By Lailee Bakhtiar van Dillen
January 14, 1998
"The Fortune Catcher" (Warner Books, 1997) Susanne Pari's fictional story of first love and escape during post-revolutionary Iran spins a sensational tale of harrowing terror and passion. The contemporary odyssey is in capable hands as Pari awakens the rich complexity of a dangerous, volatile time.
Layla, the beautiful, resourceful heroine, secretly marries her admirable lover, Dariush. The two wait for darkness to slip out into the night -- a fitting image since Layla means the night in Arabic. The reason for the clandestine marriage is that Dariush plans to flee the country and skip out on his soldiering duty to fight against Iraq.
Amir, Dariush's friend and trusted ally, will take care of everything, Dariush thinks. The double-dealing Amir proves himself a sinister enemy as he tracks Dariush's whereabouts and reports him to the authorities. A twisted, irrational man, Amir is caught up in an underworld. Dariush doesn't know the changed man.
Lured back to Iran by Maman Bozorg, Dariush's grandmother, the lovers are stunned by the danger they face. When a betrayed Dariush leaves his bridal suite, he is arrested in the lobby of the hotel by military guards. His dire fate is sealed. Layla descends to the lobby, missing him and runs to the streets, seeing a beaten man hoisted off in a military jeep.
A poignant account is given by Pari of Layla rambling through the streets, then encountering a demonstration. Suddenly a truck stops, drops two women prisoners as a full-fledged, antiquated stoning begins. Women accused of adultery are finished off by the hammer head of shovels. A shocked Layla is arrested at the scene by a brutal, female revolutionary guard who perhaps noticed Layla's fine quality black chador which stands out from the impoverished, tattered crowd.
Imprisoned in a rat-infested cellar, Layla is suspected of being a Marxist and destined to a roof-top execution. With sheer, epic courage a severely battered Layla escapes using her knowledge of a tunnel concealed behind a brick wall.
In the meantime, Maman Bozorg, Dariush's grandmother is clearly the guilty party. A venomous, controlling, manipulating woman, she insists she wants the best for her beloved grandson. Instead, she inflicts tragic pain. Maman Bozorg despises Layla. She is aghast they secretly married, and Layla's death and her grandson's disappearance is her cruel desire.
Maman Bozorg desperately hopes Dariush will marry his cousin, Mariam, who fancies him. Mariam is not only Dariush's cousin, but a childhood friend of Layla's -- or so Layla thinks. Until we hear Mariam's story of rejection by her jilted lover, we can't understand her deep resentment for the free-spirited, Americanized Layla.
Once brave-hearted Layla escapes her slavish prison, Maman Bozorg feels a greater sense of urgency in destroying Layla and Dariush's union and her schemes become even more cruel and insane. By this time Dariush is trying to hold onto dear life as he is sent to the war fronts to fight the Iraqis and the reader is wondering whether the lovers will ever see each other again.
In a world faced with the consequences of revolutions and wars, we see innocent people, like the characters in this novel, as the victims of traumatic circumstances. The Iranian revolution of 1979, during its paroxysms, bear similarities to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the French strife of 1789 and even the American political struggle of 1776. "The Fortune Catcher" revolves around the class struggle against kinship and dictatorship, with innocent bystanders suddenly finding themselves caught in tragic conditions.
Pari tells a story of lovers trapped by revolution and sinister enemies within the private sanctity of home life. In addition to the chaotic storm of revolution and war, the hero and heroine struggle against the patriarchal grandmother, and even close friends.
The suspenseful writing style matches the horrors of revolution, no different than was witnessed in Bosnia, with formerly dignified people behaving in fear-stricken, hate-filled new ways against their own demons. Also, the swift style underscores the characters panicky thinking process which leads to the double tragedy of cruelty within this fictional family.
Reminders of senseless war are revealed by the hero's brief role in the Iran-Iraq war, running over land mine filled territory, trying to help an old man nearly blinded by his fear. The dramatic chapter on the keys to heaven shows the effects of land mines on a young child's body and catches Pari at her best. A reminder of women's abuse is ever present, not only in the arbitrary imprisonment of the heroine, but in the frightful public beating.
