About the Book
These stories not only portray, with incomparable perception, humor, and compassion, women from the various strata of Iranian society, but they also capture the essence of a rich traditional culture undergoing change. A nanny lets go of a little girl’s hand in Shiraz’s exotic and crowded Vakil Bazaar, and goes off to flirt with the nutseller–the child is lost. In The Accident, the author portrays, in hilarious parody, a young woman who forsakes husband, children, and home just to own a car. The Playhouse is a traditional Persian theater where the play and the players act on many levels both real and fantastic. The Traitor’s Intrigue lets you into the life of a middle-class couple and brilliantly shows how a colonel’s allegiance passed from Shah to Khomeini. To Whom Can I Say Hello? tells of an old woman’s memories, her life, love, tragic outcome, and eventual hope. Loss of Jalal is a moving chronicle of the final days of Jalal Al-e Ahmad, one of Iran’s great writers and the author’s husband. Simin Daneshvar draws from over a thousand years of Persian storytelling tradition and combines this with modern techniques of short fiction and cinema. The result is both entertaining and a key of uncompromising honesty, rich detail, and a dazzling range of voices that guides the reader into the center of a complex society and its concerns.
In five intriguing stories, the formal detachment of Daneshvar’s prose reinforces her subtle revelation of repressive features in Iranian society. The author, one of the few wellknown women writers in Iran, is a feminist opposed to both political tyranny and religious fanaticism, themes obliquely indicated here. These seemingly simple stories disclose a rich culture in a time of ferment and change, of women in chadors, held in contempt by the men who control their lives. “Vakil Bazaar” seems innocent enough, an everyday tale of an upperclass child let loose in the bazaar while her nanny flirts with a shopkeeper. By the end, with the little girl lost and the nanny passively peering around, the reader is sure that the child will never be found, and nobody will care. In “To Whom Can I Say Hello?,” a woman alternates between mourning the loss of her lover and her job and worrying over her daughter, whose brutish husband has denied his motherinlaw access to his house. The moving “Loss of Jalal” is a nonfiction account of the death of the author’s husband, a noted writer. This volume is a valuable addition to our knowledge of Persian culture and the political complexities of modern Iran.
—Publishers Weekly (September 1, 1989)
Beautiful flowing language gives these six stories a dreamlike quality. In the author’s letter, included in this edition, she says she is satisfied with the translation. Simin Daneshvar is fluent in English but writes in Persian. The language in each story differs depending on which character is telling the story. In “Vakil Bazaar” the sentences are descriptive, full of color and sound from the lost child’s point of view and filled with sensuality from the flirty maid’s point of view. In “The Loss of Jalal” the beautiful, insightful language is from the wife’s point of view (the author describes her husband’s death). In the story of a lonely old woman’s memories the language is narrative, descriptive, and flowing. Each story depicts an aspect of life in modern Iran and changes are shown through symbols and narrative techniques. In “Traitor’s Intrigue” the allegiance of a colonel changes from Shah to Khomeini. “The Playhouse” is a traditional Persian theatre where the actors act on many levels, real and unreal. In “Vakil Bazaar” the wanderings of the little girl through the bazaar is really a journey through life. Parody and humor are found in “The Accident,” a story about a young woman who forsakes husband and children just to own a car. This is an unusual book that reflects ideas from a rich culture written by the first published woman author of short stories in Iran. It is a wonderful book to read.
– – Women Library Workers Journal (Vol. 14, #3, Spring 1991)
Daneshvar (b. 1921) has a number of “firsts” to her credit. In 1948, her collection of Persian short stories was the first by an Iranian woman to be published. The first novel by an Iranian woman was her Savushun (“Mourners of Slyavash,” 1969), which has become Iran’s bestselling novel ever. The present work, a collection of five stories and two autobiographical pieces, is the first volume of translated stories by an Iranian woman author. It offers what translator Maryam Mafi emphasizes as a feminine perspective in stories dealing with a little girl whose careless nanny lets her get lost in a bazaar, a middleclass woman who ruins her family’s life in her passion for an automobile and driving; a retired army colonel who eventually sides with religious opposition to the Iranian monarchy; a smalltime actor hopelessly in love with a worthless young woman; and an old female servant who has nowhere to go because her soninlaw hates her. Not tightly structured nor stylishly told in the English translation, these stories give glimpses of Iranian life and of the author’s female perspective, and therein lies their value. Daneshvar’s autobiographical reflections on the death of her husband Jalal Ale Ahmad and on her life as a woman writer are particularly revealing. Appropriate for upperdivision undergraduates and general readers.
