translated by Sara Khalili
(Restless Books, 2018)
What is the essence of the modern Iranian novel? For decades, the former heart of the Persian Empire was only painted by a Western gaze. The pool of contemporary Iranian writers is still a small one in the collective sea of world literature. Yet, in these highly-charged, politically-aware times, such works find themselves in the spotlight. Shahriar Mandanipour’s Moon Brow celebrates both the otherness of a non-Western narrative and the raw openness that is the trademark of the modern story.
One of Iran’s most acclaimed writers-in-exile, Mandanipour possesses a gift for weaving together symbolism and metaphor with straightforward narrative. In this latest novel—his first since Censoring an Iranian Love Story, published in 2009—he blends fantasy and hallucination with the protagonist’s fragmented reality. He tumbles and slides the reader between time periods so smoothly that one barely notices the transitions. Sara Khalili—who also worked with Mandanipour on the English translation of Censoring—masterfully captures both the beauty and lyricism of the prose itself and the alternating quirks and gravitas crafted into the scenes.
Moon Brow tells the story of Amir Khan—amnesiac war veteran, former playboy, and prodigal son—before, during, and after his service in the Iran-Iraq war. He struggles to reintegrate into life with his estranged family while dealing with the trauma of the battlefield, his time in an asylum, and the loss of his left arm. All the while he is haunted by the ghostly memory of the woman he believes he once knew as Moon Brow. His desperate search for her throws a spotlight on his relationship with his sister, Reyhanen, who plays the role of a begrudging helpmeet in what seems like an impossible quest.
Amir’s history is very much intertwined with his current predicament. The two scribes on his shoulders, as much guardians of his memory as manifestations of his fractured psyche, dutifully recount his tale. They shift and sift through the connective tissues between a once-upon-a-time womanizer and the conflicted, damaged soul he has become. Amir’s thoughts are laid bare for the reader straight from his mind, but the scribes split the tone of the telling between them. They separately underscore his dual viciousness and impassioned virtuousness, even from the time before his involvement in the war.
Mandanipour also uses the scribes to show his command of the timeline. A beloved Alfa Romero, a loyal gardener, the various versions of Amir’s friends and family over the years; the reader is drawn organically to their presence by the care brought into each well-placed mention of them throughout the manuscript. Objects, people, and places become as dear to the reader as they are to the characters themselves.
The war is in no way minimized or censored. It lives in the genuflections of the older men; the mixed discomfort and eager assistance of the soldiers who were not sent to the front; and the humbled, resentful gazes of businessmen and homeowners whose properties and goods were seized by the authorities. Amir’s trauma causes him to relive the “pop-pop of mushrooms popping in mushroom patches that have grown on mass graves.” He is treated like a martyr in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolution and deals at the same time with the amnesiac madness of his amputee state.
Over and over again, Amir asks Reyhanen and the other people he meets, “What kind of person was I?” or “What was I like before?” He examines his views on love, particularly his love for and of the women who passed through his life. Each has their own tale, impressions of Amir as they knew him during their time together. In the search for his faceless mystery girl, Amir pieces together these impressions to discover who he was—as he seeks to discover the kind of man who could have held the love of his treasured Moon Brow.
Mandanipour highlights the dissonant images of Amir in the actions and reactions of the family members and old friends he encounters throughout the story. In Reyhanen, contrariness and determination war within a girl who was once barely noticed by her older brother. In Amir’s parents, the conflict rests in the quiet pride in his absentee martyrdom and his present-day half-crazed existence. And in the soldiers and former acquaintances and affairs of Amir’s past, secrets lurk: the awful realities of his past wrongs and transgressions that they stand reluctant to confess.
The story of Amir is both the journey of one man through a history of hearts and guns and the tale of a changing country and its people. Driving with Reyhanen through the streets of Tehran, Amir’s memories are “abandoned on the sidewalks of the pre-revolution days—the mischief-making, miniskirt-wearing girls with wavy hair […] are dressed in dark colors, wearing headscarves, Islamic headdresses, and chadors.” His observations focus on the people and, through them, he guides the reader through the evolution of the city and its culture.
In a recent interview with the Sewanee Review, Mandanipour states that “Any love story in Persian will inevitably have political reverberations, and become a declaration of war against darkness and ignorance.” What he presents to us now isn’t a love story in the traditional sense. Rather, it goes beyond the story of two people and their own particular love for each other. It takes the reader through an internal and external war, the one that surrounds its characters and the ones that rage within them. Language both poetic and crass—all candidly told—bring the reader onto the page and into each and every experience as though they themselves really stand there.
Moon Brow is an invitation into the heart of Iran—not just its trials and reckonings and all their implications, but the endless possibilities for redemption, healing, and change.