Ironically, I recently returned from a month's visit to numerous cities throughout Iran, and heard about the flesh and blood suffering of hundreds of thousands of lives lost during the Iraqi war. In reality, in the over two thousand year old culture there are more remnants of love and philosophy than hatred, and family life is widely cherished beyond our wildest expectations.
Yet, as is revealed by Pari's novel, the world does turn upside down when war strikes and formerly sane relationships can be reminiscent of our worst warlike behaviors. It is wise to beware this novel is potentially about all of us, and not point to the one possible culprit who is never ourselves.
Lailee Bakhtiar van Dillen, author of "The Roses of Isfahan; A Collection of Iranian-American short stories" (SERA Publishing, 1997) hosts a television show on new books, "Authors & Critics" on KCSM TV in San Francisco. (Back to top)
About the author
Susanne Pari was born in the United States in 1957 to an Iranian father and an American mother of Protestant and Jewish background. She was six months old when her parents first took her to Tehran where they lived in the aristocratic household of her grandparents. Pari's grandfather was a businessman and devout Muslim who had studied to become a cleric but quit the religious school "when he realized how corrupt it was."
During the boom decades under the Pahlavi monarchy before the 1979 revolution, Pari's grandfather and his sons became wealthy and well-known industrialists. Her parents divided their time between Tehran and New York.
Pari lived a truly multicultural life. She was raised in Iran and America, with Islam and Judaism, alongside the working class families of her maternal grandparents and the aristocratic one of Iran. She developed a resilience moving between and among cultures and to see them from the inside and outside at the same time. Creating stories about such a rich world was irresistible.
As the daughter of an industrialist, Pari was pampered and innocent, forbidden to contemplate a career and expected to follow the strict rules of Persian womanhood while living the life of a Western woman. The Islamic revolution changed everything.
In August 1978, she saw Tehran for the last time. Within two years - by 1981 - Pari's extended family, including an uncle who was the Minister of Commerce in the Shah's cabinet) was forced to flee the Islamic regime and join the Iranian diaspora where they still remain. All their properties were confiscated by the government and their companies and factories nationalized.
With the revolution came the loss of wealth and security, the loss of a coherent plan for the future. Each year, the situation grew more melancholy and the emotional toll of financial and cultural hardship grew more intense.
Pari's parents sold their large estate overlooking the Hudson River and mapped out a course of austerity. In 1982, they filed suit against the Islamic Republic with the International Court at The Hague and finally, 11 years later, Pari, her siblings, and her mother fought their case face to face against the representatives of the Islamic Republic.
In 1994, the international tribunal awarded them judgement and, while reparations amounted to a small percentage of what was lost, victory was sweet. Because of this lawsuit, Pari cannot visit Iran without putting herself in danger.
Pari has an undergraduate degree in psychology and master of science in print journalism. She has been published in The Christian Science Monitor where she worked for a year, and The Boston Globe.
Ten years ago she married her best childhood friend and settled in California where her husband works in Silicon Valley. They have a young son. (Back to top)
Praise for "The Fortune Catcher"
"An exciting literary debut and a riveting love story, woven with intrigue and psychological complexity. The writing is sensual, the characters are memorable, and the story is intelligently structured so that the reader floats easily between two worlds. This is the work of a first-rate storyteller." - Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club
"A plot twisting debut about two lovers caught up in the Islamic Revolution of the '70s who defy torture, a monstrous grandmother, and a psychopathic spy... an accomplished first novel about loving dangerously in dangerous times." - Kirkus Reviews
"In this debut novel, Pari artfully exposes her readers to Islamic fundamentalist culture and balances its harshness with an intriguing mosaic of complex characters, Byzantine plots, and a memorable love story." - Library Journal
You can purchase Susanne Pari's "The Fortune Catcher" online at Amazon.com. THE IRANIAN is an associate of Amazon.com, the world's largest online bookstore.