Thus the male narrator becomes a victim of his own obsession while blaming it on the woman. The close and paradoxical interrelationship between the victim and the oppressor and the role the victim plays in her own oppression and liberation are demonstrated. But the female characters in the Buf-e Kur are much more passive than the female characters in the classical Iranian narratives. There the women use their powers of imagination to save themselves and to create a new world; in Buf-e Kur the opposite occurs. The attempt to communicate between the two sexes leads to the narrator's frustrating discovery of his own impotence--an impotence obviously symbolic of a helpless and disintegrating psyche. The only time he succeeds in making love to a woman is when he enters his wife's (lakateh) bed, disguised as one of her many lovers; and the sexual act itself is so violent that in order to release himself from her grasp he "inadvertently" kills her with a knife he has brought to bed with him. Sexual fulfillment and death become synonymous. The temptress in this novel is a distorted version of Tahereh, whose uncovered visage caused one man to slash his throat and others--the most powerful in the land--to murder her in secret and dispose of her body in a way that would leave no trace of her earthly existence.
Buf-e Kur offers many remarkable insights into the cultural assumptions underlying male-female relations in Iran, relations that symbolize the breakdown of dialogue between the public and private worlds. In the novels that follow in the wake of Buf-e Kur, we observe a lack of dialogue, and a lack of structural cohesion.
The male character in Buf-e Kur becomes the first in a series of impotent and obsessive characters who crowd contemporary Iranian fiction. The inability of writers to create active female characters and a dialogue between them and the male characters becomes a major obstacle to the development of the Iranian novel.
The disintegration of fictional characters in the Iranian novel may also point to a fundamental cultural problem, namely, the disintegration of the male Iranian psyche under the pressures and demands of two diametrically opposed cultures: one, the vanishing culture of the past with its unified and hierarchical view of women; the other, the modern Western-oriented culture of the present with its doubting, ironic view of he world and its fast-changing view of women.
Hushang Golshiri's The Prince of Ehtejab (1980) rearticulates the same contradictions as Buf-e Kur. The main character's lament in his Barreh-ye Gomshodeh-ye Ra'I (Ra'i's Lost Lamb) (1977) is one of the best examples of what happens to the displaced male psyche, to a man's desire and longing for the security of his mother's closed and circular world that, like a womb, created space, blood, and nourishment for him. Ra'i decides to leave his beloved because she cuts her hair short, flings her bag over her shoulder, and might commit the ultimate blasphemy of dyeing her hair blonde. An unstated question hangs over the whole novel, creating an atmosphere of almost bewilderment: what happened to that tamely secure image of the raven-haired beauty who spent all her moments at the service of her man?
Unfortunately Hedayat's merciless self-examination and his and some of his contemporaries' courageous attempts to discover new forms for the new reality were aborted by a movement that began to make itself known in the 1940s. These years saw the growth of strong Marxist influence not only among the political elite but also on the literary and artistic life in Iran.
The secure male-dominated world of the past has broken down. What remains is the residue of the past in the writer's unconscious with no direct relationship to the new world. The mind is in constant struggle with the world. It desires to come to terms with the new reality, yet it has no firm grasp of it, no real understanding. A vague hostility and mistrust toward the new reality called the Western world seeps into the Iranian novel, and colors the images of its women more than any other image.
The images of women in Buf-e Kur are said to based on the narrator's obsessions and this negation of "reality," but they are still more real and have more fictional life than the images that later appear in the so-called realistic novels. In these works the aesthetic distance between the writer and the work breaks down; there exists no cohesive structure that can place the images in creative relationship with one another. These narratives become at times veiled and insincere autobiographies; they also become loose and chaotic, filled with ideological platitudes, ready-made characters, and stilted language. Even novelists with no ideology feel more committed to ideas than to the story or the characters in the story. Women as the most obvious victims of social injustice become the focus of many of these novelists' moralizations and simplifications, and woman as victim becomes a popular theme in this literature.
The motif of women as victim dates to Moshfeq Kazemi's Tehran-e Makhowf (Tehran, the Fearsome) (1925). In Kazemi's novel all the prototypes of the socially victimized woman exist, from the beautiful young girl in love with noble and penniless young man who is harassed by greedy, insensitive parents, to the duped and penitent "fallen woman." From then on we encounter images of women as social victims in a number of novels that could be categorized under the dubious title of "popular novel." These women are either love-stricken, like the suffering young heroine in Tehran-e Makhowf, or, like Ahu in Ali Mohammad Afghani's Showhar-e Ahu Khanom (Ahu Khanom's Husband) (1961), are cheated by another favorite figure of popular novelists, the "vamp" who steals the heroine's husband.
Even in these novels there is an element of subversion in the figure of the woman whose presence destabilizes the plot and whose desire for choice and freedom in finding her husband leads to the events that shape the novel. But as time goes by this motif is more and more sacrificed to ideology. Religious dictums are replaced by ideological ones. Since this new ideology deems the role of women as progressive, they are presented as such, but the images of these new women are devoid of tension, with no contradiction and ambiguity. These images do not disturb us, they do not move us into shocking epiphanies that changed forever the life of Tuba's father; rather, they assert and caress our smug suppositions about freedom and women's rights and class distinctions.
