Not the way it really happened

When I was a teenager, I wrote a story, perhaps as a homework assignment, that began with a long paragraph in italics. (We’d recently got a computer with a ‘word processor’ that could do italics.) This paragraph was extraneous to the story itself, and described a sunny afternoon in a wood—it probably talked about ‘shafts of sunlight’ and ‘leaf-dappled shade’. The only actual event, or the only one I can remember, was a woodpigeon taking off with a clatter from a branch high in a tree. It was probably intended as atmospheric scene-setting. I’ve retained no memory of the story that followed—I don’t think it was ever finished—but writing it made me realize that if starting a story with a long paragraph of self-consciously fine writing is a bad idea, putting that paragraph in italics is even worse.

Front coverAnita Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers starts with two-and-a-half pages in italics: a story within a story, a fairytale with a happy ending. This, it transpires, is an attempt by the main character’s mother to fictionalize the sequence of events they’re caught up in, in a way that leads her daughter to a ‘life… written in the brightest of inks’ rather than their current predicament, stuck in a storm somewhere in an inadequate shelter with a group of unidentified fellow travellers, mother coughing ‘from deep in her lungs’ and daughter shivering in a ‘thin blue robe… so threadbare it looked grey’. We know this because the daughter interrupts—breaking us out of the italics—and insists on getting the cold and threadbare truth, ‘the way it really happened’, sad parts and all. When the mother, Maheen, hesitates, her daughter decides to tell the story for herself.

‘The way it really happened’: that wouldn’t be a bad translation of wie es eigentlich gewesen war, von Ranke’s much-quoted dictum about what historians should be trying to understand about the past. The Blood of Flowers is set in seventeenth-century Isfahan, when under Shah Abbas I the city became capital of the Safavid empire and one of the largest cities in the world. The unnamed narrator is a teenaged girl who, after the sudden death of her father, leaves her small and remote village and travels with her mother to the city, to be taken in by a relative who has become carpet-maker to the Shah. There, after the usual trials and tribulations, she finds success—apparently there’s a happy ending. I didn’t get that far, however, because this is a profoundly irritating novel and I gave up on it after reading through my fingers for a hundred and twenty pages. (I only made it that far because we were reading it for a book group.) The problem with the book is that nothing about it is remotely plausible: not as history, not as fiction. This isn’t the way it really happened.

I’ll start with the history. The novel is spattered with historical solecisms: things that people do, or, particularly, say, that a person in that time and place simply wouldn’t have done or said. ‘How many people live here?’, the narrator’s mother asks as they arrive in Isfahan (p.30). ‘Hundreds of thousands’, their escort replies, ‘More than in London or Paris; only Constantinople is bigger.’ Well, an educated Isfahani in the seventeenth century would certainly have known about Constantinople, capital of the Safavid empire’s great neighbour and rival. They might have known it was a bigger city, though that knowledge would have been anecdotal at best: like other states of the time neither the Ottoman nor the Safavid empire collected detailed population statistics, whether at the level of the city or the empire. (The British government, for comparison, began keeping a regular census at the turn of the nineteenth century, and educated observers were surprised when it rapidly disproved the widely held notion that Britain’s population was declining.) But why on earth would they compare it with distant London and Paris, capitals of states that from the point of view of the great Islamic empires of Eurasia were, at this time, both remote and of strictly regional importance? Madrid or Vienna, possibly; Venice or Cairo, Baghdad, Shiraz, or Delhi, much more likely—these were cities that one way or another probably featured in the mental geography of the Safavid elite. But not London or Paris. This isn’t a plausible exchange involving fully imagined historical characters: it’s a clunky bit of info-dumping for a modern (American) readership, hence the choice of comparators. In the voice of an omniscient narrator, not claiming to be fixed in time or place, it could work. But a seventeenth-century Isfahan merchant wouldn’t have made that comparison, and if he had, a peasant girl just arrived from a dirt-poor village in the mountains wouldn’t have known what he was talking about anyway.

Thirty-three Arched Bridge, Allāhverdi Khan Bridge
The ‘thirty-three arched bridge’, Isfahan

This kind of thing is all over the place, at least in the third of the book I read. A silk merchant boasts that ‘it’s our biggest export, and we sell more of it than the Chinese’ (p. 70). This is a statement that a person could only make after states started collecting and comparing reliable macroeconomic data (which in turn requires a sophisticated and fairly interventionist standing bureaucracy), and disseminating them through an educated public sphere via media like printed statistical yearbooks, newspapers, and economic journals. When, if ever, did the Safavid empire start collecting that kind of data—and when did China, for the comparison to be made? When was a national consciousness sufficiently well developed in Iran that a merchant in Isfahan could say ‘we’ and mean ‘the Safavid empire’ rather than ‘my family’, ‘merchants in this city’, or ‘the Muslims’ (or more likely ‘the Christians’)? Probably never.

