Book review: Manoucher Parvin's Dardedel
By Fereshteh Davaran
June 4, 2003
Years ago, I wrote a few literary reviews on some
works that I thought merited criticism; naturally, these critiques
were not necessarily appreciated by the authors in question. I thus
made a conscious decision to change my strategy and only write about
works that I admired. This was not so much to appease the authors,
but in deference to the law of karma, which teaches us that we only
receive what we give, and attract what we project.
Therefore, when I heard Dr. Manoucher Parvin was one
of the few authors whose works would be discussed at a recent conference,
and having heard so many good things about him (though I had never
actually read any of his works), I accepted a spot on a panel feeling
confident that I would be well within the realm of my karmic resolve.
Once I had his latest book Dardedel,
however, I realized that I had quite a few negative things to say
about it. Forced to choose between good karma and critical honesty,
I opted for the latter. On that note, before I begin my commentary,
I ask both God and Dr. Parvin to forgive me for anything negative
that I might say.
To begin with some good points: I love the title,
or rather the subtitle, of the book-- "Rumi, Hafez and Love
in New York." Who among us has not tried to bring Hafez and
Rumi to America? Trying -- in vain -- to translate just a few words
to share with our Iranian and American friends?
As Dr. Parvin himself says in an interview with Dr.
Akbar Mahdi ["Private
talk without shame"]: "Hafez and Rumi are brought
into life....connecting past to present, east to west."
I should say that this would indeed have been a wonderful
undertaking, if only it had been successful. Let me add, humbly,
my own opinion that the only way this undertaking might even be
imaginable would be in the form of a comedy or farce, as Dr. Parvin's
Unfortunately, from the very first line one realizes
that Dr. Parvin is dead serious, and that his Hafez and Rumi are
little more than the author's own voice. The most difficult part
of writing a novel is creating a multi-faceted, multi-voiced world.
Even novels that employ first person narratives, for example, The
Great Gatsby, Buf-i-kur, Tristram Shandi, try to incorporate
other authentic characters and voices.
The question of character authenticity is at the
center of novelistic dilemma. Henry James believed that in order
to be realistic, a writer could only employ his or her own narrator's
inner voice, because that is all God has given to any human being.
James criticized Dostoyevki and Tolstoy for using omnipotent, omnipresent
Ever since James, authors are supposed to be scrupulously
aware of their narrators', their characters', and their own viewpoints.
It is true that some great modern and post-modern writers have defied
Jamesian rules, but always by going beyond his theory, not below
it. Authors carry paper and pencil and put tape recorders in their
pockets in order to record their character's precise voices, to
capture their uniqueness.
In addition to these techniques, a writer must also
have a wonderful ear. They should be the vessel that expresses their
characters, rather than the other way around. Characters should
not be platforms, parroting only what an author wishes to say.
Now, if one chooses Hafez and Rumi as characters,
how can one re-create such voices who had so many beautiful things
to say during their own lives? It seems to be Dr. Parvin's opinion
that they would now say exactly what he says.
We know that by invoking historical characters, Hollywood
and television have created a high stakes market for experts and
scholars. They hire Tom Stopard to create Shakespeare's dialogue
in Shakespeare in Love, or Gore Vidal to help recreate
American historical dramas.
Iran has a history of more than 3,000 years of poetry,
counting Zoroasters's Gathas as the first preserved poems.
One reason that poets are not brought to the stage by playwrights
or movie producers is that they recognize the impossibility of capturing
a poet's language. One would have to be better versed in Persian
than Hafez and Saadi in order to even imagine their language. This
predicament applies to all novelists of the world-- kings and queens
can be created; but poets and philosophers, no one dares.
Dr. Parvin, however, seems unconcerned with the authenticity
of his characters. He has brought them to New York to keep his company
and approve of his tastes and views. And they do so by becoming
little more than his own mouthpiece. Both Hafez and Rumi look up
to and admire Dr. Pirooz -- the literary stand-in for Dr. Parvin.
While the author addresses them as "Hafez jan"
and "Rumi jan," they most often refer to him as "Professor".
Time and again both Hafez and Rumi praise modern poetry in general,
and Dr. Pirouz's poems in particular, as superior to their own.
He beats Rumi in a game of chess.
At one point in the book, after a café recitation
of his poetry (which, throughout the book, sounds exactly like everybody
else's poetry), the author allows Hafez a slight criticism of Pirouz's
matter-of-fact style: "that was very nice, though I fear you
too clearly made your point for it to be a truly great poetry."
But, thank God, Rumi is close at hand to correct Hafez by saying:
"Nonsense. It was perfectly fuzzy." (p. 119)
More than a hundred years ago Freud discovered that
self-complimentarity creates hostility in an audience. Rumi -- and
especially Hafez -- knew that only too well and long before Frued.
Nevertheless, it is now the habit of many Iranian artists to praise
One must admit, however, that this mode of self-praise
has been very much modified since the revolution. I think that for
a great majority of Iranian artists the Islamic Revolution provided
a lesson in humility and self-criticism.
Now one might argue that there is no Dr. Parvin in
the book, only Dr. Pirooz, and that one should never mistake a character
for its author. This would be true if Dr. Parvin had not insisted
on such a strong sense of identification with his protagonist. Dr.