This process can be best observed in the "realistic" tradition in Iranian literature. These realistic novels were influenced mainly by the now archaic school of social realism. In structure, they followed the rigid and linear form of the nineteenth-century novel. The characters in these novels are supposed to be "real," from the working class or the peasantry. Marxist ideology replaces orthodox religion in policing the characters' gestures, language, and relations. Voices are confiscated and made uniform and the contradictions become public and not private and personal. The contradictions are class conflicts and do not apply to the individual characters. Thus the private and the personal are once more neglected at the alter of the public and the political.
In novel after novel, Iranian writers create and re-create two extreme and worn images of women: victim and bitch. In both cases the possibility of a meaningful male-female relationship becomes a mere mirage. With the exception of two novels written by women, no real attempt is made to untie the ropes of social protest from the captured images of women, to let the women lead us to whatever buried treasure they have hidden in the depths of their shadowy existence. But even the two well-known women writers, Simin Daneshvar and Shahrnush Parsipur, are unable to represent the rich contradictions and inner complexities of their fictive characters.
In Simin Daneshvar's Suvashun (1969), the author tries to explore the sensibilities of a happily married woman who nonetheless suffers from the uncompromising and heroic stance her husband takes against the corrupt Iranian regime and its foreign masters. Daneshvar's presentation of Zari creates some uneasiness in the reader; it appears as if beneath the straightforward and explicit descriptions of Zari's innermost feelings there exists some deep emotion that has found no expression--as if some deep resentment wishes to surface and mock Zari's most sacred loyalties. But Daneshvar never dwells on this hidden and disturbing aspect of Zari. At the end of the novel, when her husband is killed, Zari takes up his political cause loyally and with conviction. Daneshvar, like her equally famous husband, Jalal Ale Ahmad, makes social statements through her characters. She, like him and a whole host of other writers, denounced ideology but followed Sartre's then popular dictum on the need for "committed prose." She simplified her heroine's real suffering--Zari's agony over having to choose between a husband she loves and an independence of mind she so desperately needs.
Shahrnush Parsipur's first long novel, Sag va Zemestan-e Boland (The Dog and the Long Winter) (1976), is a first-person narration about the trials and tribulations of a young middle-class Iranian girl. In the first part Parsipur creates the illusory relations the girl is caught in, but in the second part the narrative breaks suddenly down, switching from realistic presentation and description to a stream of associations involving the girl's dead brother, including his imprisonment and sufferings. As in her later novel, Tuba va Ma 'na-ye Shab, Parsipur begins with concrete images of a woman's life and then trails off into vague musings.
The women in these works are usually patient and strong; their contradictions are mainly external, reflecting the class conflict within the society. They lack what I call "interiority": the individuality, the inner conflicts and contradictions that give Western realistic novels such amazing lights and shades. For example, Mahmud Dowlatabadi's Ja-ye Kali-ye Soluch (Soluch's Empty Place) (1979), published on the eve of the Islamic Revolution begins with Mergan, the heroine, waking up one morning to find that her husband has left her and her three children. The narrator turns a theme that has many dimensions into a purely social issue. When describing Mergan and Soluch, he tritely informs us of how love becomes meaningless between people without money. At every crucial stage of the novel the narrator upstages his characters with tedious moralizations and unnecessary elaborations. The dialogues are constantly interrupted by the narrator addressing the reader.
The Islamists during the first years of the revolution shared with the Marxists a hatred of individual freedoms and freedom of expression in literature of art by linking them to the imperialistic ambitions of the Western world, denouncing the women's struggle as bourgeois and the urge for freedom of imagination as manifestations of decadent Western culture.
Thus we are confronted with one more case of life imitating life: like all great works of fiction, Buf-e Kur has a prophetic side to it, the self-victimized violence of the novel's narrator translates into the self-righteous brutality of the rulers of the Islamic Republic when they attempt to eliminate women from the public scene, branding them as Western puppets and dangerous agents of the Satan.
In Buf-e Kur, the process of the self's disintegration leads to a replacement of dialogue with monologue, and to an urge toward destruction arising out of impotent desire. Failing to prevent women from public appearances, the regime attempted to make them invisible through laws regarding their public appearances, thus turning their private and individual lives into underground acts of disobedience. The same rules that dominated real life also applied to fiction, where images of women were censored and mutilated to fit the censor's strictures.
After the Islamic Revolution, the formerly veiled and symbolic allusions to the political system and the government turned into overt and explicit criticism of the Pahlavi era. In Reza Barahani's Rzhay-e Sarzamin-e Man (Secrets of My Native Land) (1989), naive Armenian servant girls and fully experienced wives of high Iranian officials are seduced by unfeeling and overpowering American soldiers. To compensate for this symbolic seduction of Iranian women and equally symbolic cuckolding of the Iranian men by the exploiting Americans, we have brave and heroic women such as Thamineh, whose name is a reminder of the wife/mistress of Rustam, the unflinching Iranian legendary hero. She becomes the symbol of uncorrupted Iran.
