Tehran at Twilight, by Salar Abdoh, (Akashic Books), 240 pages, released October 7, 2014
I’ve been doing my best to read any fiction I come across that depicts life in contemporary Iran. Thus far, Salar Abdoh’s Tehran at Twilight is the best of those I’ve read.
Abdoh’s Iran is a place where the question isn’t if one has been complicit, but rather the extent of one’s complicity. Malek Reza, the novel’s protagonist, is an Iranian-American, one who initially supported the revolution, but moved to the U.S. with his father when the revolutionary government became as violent towards its own citizens as the shah’s had been. As Reza notes near the end of the book, “Change always carried a price. Often that price was that there would be no change at all”—words that, unfortunately, ring true in too many countries, including the U.S.
Reza’s best friend, Sina Vafa, has returned to Iran after he and Reza finished their educations at U.C. Berkeley. Vafa is still committed to the revolution despite its disappointments, still eager to engage in clandestine activity in Iran or in surrounding countries.
After years of separation, Vafa contacts Reza, asking him to return to Iran and—upon Reza’s return—asking him to accept Vafa’s power of attorney. This request, not surprisingly, is more complex than it seems, ultimately sundering the two men’s friendship:
Later on, whenever he thought about it, Malek would come back to this night as the precise moment when something broke between him and Sina. It was like he was watching his friend drift away in a boat and there was nothing he could do to stop it or reel him back in. Something was finished. But they still had to play along.
Part of the novel’s richness is that it looks beyond these characters’ lives to see present-day Iran through other sets of eyes as well. There’s James McGreivy, a former marine grown critical of U.S. policy, who’s been hired to teach writing at the same New York college where Reza is employed. Importantly, there are two mothers as well: Reza’s, who walked away from him and his father before the revolution, and Vafa’s, living in straightened circumstances since her son evicted her from the one piece of property she’d been able to reclaim from the revolutionary government. The relationships among these characters balance love, distrust, and bitterness in varying amounts. In the Iran of the novel, no relationship is simple.
Tehran at Twilight begins a bit slowly, but is worth sticking with. As the characters and their predicaments engage you, you’ll find yourself reading more quickly, hungrily, and feeling unwilling to put the book down. Read this book both for the picture of Iran it offers and for its insights into human relationships.