- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

Four novels published this summer speak with varied voices: authors from Iran, Italy, Denmark and England, locales as different as Khomeini’s Tehran and contemporary Copenhagen, moods of didactic intensity, fanciful whimsy and engaging realism. Here is fiction to suit many tastes.

In Dakhmeh (Toby Press, $14.95, 189 pages), a writer using the nom de plum Naveed Noori describes the Islamic revolution in Iran — the excitement of the Shah’s ouster, the confusion of young people adjusting to life under Khomeini and to war with Iraq, the loneliness and isolation of the exile in America and the horror of return to Tehran. The story is an impressionistic mix of first-person narration by a man in solitary confinement and by an omniscient narrator describing the prisoner’s experience and that of the official who tracks him.

It is a brutal tale and the author’s point of view is clear. The revolution that promised so much and was greeted with such enthusiasm has produced terror — torture chambers, book burnings, neighbors who disappear and no one knows where or why. The atmosphere is one of fear, poverty, despair on a scale small as well as large. Dogs, described in ancient Persian texts as the most respected of animals, are now considered unclean; gangs of boys, encouraged by the mullahs, throw stones at strays. Women hide their forms under chadors and monteaus (a long overcoat) but in certain parts of the city young prostitutes walk the streets wearing nothing underneath.

The story is engaging though it suffers from occasionally shaky grammar (“My mother gave money to Naazi and I to buy a picture of Khomeini … “) and from a plethora of Iranian words and phrases that have the reader constantly flipping to a 75-word glossary at the book’s end. Much of it reads more like a political analysis than fiction. “What was needed was a divorce of religion from government … ”

But the questions the author asks about Iran’s past and its present and the circumstances he evokes are compelling. This is surely just one of what will become many works of both literature and reporting from this tortured country.

• • •

Prize-winning Italian writer Roberto Pazzi’s Conclave (Steerforth Italia, $14.95, 276 pages) is a lighter read. The author sets this novel in the Vatican, in the wing of the Apostolic Palace where 127 cardinals are sequestered, entrusted with the task of discerning which of their number shall be the next pope. The time is the present (the recently departed pope is a hard act to follow; American cardinals are flaunting their cell phones despite a ban on them) but the mechanics of making this decision are locked in tradition.

There are fascinating realistic details about how a conclave functions and about what might take place in the minds of the men thrown together there. But Mr. Pazzi isn’t dealing with reality here. He lets his imagination run riot. While the cardinals are troubled by their inability to reach consensus, the ancient halls of the Vatican are invaded by a surreal succession of rats, cats, chickens and bats.

Groups of cardinals gather nightly in the Vatican’s spa to discuss this and while there they lose their normal reserve; frenzied singing and dancing erupt; bizarre possibilities are discussed. Might they elect a Palestinian pope? An African? Is it possible that God has abandoned them? Or are the various weird happenings at this Conclave actually manifestations of the Holy Spirit?

Mr. Pazzi looses his playful, irreverent tone long enough to get in several tediously preachy passages. The South American cardinals “need only look to the folds in their dioceses to see the truth behind the monstrous falsehood that upholds the Unites States’ image as custodian of peace and arbiter of justice throughout the land.” The man who ends up being elected pope assures his fellow cardinals at one point that “Millions of women must still endure the horrors of female circumcision because of superstitions and religious taboos … millions of men will be forced to suppress their feminine inclinations in deference to our condemnations. Myriad victims that we will create, along with the ayatollahs and the rabbis and any witch doctors remaining on earth.”

Mr. Pazzi’s gift for fabulist fiction seems to have been eclipsed here by his need to, if you will, pontificate.

Danish author Jens Christian Grondahl is another widely read European author. The eponymous protagonist of his new book, Lucca (Harcourt, $26, 336 pages), is a beautiful woman admitted to a provincial Danish hospital after a car crash that leaves her severely injured and, probably, blinded. Robert is the doctor who cares for her; he becomes acquainted, too, with the husband she refuses to allow to visit and with her young son. These circumstances create a rare trust between patient and doctor who, in a series of afternoon visits, tell each other their stories. We know we’re not in America because, even in the hospital, everyone smokes.

Lucca and Robert are, in some ways, similar. Each has been married and had love affairs, casually undertaken and deeply disappointing; each has a much-loved child. They are isolated characters from emotionally deprived homes. (Robert’s mother “survived on a diet of cigarettes and novels.” Her favorite was “Madame Bovary.” Lucca is named after the Tuscan town where her then-married mother picked up her Italian father and conceived a daughter with him. He abandoned them both some years later.) On the deepest level what Robert and Lucca share is a fear of real intimacy.

The narrative skips from Robert to Lucca, past to present and contains some lovely, perceptive writing. “In the course of the day,” The author writes of the brief period when Lucca happily tended her home, “while her hands were busy with all manner of practical things, her thoughts circled like the swallows, now low around the house, now high up among the drifting cloud formations.” Here is the scene in the car as Robert drives his daughter to the train station after a weekend visit: “The weather was worsening, the light was gray and metallic over the restless corn. Silence fell between them, as it usually did before they parted.”

But by the time these characters break free of their crippling self-absorption, we have been reading for hundreds of pages. We know too much about their failed love affairs. Their progression to maturity is too little, too late to hold our interest or to ring true.

• • •

British novelist Melvyn Bragg’s A Son of War (Arcade, $25.95, 432 pages) on the other hand, is a thoroughly satisfying read. A sequel to “The Soldier’s Return,” it picks up the story of Sam and Ellen Richardson and their young son Joe in 1947. Sam has returned from service with the British army in Burma, has fought off the impulse to emigrate to Australia with his best war buddy and is back in Wigton, the Yorkshire town where he feels suffocated and his adored wife is happy (and where Mr. Bragg was born). The drama comes less from events — not much actually happens — than from Joe’s emerging sense of his self and the ways in which he is influenced by his father and therefore also by the experience of war that shaped him.

Mr. Bragg’s writing is quietly elegant, his story subtly constructed. Underlying the narrative about the family’s move from Wigton to a tiny house in a brand new suburb and then back to town when Sam takes over management of a pub there is Joe’s progression from small boy, awed by his newly-returned father to child delighting in snowstorms and movies and boxing with his dad to young man, ambitious and intelligent, but also tortured by unnameable fears, trying to move out of the shadow of his lovely, protective mother, to measure up to his father. And woven through this story is Ellen’s search for the truth about her father for whom she longs though she never knew him.

Finally, this fine book is about how men balance their need for home and security with their impulse to fight, their need to be gentle and caring but also strong and dominant. Here are Sam’s thoughts after watching a cricket match with a friend.

“Sport, like war, to Sam, was fundamentally about men: men at full stretch, men pitting their best against the best, surfing luck, testing fortune, and above all things seeming unafraid.”

One can only hope that Melvyn Bragg will continue this story and show us the fine man that Joe will surely become.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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