Pirooz, like Dr. Parvin, is a scientist who writes poetry. He wears
Berets. I would bet that Dr. Parvin also likes pistachios and cappuccinos.
In an interview with Dr. Mahdi, this very question
arose. Dr Mahdi asked: "It is very hard to read your novels
and not think of Professor Pirooz as yourself. Much of this novel,
for those who know you, passes through your life trials. Also, Pirooz
appears in your previous novels. As you know, some friends now lovingly
call you Pirooz.…" Dr. Parvin answered: "There is
a self-portrait in all of my novels as if I was a painter. I'm also
honest and direct about it."
But, let me tell you Dr. Parvin, we don't find it
honest. Even Oprah now knows that nobody is perfect, and if you
wish to paint a self-portrait, we want to see your scars. It is
true, very few people have the courage to tell us about the "pains
and scars which eat away their soul like a khurah," but those
are the only ones we will believe.
In addition to Rumi and Hafez, this book also features
cameos by some other well-known historical characters, such as Mitra
and even God. But this host of ancillary characters does not add
any voice to the novel. All -- including God -- only echo the words
of Dr. Parvin or Pirooz.
I am no great judge of English prose or poetry, whichever
it is that this novel is written in, but I can only imagine that
if Hafez and Rumi were to speak in English, their English would
at least match that of Shakespeare and Byron. And if God were to
speak to the current generation, would he not do so through a voice
with at least the same poetic power of Zoroaster, Solomon, or Muhammad?
Or are we to believe that God, like Hafez and Rumi in this work,
now admires free verse?
The historical Hafiz (and not the fictional one)
has a saying I don't dare translate: "Eibe may jumlah chu
gufti hunarash niz biguy." So what are these hunars,
the things that I liked, in the book?
For one thing I agree with many of the points that
Dr. Parvin raises in his novel. After all, this is a novel of ideas,
one in which characters are embodiments of ideas and the whole work
is at the service of those ideas. And many of these ideas I liked.
He has many beautiful thoughts and lines.
To cite but a few of these, he writes in one place
of "America claiming to be more than it is, while claiming
others are worse than they are" (p. 101). And "New York
shelters all, but is home to none." (p.100). And in yet another
place: "Language thinks for me instead of me thinking for me…
Language was invented for practical matters, like hunting and gathering
and making fire… It was never meant to be precise or attend
the soul." (p. 95) And also, "Even if we are fuzzy from
head to toe, we are still condemned to communicate from head to
toe. So we imprecisely, though efficiently, say what we want to
say." (p. 119)
But no amount of brilliant ideas can save a novel,
as Parsi-Pur's Aql-i Abi proves. Ideas cannot make up for
the lack of form. Whatever we call a novel -- Novel of Ideas or
Manners, Classical, Modern, or Post-modern -- a good novel is supposed
to enrich our experience of life by the wealth of its insight into
the human soul, which can only be obtained through language and
style, and above all honesty.
Somewhere in the middle of the book, the book's professorial
tone changes and the plot thickens by a romantic and sexual relationship,
or vassal, between Mitra and Hafez. In an interview, Dr. Parvin
said that his novel has been influenced by Attar's Conference
of Birds, and that perhaps in the fashion of Shaikh Sana'an
and the tarsa girl, he intends the love story between Hafez and
Mithra to be "A fantastic love story perhaps surpassing all
the classical love stories, in East and West."
In a comical scene, a court session is also described
with a Marquezian sense of humor. Alas, the author soon leaves his
love story and the sense of humor and returns to his somber and
grave tone, killing Hafez and resuming the homilies and his own
claim to be the true successor of Rumi and Hafez. By the novel's
end, the two truly great Persian poets are dead, leaving the earth
to Professor Pirooz, and "appointing him" as "the
keeper of the flame" and the guardian of the newly reincarnated
twins Hafez and Rumi. (p. 229)
One of the minor characters in the book is Omar Khayyam,
who appears as a bird and recites some of his work. Here, one might
imagine that Dr. Parvin would seize the opportunity of Khayyam's
arrival to present some of Fitzgerald's elegant translation, which
might give the readers a hint of the beauty and glory of Khayyam's
language. But, alas, one would be wrong.
Dr. Parvin does not allow the best ever translation
of classical Persian poetry to break his monotone. It seems that
he is convinced that his mundane language and voice is the only
one worth hearing, and he himself translates Khayyam in the same
way that he translates Hafez and Rumi.
Dr. Parvin sometimes calls himself a modern man of science, and,
indeed, his facility with scientific ideas and thoughts are quite
impressive. I should wish that in his next novel, Dr. Parvin follows
Hemingway's advice and sticks with what he knows best.
We might have no means to know what Hafez and Rumi
-- or for that matter God -- would think of our so-called modern
civilization. But Dr. Parvin certainly does know what makes him
and his fellow countrymen and women tick. Perhaps with the aid of
a tape recorder or a pair of eager ears, he can also hear what they
have to say. If he were to dig deep, he might even find a flaw or
two within his own person to make his self-portraits more engaging
As for myself, after so many years of laudatory reviews,
I must confess the guilty pleasures of (hopefully) constructive,
if at times negative, criticism. For this reason I thank Dr. Parvin
for giving me the chance to sting.
Fereshteh Davaran is writing a Ph.D. dissertation
for the Near Eastern Studies Department at University of California,
Berkeley, and teaching Persian at Diablo Valley College.
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