– -Choice Magazine (July/August 1990)
Simin Daneshvar has long been recognized as one of Iran’s most talented women writers. She launched her literary career in 1948 at the age of twentyseven. In 1969 she published the bestselling novel Savushun. Now in her seventies, she has just completed another novel, “The Wandering Island.” Savushun will be out in English by the time this review appears in the late autumn of 1990, but in the meantime the curious reader can sample Daneshvar’s Playhouse, a collection of short stories written over the years. The six stories Maryam Mafi has carefully chosen and translated attest to the author’s preoccupation with realistic depictions of life in Iran.
Mafi’s renditions make the stories accessible even to readers unfamiliar with the social and cultural setting of Daneshvar’s texts. Without losing too much of the flavor of the original, Mafi has, when possible, found idiomatic equivalents for Persian for terms and customs. Only in one instance-the erroneous equation of the legendary bird Seemorgh and the phoenix-does her practice become inconsistent.
The metaphor of the playhouse unites the first five stories of the collection. Their protagonists, as in “The Playhouse,” are at the mercy of the social roles allotted to them. In the title story an actor dons a mask every night and plays out a role that reveals nothing of his inner needs and sufferings. His very name and identity have gradually become interchangeable with the type he represents onstage.
The nanny of “Vakil Bazaar,” the middleclass housewife of “The Accident,” the retired colonel of “Traitor’s Intrigue,” and the lonely woman of “To Whom Can I Say Hello?” are all imprisoned in metaphorical playhouses of their own. Their lives are determined by conditions and norms over which they seem to have little control. Still,: Daneshvar endows her characters with the ability to break out of the mold. In “Traitor’s Intrigue,” for example, the colonel rejects a life of subordination and acts according to the dictates of his own conscience. The freedom he gains is, nevertheless, conditional and precarious.
The last piece in the collection, although autobiographical, also conforms with Daneshvar’s understanding of literature as a fusion of the real and the fictional, the private and the public. “The Loss of Jalal” is Daneshvar’s personal account of the sudden death of her husband, the writer Jalal Ale Ahmad, in 1969. Her private grief becomes a very public mourning for a man who was an outspoken social critic and writer.
The volume ends with a letter from Daneshvar to her readers. At times the letter reads like a political manifesto, spelling out the frustrations she has had to face as a writer a university professor, and a woman living in a patriarchal society. Her social criticism is equally directed at the West, whose decadence she observes with horror. Nevertheless, she ends the letter on an optimistic note: “I have great hope that my dreams will come true, if not for my generation, then for the next.” With the publication of Daneshvar’s Playhouse, her message of hope might find a larger audience.
– -World Literature Today (Vol 64, #4, Autumn 1990)
There has been a growing interest in the discussion and translation of Simin Daneshvar’s works in the last few years. Maryam Mafi’s translation of six short stories and a monograph is a welcome addition. It is noteworthy that in this selection the English reader is introduced to the works of a Persian woman who has enjoyed recognition unknown to most male Persian writers.
Aside from the historically and socially significant place of such an author in the gamut of Persian contemporary literature, this translation once again exposes those crucial and controversial issues that will remain at the heart of the practice of translation, namely, loyalty to the source text as well as commitment to the intelligibility of the translation. Mafi’s work, for the most part, is a faithful one. It swerves from authenticity and loyalty in those instances where an English translator has to make a crucial decision between Anglicizing a culturally Persian element or Persianizing the English language in order to open room for the reception of a foreign phenomenon. Mafi often is capable of doing both, but there are instances where she makes a simplistic choice. By doing so, she diminishes the native environment and flavor of Persian culture for that of a clumsy and short-sighted rendition into English. The examples of such carelessness are numerous. I will only cite a few cases in the hope that these examples will point out the deficiency of this translation. When Mafi confuses simorgh, the mythical Persian bird, with the phoenix (p. 68), she chooses to bring the Persian element into English, but fails to explain or clarify its significance. It is true that both the simorgh and the phoenix are mythic birds, but they share little else. Sigha has been translated as “temporary wife” (pp. 17, 103); marriage through sigha, however, is of particular significance, and such a translation does not impart all its religious and cultural implications. The same is true with the translation of a “dervish’s kashkul” as a “basket” (p. 18). Though a dervish’s kashkul may be used as a basket, it is not in fact one. The kashkul has a particularly cultural and ethnic aspect that cannot be understood without directly bringing it into the target language. In “The Traitors’ Intrigue,” Mafi translates khoms and zakat simply as “Islamic taxes,” while they are, more specifically, the Islamic version of alms and tithes. When such precise vocabulary exists in English, a more faithful translation is possible without footnotes. In these instances, it would have been advisable to use the Persian noun and explain its fuller significance to the work. The translator has done this in other places, for example, when she uses the Persian “Khanum” in the English text, explaining its meaning in a footnote (p. 310).
