A search for identity is the subject of a historical novel set in 20th century Iran
Life in the time of Covid-19 is quieter and calmer and more uncertain than life before The Virus. While the enforced isolation we endure as the world tries to control the spread of the pandemic may be difficult in some respects, one plus point is that many people are rediscovering the joy of reading books.
After recently reading Graham Greene’s memoir A Sort of Life and Aldous Huxley’s brilliant Brave New World, I happened to come across a review of Nazanine Hozar’s novel Aria and my interest was so piqued that I ordered the book immediately. When it arrived, I felt the usual thrill one experiences of having a new book in my hands and then I began reading and was completely immersed in the story for the next day and a half.
The book did not disappoint me. This debut novel by a young Canadian author tells the story of Aria, a baby girl abandoned by her mother in a Tehran alleyway and adopted by the kindly man who finds her. He names the baby Aria and he tries very hard to provide her with love and security but Aria’s life is not easy: she struggles to find maternal love and grows up with three mother figures in her life “a mother who left her, a mother who beat her, and a mother who loved her but wouldn’t say so.”
Aria’s early childhood is spent in the care of her father Behrouz’s embittered wife, Zahra, who mistreats her and seems to hate the child, but then fate leads Aria to the home and the care of Fareshteh, a well-to-do woman from an originally Zoroastrian family. Behrouz tries to provide the child with what emotional mooring he can manage even as he continues trying to locate Aria’s birth mother. The story is not just about Aria’s own search for her true identity, it is also about her country’s search for its cultural, religious and political identity. The location is Tehran from 1953 to 1981 and the prevalent political climate and conflicts mirror Aria’s own journey. The story starts just before the overthrow of the elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and ends after the Iranian revolution of 1979. This backdrop of unrest and tumultuous change provides a sense of human lives battered and shaped by political events and violence. It is easy to see why Margaret Atwood has described the book as “a Dr Zhivago of Iran”.
The interesting thing about the novel is that even though some of the symbolism could have appeared contrived and clunky, it does not because the story is just so simply and beautifully written. The symbolism that is most obvious is Aria’s name meaning Iran (usually a boy’s name) and the fact that her ‘three mothers’ are all from different religious groups which are an integral part of the country’s ancient history.
The story is told with immense compassion; the focus is not just Aria herself, the lives of those around her are conveyed with great sensitivity and the reader gets a real insight into the heartbreaks, sufferings and aspirations of nearly all the characters. The political currents, the economic inequality, the sense of authoritarianism and the crushing of dissent (after the revolution the newly formed Revolutionary Guard simply takes over SAVAK’s role in picking up dissidents) is all portrayed well though the lives and experiences of the characters specifically and the bazaar generally.
One interesting character is Kamran, Aria’s childhood friend. In the Dr Zhivago comparison he is Sasha to her Lara. He cares for Aria, watches her life while remaining apart from it and after many struggles finds meaning in religion and revolution. As the new order sets in towards the end and we see many of the characters trying to adapt, we are left with the underlying sense that despite all the upheaval the country and its people are resilient, that they will, like Aria, survive the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’