Little wonder that the reader of these novels has an eerie feeling, as if the images avenging the mistreatment of the women refused to come to life and refused to support their author's claim that serious human issues are at stake. Several layers of relationships are created in the interactions among individuals in the novel. The private world of these individuals becomes the flesh, the inner layer that gives substance to the other layers of social, moral, and philosophical matters. The images in most of the Iranian novels during this time lack flesh. Their inability to have relationships turns the characters into mere echoes of one another and ultimately of their creator.
In most of the novels written in the first decade after the Islamic revolution, the images of women are continuations or the images in prerevolutionary literature. These novels lack active interactions between characters. Some, like Ahmad Mahmud's "war novels," have no main female character. In many of the others the dialogue between men and women is avoided by the absence of the men or by their psychological impotence. The young and controversial Muslim novelist and filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf dedicated his novel, Baghe-e Bolur (The Crystal Garden) (1989) to "the woman, the oppressed women of this land." This novel is crowded with women, whose men either have been killed in the war or will be killed by the end of the novel. The novel ends with a strangely peaceful procession of widows and children who are accompanied by the only man left in the novel, one who has been castrated in the war.
Thus, throughout the 1980s the Iranian novel vacillates between the ideological commitment and the obsessional male projections, leaving women characters shallow and intangible. It is surprising and regrettable that such a sweeping generalization safely can be made about a major part of contemporary Iranian literature.
Since the mid-1990s, a new trend has appeared in the work of a younger generation of Iranian writers. Iranian fiction has entered a new era whose most distinctive feature is its transitory nature. The Islamic Revolution, like any great upheaval, has shaken all values and norms within society. Some norms have persisted or reappeared in different forms. But this era, in Iran as well as in the world itself, is generally an era of doubt and uncertainty. Now, the images of women have to be rethought and redefined. Under extreme pressure, women must look at themselves not only as members of their society or their country, but as individuals whose very private lives and liberties are being redefined.
In this state of flux, when everything is questioned, when the present feels more unreal and distant than the past, the earlier seemingly tangible and real images of women can no longer function. In the most recent novels, the images seem to have gone on strike together, as if they refuse to work under the present conditions. In the new novels, especially those of younger writers (two of whom are women), the narrative voice breaks down or becomes one long toneless monologue, and the characters are even more shadowy and unreal than in earlier novels.
The importance of this stage in the history of the Iranian novel is its transitory nature and the doubt it has cast on all previous fixed images. The tension between the novelist's tendency to preach and moralize and the uncertainty that runs counter to any form of preaching is an expression of this doubt. The contradictory quality of these novels makes them interesting; but it also makes the reader feel as if she or he was reading about images created in a void.
But there is a promising aspect to this story. The revolution, by taking away the individual freedoms and forcing its own uniform image upon women, brought into focus how central these freedoms are to the creation of a genuinely open and pluralistic society. At the same time, they asserted the importance of women's right to choice and personal freedom in the struggle for these freedoms.
What was considered trivial and taboo is now appreciated as essential and central to the development of the novel form. One aspect of the adib's fears has been realized: women have become more conscious of the forced silence and invisibility that have turned them into someone else's figments of imagination. Tahereh Alavi in "Heidegger and I" articulates this feeling of helplessness and frustration: "And all begin to talk about me--as if I don't exist, I'm absent, I'm dead. And they can evaluate and describe my sensibilities and quirks whatever way they wish. And I look at them in a way as if they're talking about someone whom I haven't seen or known. That night ends and so do other nights. One thousand and one nights have passed from my own wedding night, I am old, used, like a coach that sometimes when they sit on it they remember a memory."
One needs to be mentioned, Although its elaboration is beyond the scope of this essay. The literary problem in Iran is not only to create fictionally real and creatively subversive images of women, but also to create a proper framework that could embody such images. Also, unlike the claims made by some feminist critics about Western women, the problem in Iran is not that Iranian women, as opposed to Iranian men, have not yet developed their own narratives, but that both men and women have as yet to create their own contemporary form of narrative, their own form of the novel.
The images in the void teach us that without tracing the complexities and ambiguities that surround the modern woman, without understanding her private world, no coherent image of women can be created. In fact, a truly subversive novel would present the mage of woman as a private self, and within that context would create many levels of reality surrounding and emanating from the self, including the social, historical, and philosophical levels of experience.
But writing in the void is better than writing according to fixed formulas. Courageously accepting the existence of this void perhaps will lead us to a creative reappraisal of where we stand in relation to our literary past and future.
Today the granddaughters and great granddaughters of Alamtaj and Tahereh have become the center of heresy by negotiating their rights as women and as writers. The great heretical and subversive contemporary Iranian novel worthy of its times has not as yet been written. The "real" woman--body, soul, and mind--has not as yet been created. Without her, men in the Iranian novel will continue to remain either absent or impotent. The Iranian novel awaits that great moment when those wise, strong, and gracious women of the classical Iranian narrative will find their worthy peers within contemporary Iranian fiction.
Afghani, Ali Mohammad. Showhar-e Ahu Khanom. Tehran, 1961.