There are other errors of a simpler nature which mainly point to a misunderstanding of the literal meaning of the Persian text or a mistake in finding parallel words in English. The error in the title of “The Traitors’ Intrigue” (“Traitor’s” instead of “Traitors”‘) could be typographical, but considering the fact that the translated text is nicely free of such errors, one could assume that it is a mistranslation of kha’enin (plural of kha’en). Nakhlestanha-ye Bahmani is translated as “Bahman orchards” (p. 34), whereas “Bahmani palm groves” would have been more accurate and appropriate. Tigh-e khod-tarash is a razor blade, not an “electric shaver” (ibid.), while mafatih means keys and not “clues” (p. 36).
Questions of translation aside, the reader expects Mafi to explain the basis of her selection of stories in the Afterword, but she does not provide one. She speaks of the different works written by Daneshvar, but leaves unmentioned why she has selected these six stories and the monograph. The only common bond apparent among the six stories, with the exception of “The Playhouse,” is that all contain central women characters. Is this the primary criterion for the selection of these particular stories? One is left to speculate. Instead, the Afterword gives a biographical account of the Persian author’s life and works, and in broad terms mentions the thematic concerns of Daneshvar’s stories in which are included “the lifestyles of the lower classes, the traditional middle class, and the bourgeoisie,” “the social factors contributing to the unfortunate situation of women,” and “folklore and traditional Persian customs.” The collection also includes a monograph and a letter by the author addressed to the reader, as well as four photographs-three of which are pictures of ancient Iranian figurines and one of the author with her late husband, Jalal Al Ahmad. It is not clear what the relationship is between the pictures of the female figurines and the stories selected for this book, other than the fact that both the writer and the translator are female and, as mentioned before, gender seems to be an issue here.
Daneshvar’s Playhouse is elegantly published, its prose style captures most of the flavor of the original text, and is above all a notable introduction to the works of Daneshvar in English. It carries with it the sanctification of the author.
– – Journal of Iranian Studies (Vol 28, #1-2)
About the Author
Among contemporary writers of Iran, the majority of whom are men, one woman stands out: Simin Daneshvar. Her work has developed and matured since the late 1940s, and today she is known as one of Iran’s best fiction writers. Her masterpiece novel Savushun (Mourning for Siavash), published in 1969, is considered the climax of Persian novel writing. Daneshvar, like most contemporary Iranian writers, came from a middle-class family. Born in 1921 in Shiraz, she was educated in a missionary school and became fluent in English. She began her writing career as early as 1935, when she was still an eighth-grader. Her first article, “Winter Is Not Unlike Our Life,” was published in a local Shiraz newspaper. She entered Tehran University and majored in Persian literature.
When her father, a physician, died in 1941, Daneshvar was forced to find a job, as the family’s only source of income had been her father’s salary. She was employed at Radio Tehran, where she wrote a series of programs entitled “The Unknown Shirazi,” for which she received scant pay. In acute need of money, she even wrote articles on cooking. Eventually, her fluency in English enabled her to become assistant director of foreign news. But she soon became dissatisfied with the routine nature of this job and left Radio Tehran for a newspaper called Iran, for which she wrote articles and did translations. The relaxed social and political environment of the forties, marked by some degree of democracy and freedom of speech, prompted Daneshvar to choose journalism as a potential career. During her year at Iran (1941-1945), she decided to try her hand at fiction writing. Later, without prior knowledge of story-writing technique, she wrote Atash-e Khamoush (The Quenched Fire) in 1948, at the age of twenty-seven. Although seven out of sixteen stories are O. Henry inspired, and Daneshvar had the book published in first draft form, the major elements of her style are evident. Daneshvar had become familiar with O. Henry as a student, and like him she deals with the basic issues of life, death, love and self sacrifice.
