TitleReading Mario Vargas Llosa through Iranian eyes

Hello Mr. Novel

3 May 2011

■ Shafagh Ashna
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In these days of book scarcity, it is a surprise to know that the books of the literature Nobel Prize winner have already been translated and published in your country. It is amazing to realize that you know him and have read a few of his books, and it is more amazing that his name is Mario Vargas Llosa. It is great that finally the Nobel Prize winner is a famous author and his work reflects the pain and suffering of the societies like yours. They all suffer a chronic disease: dictatorship.

Yes, Mr. Llosa! Becoming aware that you have won the prize, I cheered, went and bought those books of you I had not read and suggested my friends to do so. It was a long time I had not read such thick books: seven, eight, or nine hundred pages. I was used to reading novellas, short stories, and novels of other types. But reading your novels these days put me in the mood of story. In the atmosphere of those horrible events and brilliant narrations that only you seem to be an expert in. In the busy world of today, your magic spell made us stay at home and put off every other plan we had. Only you can make us take such heavy books out to the street, keep reading them standing in the metro, and leaf them in the class while the professors frown with regret.

Oh the storyteller grandpa, this was how I became fond of you. First I read The Feast of the Goat. As the story went on I felt that it is happening right here in Iran. I felt that Urania is one of the girls of my homeland, losing their honor day by day. I felt that Trujillo is the same as the dictators of my own country who have dominated people’s lives and minds in such a way that they have lost any will and are ready to become so miserable. In your story Trujillo lies with the ministers’ wives anytime he wants. The ministers know what is happening and are even pleased about that. I wondered if such a thing is possible. “Maybe it’s only imaginary”, I thought. But as I searched more I realized that it is true and a few days ago I read on the web that “if his majesty (the supreme leader) forbids me to continue living with my wife right now, I would obey in spite of my interest in my wife.” I shivered with fear and realized that everything is possible as long as there are people who are totally absorbed in someone.

After The Feast of the Goat, I began reading Conversation in the Cathedral, a great novel which would no doubt be among the ten wonderful books I have ever read. You had once said “I spent such energy narrating this novel that I don’t think I can ever write something like it.” You are right. It is not possible to write anything similar. The book consists of a series of conversations in different situations and you keep the story going through them and describe the power relations. How have you done that? One keeps wondering how such a form can continue through seven hundred pages. Conversation in the Cathedral is a novel of dialogues and characters. It consists of a city of characters, from the pimps, prostitutes, drunks, and homosexuals to politicians, diplomats, and interviewers. You have described all of them one by one, as if you have been in their place once and have lived with them. This type of narration, mixing different stories in a complicated manner and moving them forward simultaneously is a dazzling job. Characters talk with each other and through their conversation, Peru is portrayed. A portray of Lima is drawn. How similar Lima seems to Tehran and how much Peru looks like Iran. I wondered all the time how they have permitted this book to be published when they keep censoring words like ‘breast-pocket’ and so on. I talked about it with the bookseller man and he said: I am sure they have made a mistake and will prevent its publication in the next edition. I was so anxious that I began calling my friends and telling them to go and by the book quickly before they shred it.

How similar Lima seems to Tehran and how much Peru looks like Iran

How tragic to know that Iran today is like Peru fifty years from now. In this book you have described the people around the dictator; in contrast to The Feast of the Goat the main character was the dictator himself: the same flattery, the same betrayal and brutality. I could see the example of each of the characters in the real world: people filled with lies and crafts, although having human senses. Even the most hateful people in your story are pitied and the major character sometimes does things that make the reader angry. Yes, it’s the common fate you have deliberately depicted. You are one of the writers who still believe in the influence of literature on people and said this in your Nobel lecture:

“Without fictions we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion. Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers. They do this because they know the risk of allowing the imagination to wander free in books, know how seditious fictions become when the reader compares the freedom that makes them possible and is exercised in them with the obscurantism and fear lying in wait in the real world. Whether they want it or not, know it or not, when they invent stories the writers of tales propagate dissatisfaction, demonstrating that the world is badly made and the life of fantasy richer than the life of our daily routine. This fact, if it takes root in their sensibility and consciousness, makes citizens more difficult to manipulate, less willing to accept the lies of the interrogators and jailers who would like to make them believe that behind bars they lead more secure and better lives.”

Yes Mr. Mario! You writers are the ones who encourage sedition. You are the ones who reproduce sedition with your dark books and blasphemous pens. Reading these books one begins comparing the existing situation with that of the fiction and becomes encouraged to do something. The least one can do is to read the book and then hand it to his/her friends to read, then the friend does so, and also the others, and many other books are in this way handed over. These readings become murmurs and bring this question into mind that why or why not we should live like this. This is the beginning of the sedition.

A few days ago I began reading another book of yours: The War of the End of the World! A nine-hundred-page breath-taking book. I bought it the first thing after receiving my monthly payment. I will read it with joy and I will suggest it to my friends, although I know I will not enjoy any book as much as Conversation in the Cathedral. Thank you Mr. Novel! Thank you for lighting our hearts with your books in these days of darkness.

Tehran Review
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