‘Seasons of Purgatory’ Review: An Iranian Writer’s Art in Exile

Sometimes we never see the wrongs that blight our lives. Or else we glimpse them once—before the end. In Shahriar Mandanipour’s story “Mummy and Honey,” a viper slips into a house in mourning. It takes up residence, at first “gently coiled around the bitter orange tree.” Grandfather, ruler of the family, has passed. Now Father and his warring sons squabble over the old man’s legacy as the elusive serpent flickers at the corner of vision like “a stream of molten gold.” When this scaly symbol of “spellbinding doom” comes into view, everything will change. 

Seasons of Purgatory

By Shahriar Mandanipour

Bellevue

205 pages

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Mr. Mandanipour, who left his native Iran to teach in the United States in 2006 and has never returned, often glances in his stories at the venomous forces of war, tyranny, dogma and repression. Like that domestic viper, however, they tend to slither through the shadows until, in a shocking flash of gold, some deadly truth strikes hard. The nine tales gathered in “Seasons of Purgatory” date from different phases in Mr. Mandanipour’s career. Only a few deal face-on with the violence, oppression and exile that has shaped the fate of Iranian creative artists. He has written in a manifesto that “it is not important that you write a political story. What is important is that you write a story and write it beautifully.” He obeys, and fulfills, that mandate. Look closely, though, and you will always spot the snake.

Mr. Mandanipour (born in 1957) served as a frontline officer in the Iran-Iraq war: a writer’s baptism of fire whose flames light up several stories here. He began to publish fiction in the late 1980s. After 1997, the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami gave him a measure of freedom, even fame. When the Islamist hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took control in 2005, the shutters rang down. His American sojourn—first at Brown University, followed by posts at Harvard, Boston College and Tufts—turned into exile without end. In 2009, his novel “Censoring an Iranian Love Story” made a global mark. The twin-track plot of a taboo-flouting romance in Tehran, and the chronicle of its storyteller’s struggle with the stifling norms of a theocratic state, established the author as a playful, whip-smart literary conjuror: a Kundera or Rushdie of post-Khomeini Iran. 

But that postmodern brio told barely half of Mr. Mandanipour’s tale. “Moon Brow,” published in 2018, married narrative legerdemain to another history-cursed love story, and a trip into the traumas left by war. And these stories, even if indirect in their angle of approach, never let fancy take the place of feeling. A past tainted by memories of conflict, betrayal or bereavement returns to twist each tale. “Like a night crawler,” the mind of a storyteller—as with the delusional prisoner in “If You Didn’t Kill the Cuckoo Bird”—“emerges from its lair and begins to hunt.” In the sinister “Seven Captains,” the narrator who sees a disgraced fugitive come home to his run-down harbor town senses “in the evening’s twilight, all around us ghosts with their mouths open in a scream.” 

Step by hideous step, we grasp that “Seven Captains” concerns the death by stoning of a woman accused of adultery with the man who got away, once a star engineer at a local nuclear plant. Here, as elsewhere, Iran’s horrors dart and glitter, viperish, on the fringe of awareness—although we do catch sight of the victim’s “lavish hair” with its “bloodied strands, like the snakes of hell.” As often, we gradually uncover not some storybook combat between light and darkness but half-repressed scenes of doubt, compromise or cowardice. In the title story, one of Mr. Mandanipour’s directly observed battlefield pieces, the only hero is a wretched Iraqi conscript nicknamed Nasser. He quits his trenches to surrender but finds himself stranded in no man’s land, pitiful target practice for both sides, with “no way forward and no way back.” 

If “Seasons of Purgatory” pays close, if oblique, attention to the texture of Iranian life after the Islamic Revolution, it can also soar into the realm of myth. “The Color of Midday Fire” resembles Kipling, even Conrad, more than Kundera. A back-country landowner loses his beloved daughter to the claws of a “mateless and reclusive” old mountain leopard. He vows to slay the creature which has robbed him of “the serenity of his soul.” But his pursuit of the animal’s “unknown darkness” reveals kinship as well as enmity—one of several fablelike passages in which Mr. Mandanipour blurs the line between human and nonhuman lives. Locked in a love-hate obsession with the inmates of the nearby zoo, the narrator of “Shadows of the Cave” worries that there is “no place for animals in history.” Gliding smoothly between symbolism and realism, Mr. Mandanipour reserves an honored place for them in his fiction. 

Still, the deadliest beasts here have human faces they try to hide. Both “If She Has No Coffin” and “King of the Graveyard” show how a despotic regime smothers grief, and forbids remembrance, in families whose lost ones have defied the state. In the latter story, the unmarked grave of an executed son, sought by the bereaved Mahrokh, comes to stand for the buried pain that only exiles now utter. Yet Mahrokh’s stoical husband forgoes his planned revenge. On visits to the cemetery, he welcomes the autumnal gales because “when the wind beats the raindrops against your face, no one can tell that these are the tears of a man.”

“Seasons of Purgatory” unites storytelling subtlety with scenes of visceral emotional impact—those moments when the serpent bares its fangs. Sara Khalili’s finely voiced translations know how, and when, to shift from close-grained intimacy to a more formal, even epic, tone. Mr. Mandanipour has recalled how, as Iraqi mortar shells rained down on his trench as he tried to write, he “grasped the weight and value of words” in the three seconds between discharge and detonation. Ms. Khalili’s first-rate versions convey all the compressed heft of a literature pitched between memory and myth—and, equally, between the powers of life and death.

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