Reading modern, Persian literature in an episodic mode categorizes novels across time and connections between episodes through their “movement.” Where one episode ends and another begins intentionally blurs and each episode can use the other’s styles and stylistics to continue, rework or eliminate entirely the other’s message. The host of works become a social and cultural reflection of Iran, of which the entirety of all of the episodes show the complexity of Iran’s history. This argument does rely on accepting the transitory nature of metaphor and allowing for its discontinuous use to be a feature rather than a flaw, but a model is in place already for that caveat from The Politics of Writing in Iran.
Kamran Talattof positions metaphor as the “connection between ideology and literature…where metaphors convey social realities.” These episodes, then, are overt literary categories, but he defines them through their covert techniques; particularly the feminist episode that use elision of metaphors as much as it employs other ones. He discusses the blurred beginnings and ends of “movements” that carry forms and conventions through the episodes, becoming cornerstones of not just the continuing literary tradition, but of popular imagination as well. Ehsan Yarshater shares this understanding with their positioning of poetry: “[it] speaks the language of the Persian heart, mind, and soul, fully reflecting the Persian world view and life experience.” If modern literature has inherited the voice of classical Persian poetry, it is all the more evident of the porousness of episodes between movements.
While Talattof begins Iran’s Episodic Literary Movement with Persianism in the early 1900s—a large episode where those classical forms moved into modern sensibilities and stylistics—as much work went into the next episode that not only saw a change of metaphor as the episode moved on, but also saw a radicalization of metaphor; another emergence of identity and, importantly, a counter-identity in the people and the state, respectively. This conflict is represented perfectly with two works: Ahmad Mahmud’s The Scorched Earth and Samad Behrangi’s The Black Fish.
Between both works, Behrangi wrote more overtly with metaphor than Mahmud. The Black Fish is a clear allegory for socialistic action, especially against a power structure that actively maintaining a status quo; this is demonstrated throughout the text by the main character’s refusal to continue its life without questioning, but is primarily illustrated through challenging ideology. Early on, the main character says, “‘I want to know if life is simply for circling around in a small place until you become old and nothing else, or is there another way to live in the world?’” On the other hand, The Scorched Earth is so soberly presented, it is clear to see how the state could have co-opted the text, as Ramin Farhadi notes:
…[interpellation] is a form of containment through which the dominant power contains the dissident text and uses it to disseminate ideological messages. This is how…The Scorched Earth…has been interpreted.…Some state critics and scholars have described [it] as one of the most important texts in sacred defense literature.…These critics have disregarded the novel’s censure against the [State].
The Scorched Earth’s perspective is from the people—the narrator is not even named—and narrates only the absence or incompetence of the state in the face of disaster. The text is sparse and terse, too, with a lot of interpretive work being done by the reader; take for example this early line discussing military movements that have not been officially announced: “I play dumb to figure out where [my barber is] coming from. ‘What about [the military divisions]? Has something happened?’” The slightness of this text could easily be read in multiple ways, which Farhadi peels apart in their argument. They do not analyze the text through Talattof’s Committed episode, but their analysis does re-emphasize the role that The Scorched Earth has in the episode by its very misappropriation by the state. By existing undercover, however, it survived censorship from the state it criticized and carried its covert metaphor forward to the next episode.
If there is a clear marker in the end of the Committed episode, it must begin with The Scorched Earth. It witnesses what the Islamic Revolution would mean for the country in the wake of abruptly ended socialistic and communistic thought and action. The novel shows a nameless narrator with even less power than Behrangi’s black fish, only able to watch and not act. However, that is the importance of the women in the story who do act and are named, drawing the reader to appreciate a character who had presumably stood so wholly outside of the thought of the Committed episode so as to say something new. What preceded The Scorched Earth’s women and embodies part of the movement to the Feminist Literary Movement is Simin Daneshvar’s Savoshoun, printed 13 years prior.
Savoshoun is remarkable in its focus on its female characters. The main character’s social positioning, both in her community and within the larger, international context of Iran’s occupation, is a questionable start for Committed literature: how, given such privilege, does this novel represent the ideology of the socialist episode? That is a simplistic view of the novel: that it is about a women and written by a woman is an important caveat to consider for its placement in Talattof’s episodes. Despite when it was published, it undoubtedly helped to usher in the feminist perspective and that simplistic view may have, like The Scorched Earth, helped it elude detection.
The main character observes at the beginning of the novel that “…the foreigners spoke Persian, although a broken Persian.” This is a very early intervention that signals a lack of collusion, which outwardly they appear to do by being hosts of these guests. Out of the presence of the foreigners, however, the critique becomes bare:
The children’s aunt poured her a cup of tea, put it in front of her and asked, “Well, what happened at the wedding?”
Zari said, “I wish you were there. Once again there was a quarrel between the two ‘governments.’”
“He made me promise to go to the Europeans’ celebration this afternoon, come what may,” Zari said. “What am I going to do about my vow?”
The novel is made up of these “soft” descriptions that might appear as tame observations, but they shows the complication of “normal” Iranian culture at that time. Yes, these are the at-hand markers of Committed literature, but the subtlety of the text predicts The Scorched Earth’s flat, documentary style. There is a removal of the obvious in order to let commentary emerge through the individual reader’s reading.
Further, after the assassination of the main character’s husband, the same description readily points out the tone of Committed literature as expressed in The Black Fish: the main character realizes she must enact change within herself in order to improve the lives of everyone. Her actions become radical, their domesticity able to stand up to the occupation and the forces that would rather her stick to the status quo. The main character’s inversion of that role positions the novel as not only a critique of the period, but as a stylized manual for turning domesticity to the cause.
These three novels demonstrate how the episodes move from to the other, but also how to are completely interwoven with one another. These metaphors are built up and then left to fall away, becoming a sort of social sediment that underlies the popular imagination and enables the interpretation of these works, even decades later, that change and evolve with the culture they are reflecting. There is no single episode that can readily represent Persian literature nor an Iranian person, not even a specific period of time. Committed literature is as defined by Persianism as it is not, just as the Feminist Literary Movement can successfully omit metaphor; those metaphor have to have existed, though, in order for their removal to have meaning.
- Behrangi, Samad. The Little Black Fish (Iran Chamber Society).
- Daneshvar, Simin. Savoshoun. 1969.
- Farhadi, Ramin. “Wartime Propaganda and Gender in Ahmad Mahmoud’s The Scorched Earth: A Dissident Reading.” Text Matters, no. 10 (2020): 462.
- Mahmud, Ahmad. The Scorched Earth. 1982.
- Talattof, Kamran. The Politics of Writing in Iran: a History of Modern Persian Literature. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
- Yarshater, Ehsan. Persian Literature. New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 1988.