

Title: Touba and the Meaning of Night
Author: Shahrnush Parsipur
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 367 pages
Original in: Farsi
Availability: Touba and the Meaning of Night - US
Touba and the Meaning of Night - UK
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Touba and the Meaning of Night - India
Tuba - Deutschland
Tuba e il senso della notte - Italia
  • Persian title: طوبا و معنای شب
  • Translated by Kamran Talattof and Havva Houshmand
  • Afterword by Houra Yavari
  • Biography by Persis M. Karim

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective story about the transformations Iran underwent in the 20th century

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 15/11/2003 Faraj Sarkohi
Publishers Weekly . 27/3/2006 .
Tikkun A+ 7-8/2006 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Parsipur makes a stylishly original contribution to modern feminist literature." - Publishers Weekly

  • "A fictional biography of a woman named Touba, and her struggle to survive successively exploitative relation ships in a patriarchal religious culture wracked by cataclysmic political transformations, Touba and the Meaning of Night is a feminist tour de force that stands among the classics of twentieth-century Middle Eastern literature. We can't recommend Touba more highly." - Tikkun

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:

       Touba and the Meaning of Night centres largely around Touba and her experiences of the rapid changes Iran underwent in the 20th century. Born at the end of the 19th century, when a woman's role was often still very limited, Touba is confronted with constant change; from early on she wants simply to search for God -- a pursuit of something pure, simple, and complete -- but the world around her, and all it entails, holds her back.
       Touba is fortunate in that her father recognises that the world is changing. Haji Adib isn't comfortable with much that is happening, but he recognises that knowledge can't be held at bay. He knows, for example, that it has now been proved that the world is not square or flat but round -- "yet he wanted to continue believing in the squareness of the earth". Admirably, he is willing to question himself:

He needed to understand why he wanted the earth to remain square.
       And he also understands:
Now that the earth was round, everything took on a different meaning.
       Appropriately enough, one of the gifts he gives his daughter is a globe. More importantly, he teaches her how to read (even as he knows that giving women knowledge and allowing them to think undermines much of what he grew up with).
       Her father dies when she is only twelve, but as the only member of the family with any education Touba essentially runs it. At fourteen she makes a great sacrifice, daringly essentially proposing marriage to Haji Mahmud, a relative who supported the household, in order to save her mother from having to marry him. Haji Mahmud is much older than her, and the marriage is no great success; it ends in divorce after only a few years.
       Among the items Touba brings to her house after the divorce are her father's books (and the globe), but she barely has time to study them before she is married off again, this time to a relatively poor prince from the reigning Qajar dynasty. It, too, is not an ideal marriage: the prince is often away (and has to spend considerable time in exile). Touba only participates occasionally in court life, but is at least introduced to it -- while elsewhere encountering more revolutionary figures. Irans's significant geo-political role, and the tug-of-war of influence by the English, Russians/Soviets, and Germans, especially during the two World Wars also have ripple effects throughout the country (and her life), as does later the American influence.
       There's constant change throughout the novel, with the new all around. Parsipur doesn't overemphasise it, but often slips it in nicely in such observations as when Touba sits down in an easy chair: "She was not used to furniture and felt stiff."
       Politics often intrudes -- especially given her connexion to the eventually deposed royal family -- but Touba is, for example, satisfied that her family has been spared by Reza Shah, even though she knows others have been tortured and murdered by the regime:
But what did it matter ? The ones who died were important individuals. The shah left ordinary people alone.
       After the second World War, with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as shah, and then the rise (and fall) of Mosaddeq, other characters also take a more prominent place in the novel, notably Ismael, who becomes Touba's son-in-law. An excellent student he becomes politically active and is arrested and interrogated by the security forces. Other significant characters portray other typical Iranian roles in those years.
       Touba herself remains at some distance from much of this. She is curious about politics, but her view of it is relatively simplistic, seen only in light of her life rather than the larger picture (which is, however, something fleshed out by the other characters). Touba never forgets her personal quest -- and sets out (physically) several times for what she seeks. Rather than the simply traditionally devotional, Touba's experiences (and part of what lures her) is of a decidedly mystical bent, used very effectively by Parsipur.
       Some of the novel's strongest episodes are flights of fancy, accounts of what amounts to the supernatural. Strikingly, Touba is eventually burdened with a particularly horrible story, and with it the body of Ismael's sister, Setareh -- to which, eventually, comes a second:
She had carried the first body all these years, had cried for it on many occasions in the mosques and during sermons, and had protected the house's perimeters, not allowing an unfit eye to view the hidden grave. She had put aside her dream of searching for God in order to be able to adapt and turn the wheels of her fortune until the proper time arrived. Now they had placed a second corpse on her back and left the house.
       Touba and the Meaning of Night does not proceed as one simple life-story. There are large gaps in the story, jumps ahead in time, while other parts are presented in close detail. Familiarity with 20th-century Iranian history no doubt helps in understanding some of the events and characters better, though Touba's own story, in particular, is surprisingly effective even without the historical connexion. (Both the translators' introduction and an afterword do provide considerable helpful supporting material; the book is very well presented.)
       The language doesn't always flow smoothly (and the breaks in the action make this even more obvious), and it's not clear to what extent this is true to the original; possibly such an approach works better in Farsi ..... Nevertheless, the overall impression is entirely satisfactory, with many of the scenes vividly realised and quite gripping.
       Unusual, and perhaps not meeting all western expectations of such a history-covering fiction, Touba and the Meaning of Night is nevertheless certainly worthwhile

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Touba and the Meaning of Night: Reviews: Shahrnush Parsipur: Other books by Shahrnush Parsipur under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur (شهرنوش پارسی پور) was born in 1946. She currently lives in California.

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