Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Who hasn’t thought of poets as semi-mythical, Byron-like figures, with access to otherworldly visions? The truth is, most of the time poetry takes as much drafting and re-drafting as it takes divine inspiration. Ali Araghi captures this in his debut novel:
“In the evenings, when the sun went down, he sat at his desk and took out his pencil to put words on paper, trying to make them glow. He erased the dimmer words and tried new ones until the draft gave off a good glimmer. When he could read whole lines by the light they emitted alone, Ahmad knew a poem had been born.”
In The Immortals of Tehran, Ahmad can make his words glow — both as a metaphor and in a literal, physical sense. He discovers the skill as he loses his voice as a ten-year-old, after witnessing his father commit suicide, traumatized by war. It becomes the driving force of his life in a rapidly changing world: in the decades preceding the Iranian Revolution, poetry leads Ahmad into activism, politics and radical resistance movements.
Beyond poetry, there are more deterministic factors at play as well. There is a centuries-old family curse that binds Ahmad as well as his grandfather and seemingly immortal great-great-great-great grandfather. As the Revolution nears, the three different generations discover a connection between their curse and the political events unfolding around them, seeing things that others miss.
Araghi is a master of his brand of magical realism. There is more than a hint of A Hundred Years of Solitude in how he weaves together inter-generational stories and introduces new characters into Ahmad’s seemingly ever-expanding circle of acquaintances. A teenager whose aging is set to fast-forward, a child with words beyond her years and cats as an omen of turmoil all build into a wonderfully rich narrative, marking Araghi out as a unique narrative voice.
It is the non-magical reality that I wish had seen some more elaboration. There is a strong, and valuable, sense of people just getting caught up in political events, which is undoubtedly how things work for many individuals. However, the lack of nearly any kind of in-depth political discussion between the characters leaves a shallow feeling to them, when some more exploration of their actions would have created a fuller, more interesting picture. For example, only Ahmad’s daughter seems to have an actual reason to take part in street protests — and for her, that reason is a man. I won’t go into the Bechdel test.
The Immortals of Tehran might not glimmer as brightly as the poetry it describes, but even so it is a gripping debut, and with its subject matter, a refreshing addition to literature published in English now. I’ll certainly look out for what worlds Araghi will conjure up next.
Anna is a journalist and linguist.
Ali Araghi, The Immortals of Tehran (Melville House, 2021) ISBN 9781612199078, paperback, 400pp..
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