This is quibbling, but it’s not just quibbling. The novel claims to be depicting a particular time and place, but errors like this show that Amirrezvani hasn’t even begun to think about the differences that separate us from that time and place. The characters are stock characters of suburban American literature, crowbarred awkwardly into an ‘exotic’ setting. The Shah’s favourite concubine, Jamileh, is described as a pert little thing in ‘a lacy undershirt slit from the throat to the navel, which showed the curve of her breasts’ and ‘a thick saffron sash round her hips, which swayed as she walked’ (p. 64): you can picture her in the movie adaptation, but whether this description bears any relationship to pre-twentieth century ideals of beauty in Iran is questionable. The romance of the narrator’s friend Naheed and her polo player doesn’t show a daring and impetuous young woman breaking the conventions of her time: she’s a cheerleader falling for a sports jock at the game, showing an author utterly bound to the conventions of our time. Characters in the novel actually do talk about going to ‘the game’; Naheed actually does get grounded for going without permission. The self-consciously exoticising dialogue—‘May God rain his blessings on Shah Abbas!’—doesn’t transport us to Safavid Iran: it just goes clunk.

The place and time don’t come alive because the author can’t imagine any place and time but her own. ‘My beloved was not Naheed’s handsome polo player’, says the narrator, ‘nor the powerful old Shah, nor any of the thousands of sweet-faced young men who congregated on Isfahan’s bridges, smoked in its coffee houses, or lingered around Four Gardens. The one I loved was more unknowable, more varied, and more marvellous: the city itself. Every day, I bounded out of my bedroll, longing to explore it.’ (p.111) This orientalizing nonsense, with its ‘thousands of sweet-faced young men’, has nothing to do with Safavid Iran. It draws on the nineteenth-century exotic kitsch that gave America the Shriners, but also on a tradition of overwritten twentieth and twenty-first century city-guides that pretend that any city can be penetrated by the eyes, feet, and intellect of the flâneur, after the model of Baudelaire. But flâneurs, if they ever existed at all, were high-status men of independent means: the male gaze on foot. A low-status girl barely surviving on the charity of a distant relative in seventeenth-century Isfahan wouldn’t bound out of her bedroll and start cruising the pavements as though she had a Lonely Planet in one hand and a selfie stick in the other. She’d get to work around the house, and she’d work all day. She wouldn’t explore the city, and I doubt she’d even think of ‘the city’ around her in those abstract terms.

This problem is literary as much as historical. The author pays no more respect to the literary world she’s created than to the history. After the narrator’s father dies, she and her mother, in their village, are reduced to such poverty that by the winter ‘we were living on a thin sheet of bread and pickled carrots left over from the previous year’ (p. 22), lethargic with hunger, selling their ‘last valuable possession’, a rug she had made. But in Isfahan a few months later, when the plot requires her to come up with a design that will persuade her relative and somewhat stingy benefactor, Gostaham, to let her participate in his work as rug-maker to the court,

I put my hand to my neck and touched a piece of jewellery that my father had given me as protection against the Evil Eye. It was a silver triangle with a holy carnelian in its centre, and I often touched it for blessings. (p. 86)

If it’s poor history to imagine that a seventeenth-century peasant could give his daughter designer jewellery in silver and semi-precious gemstones (‘as protection against the Evil Eye’!), it’s poor plotting to have someone who was close to starvation sixty pages ago suddenly remember the jewellery she’s had hanging around her neck the whole time.

This implausibility, not just in the historical setting but in the novel’s own mise en scène, is everywhere. Amirrezvani puts her narrator in a position of tenuous survival on the lowest rung of a large household, more servant than niece—but instead of working out a plot that might actually arise from that situation, she keeps sending her out into ‘the city’, as though her time (and body) were her own. Again, historically it just isn’t believable that a girl of low status like this, an uneducated peasant, would have been considered a suitable companion for Naheed, who ‘comes from a very good family’ (p.43): a servant, perhaps, but not a friend. But it’s a failure of characterization and plotting that this suggestion comes from Gostaham’s wife Gordiyeh. She’s the main antagonist of the narrator and her mother in Gostaham’s household, little pleased by the arrival of these dependent womenfolk, and presented as a snobbish and grasping social climber: the least likely person, on the novel’s own terms, to threaten her own recently acquired respectability by introducing a braying peasant child into the household of a distinguished neighbour.

And there I’ll have to stop, without engaging with the novel’s main themes (‘a quest for independence and self-reliance’, apparently, which is of course a highly original and daring theme for a book that is marketed to a western audience and purports to be about an Iranian woman) or the rest of the plot. It probably involves the sexy Fereydoon, who on p. 81 catches sight of the narrator’s hair as she shakes it free, shampoo advert style, from the headscarf she’s just unwillingly learned to wear.* But I don’t know, because all the implausibility, exoticism, and faux-naïf prose just got the better of me. I’ve read plenty of good historical novels recently: this isn’t one of them.

*Fereydoon is a soldier, just returned from fighting the Ottomans in the north, and also ‘the son of a wealthy horse trader’ (p. 84), though one who himself started out as ‘just a country farmer’. It seems unlikely to me, and a quick skim of Iranica Online tends to confirm this suspicion, that the son of an upstart merchant, however wealthy, would have been able to join the Safavid military aristocracy in this period.

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