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Khoda Hafez Rumi
Book review: Manoucher Parvin's Dardedel

By Fereshteh Davaran
June 4, 2003
The Iranian

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 title suggests.

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 narrators.

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 themselves unabashedly.

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.

In Dardedel, 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 and sympathetic.

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.

Author

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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