Family saga of 20th Century Iran could use more realism, less whimsy
Centuries of inherited superstitions for Iranians is magical realism to the rest of the world. These colorful and far-fetched superstitions are what make up the sturdy fabric of the culture’s rich and enduring traditions. Iranian author and translator Ali Araghi uses these superstitions as the scaffold upon which The Immortals of Tehran, his first novel in English just released in paperback, builds its multi-generational story.
The ambitious novel takes place over the course of the majority of the 20th century. The main protagonist, at the start of the book, is a young boy named Ahmad living in a village outside the capital city of Tehran. This is just the right setting for the most extreme of these superstitions, as the Iran of that time lacked the benefits of any modern conveniences.
The seed of the magical realism in The Immortals of Tehran come from Ahmad’s great grandfather, Agha, who lives in a tree and who believes all of Iran’s troubles stem from cats who are intent upon taking revenge on its people. Araghi recounts the fairy tale from which this belief is born early on in the novel, laying the groundwork for all the havoc cats wreak upon the country. Also early on is the suicide of Ahmad’s father. He shoots himself in the head with a rifle, which he makes his son hold while he pulls the trigger. Ahmad loses his voice after this, becoming mute for the rest of his life.
The core story of Ahmad and his family two generations before him and two generations after him is told through the threat of communism hanging over the country by its neighboring Russia to dissatisfaction with the reigns of both Shahs, the temporary rise of nationalism, extreme poverty, underground resistance, imprisonment, torture, radical demonstrations, and the culminating revolution. There’s no incident in 20th century Iran into which the book doesn’t delve. If you haven’t brushed up on your Middle Eastern history, you might struggle to put the family saga in context.
Admist all these upheavals and political unrest, Ahmad’s grandfather, Khan, spends his time tracking and chasing cats around Tehran. By plotting their movements, he’s able to predict the future, including the day the revolution will take place. Meanwhile, the charmed Ahmad falls in love multiple times, so hard that he doesn’t remember a love before the current one. He woos all his ladies without ever uttering a word.
First he’s a metal forger and voluntarily and regularly gets beat up in a fight club-type gathering. Then he becomes a prolific and celebrated poet. Later, he becomes a politician. Araghi provides lyrical descriptions of Ahmad writing his poems with each word and each line shining a light off the page. In these rare parts of the novel, the magical realism feels actually magical rather than ridiculous. But then Ahmad creates a poem so fiery, writing it on anything burns it, and he uses the poem to aid revolutionaries in their quest. This is where the magical realism loses control.
It takes a bizarre turn when flying cats act as the catalysts—pun intended—to the successful overthrow of the government. These imagination-stretching scenes are one of the downfalls of The Immortals of Tehran. Another is the multiple intertwined storylines of the ever-expanding members of Ahmad’s family. Each conflict—and there are many—is gripping and well-placed. But it takes so long for resolution to come about that by the time it does, we lose the momentum of the these overlapping struggles. Not only that, but Araghi delivers the positive resolution as an after-thought, without the requisite fanfare that such a lengthy, albeit dwindling investment on the reader’s part deserves. The lagging 400-page novel closes not with a bang, but with a whimper.
(Melville House, April 7, 2020. Paperback editionApril 13, 2021)