The Gardens of Consolation by Parisa Reza

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Translated by Adriana Hunter

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

“To the east, bare earth as far as the eye can see. To the west, hills … then on the horizon, mountains.  And a road, traced along the length of the desert, the length of the mountains, from Isfahan to Tehran.” 

That is the beginning of this lovely book, as two young newly married people, Sardar and Talla, set out for a new life.  And at the end of the book, after a lifetime of work and modest success, they are still together, and their son, the brilliant Bahram, has fled from a government crackdown against liberals in Tehran:

Sardar and Talla sat in their garden, side by side, without a lamp, by the light of the moon.  A cool wind brought the small of jasmine and damp soil; … there was nothing to bother them that evening … Sardar put his hand on Talla’s. “Allahu Akbar! The world is so beautiful here this evening, What more could we ask?”

This is really a love story, and it is set in Iran – and on both counts it is rather outside my normal reading.  But it is beautifully written, and rather tough emotionally – and is soaked in the desert and towns of an Iran struggling to find its feet in the modern world, to grow, to educate its people, and to westernise. Parisa Reza was born in Tehran in 1954, but she left to live in France late in her teens, and this was originally Les jardins de consolation.   It is translated from the French by Adriana Hunter – the most accurate thing I can say is that you don’t think of it as a translation at all, you don’t notice it, it is very well done, somehow feels Persian and French, yet is never awkward or intrusive.

Sardar and Talla grow up in the village of Ghamsar, and at the age of 17, Sardar sells his land and asks for his green eyed bride, then 9, in a single conversation with his uncle.  He is married, and then he sets off for Tehran, alone, leaving her in the village to wait his return when he has made enough money to start them off in life. The only words he has ever said to her are his farewells. Three years later – and they are hard years for Talla, working relentlessly and wondering whether he will ever come back – he claims her, and they set off across the desert for a new life.  Life is tough, children are lost, politics flows found them like the rumble of distant storms, and Talla has to adopt the chador – and years later, to put it off.  But gradually, they make a living, they have a son, and there is enough to eat and a little over. They build a house, and buy a radio. They work hard, and they prosper, always keeping their heads down, and never exploring the world beyond their new village.

They have come from every corner of Iran, from the south occupied by the English, the north occupied by the USSR, the unoccupied zones, from every ethnicity, tribe and language … They have all come and are about to start their sessions of endless debating and shouting in the Assembly building. For now, as they stride like conquerors marching triumphantly to the temple, they are convinced they will perform miracles for the Iran of tomorrow. And Sardar has no part in it, and Talla does not even count.

Bahram, their only son, is a very bright boy, but over-protected and too closely loved by his mother, who has lost children before.  He goes through school – a major innovation in their lives – successfully, and then persuades the local bigwigs to keep extending the top class so he can continue his studies and then go to university.  He is good looking, intelligent, and a bit cocky – and he finds himself in a strange world of politics and debate and also of women, to whom he is terribly attractive, though he is foolishly and heartlessly fickle and finds interest in anyone hard to sustain after he has conquered their hearts (though nothing more than an occasional kiss is involved, except when he loses his virginity to a young widow at the risk of a beating or even death).

Bahram becomes a supporter of the liberal Mohammad Mossaddegh, and is horrified and terrified when a foreign funded coup turns him from power, leading to Reza Khan rising to power as Reza Shah Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran overthrown in the revolution of 1979 by the supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini).  He burns his papers, denies his membership of the party, and runs into hiding.

 “… when I’m thinking about what Iran really is I also automatically wipe eighty percent of the population from sight. And you do the same. Do you actually know what your father wants? Have you ever once asked him?

So that’s why, my son, this country will never experience peace and freedom in my lifetime nor, I’m sorry to have to say, in yours nor even, I would say, in your children’s.  What would be the point of freedom when enslavement is so tragic, tragedy is so poetic, and poetry is so Persian!

Kokab, go and fetch a bottle of wine and four glasses, and pass me the book of Hafez’s poems.”

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Parisa Reza, The Gardens of Consolation (Europa Editions, 2017). 978-1-60945-350-3  260pp, paperback.

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