Typical of writers of the 1940s, Daneshvar dwells on issues within Iranian society. She juxtaposes the opposing values of right and wrong–such as poverty versus wealth, or the carefree life of the rich versus the sorrow of the poor–and for moral reasons condemns one while praising the other. Daneshvar’s characters in The Quenched Fire are generic types like “professor,” “mother,” or “daughter,” characters without time, place or class who hardly possess a personality. Her lifelong concern with women and their place in society is apparent in her narrative as early as The Quenched Fire. However, at this early stage, Daneshvar does not analyze the socio-economic dependence of women; rather, she is concerned with the general position of women in society. Technically, Daneshvar’s major preoccupation at this time was her conscious distinction between the “I” of the author and the “I” of a character. Dual narration in some of her stories made them technically weak. The Quenched Fire, however, was well received, despite its shortcomings–perhaps because it was the first collection of short stories published by an Iranian woman. Later, Daneshvar refused to have the book reprinted, stating that she would never again turn in a first draft to a publisher. The year following the publication of The Quenched Fire, Daneshvar received her Ph.D. in Persian literature from Tehran University.
Subsequently, she became acquainted with Jalal Al-e Ahmad, the famous contemporary writer and social critic, during a trip from Isfahan to Tehran. They were married in 1950. Two years later, Daneshvar received a Fulbright scholarship and left for Stanford University for two years. During this time, she published two short stories in English in The Pacific Spectator. Upon her return to Iran, she joined Tehran University as an associate professor of art history, a post she held for twenty years. Daneshvar was never granted a professorship–not for the lack of credentials, but due to the influence of SAVAK, the secret police, as she would learn later from the president of the university. She had always been an outspoken and articulate lecturer who believed that her primary responsibility was to her students. Precisely for this reason, she would have many confrontations with the SAVAK throughout her years at the University. Daneshvar published her second collection of short stories, Shahri Chon Behesht (A City as Paradise), in 1961.
Meanwhile, her translations of Chekhov, Shaw, Hawthorne, Schnitzler and Saroyan had become a valuable addition to the collection of foreign works available in Persian. In A City as Paradise, Daneshvar’s prose style had matured considerably, coming closer to the language of the people, no longer as formal as it had been in The Quenched Fire. Instead she had developed a short, clear and concise sen- tence structure. It was from this time onward that she tried to bring her writing closer to cinematographic realism. Her earlier preoccupation with the presence of the “I” of the author is, however, still present in some of the stories in this volume. It is only in The Playhouse, the last story, that she finally succeeded in freeing her prose of this distracting element. Her other preoccupation, which began at this stage, is with the concept of time. Similar to Al-e Ahmad and Sa’edi, she felt the need to remind her readers constantly of the passage of time in the form of days, weeks, months or seasons. In The Accident, the length of the argument between the husband and wife over the purchase of the car is made clear by: “It took three weeks for me to surrender,” or “In three months and eleven days my wife . . .” Daneshvar asserted her devotion to recording women’s conditions in Iranian society in A City as Paradise. Here she no longer dwells on the general characteristics of women; rather, she assumes a neutral position and avoids passing judgement on them; she merely portrays the women and their lives as she saw them. Her characters are able to speak for themselves and demonstrate where their major strengths and weaknesses lie. She is also quite successful in creating the real, as well as the imaginary, worlds of her characters. In Bibi Shahr Banu, Daneshvar cleverly depicts the actual lives of her characters, juxtaposed against the lives they wished they could have had.
In The Playhouse, her handling of Siah’s character and his secret love for the girl is subtle, yet far-reaching. In her portrayal of the girl as a victim of society and of her own ignorance, Daneshvar surpasses all of her prior stories. At the time A City as Paradise was published, Daneshvar was still under the shadow of her husband, Al-e Ahmad, who was an imposing figure in Tehran’s literary circles. Al-e Ahmad had begun writing in 1945 and by 1961 had published seven novels and short story collections, establishing himself as a notable writer and critic. It was not until the publication of Savushun, Daneshvar’s masterpiece novel, in 1969, that she attained recognition as an indispensable writer of modern Persian literature, surpassing even Al-e Ahmad in literary importance. Savushun was the first novel written by an Iranian woman and from a woman’s perspective. The book has been reprinted sixteen times and to this date remains the single most widely read Persian novel. In Savushun there are no longer traces of weak technique, structure, or style. The story, told from Zari’s perspective, depicts a Shirazi landowning family which has become entangled in the dirty politics of the 1940s, instigated by foreign intruders and local opportunists. The hero, Yusuf, Zari’s husband, resists the foreigners’ demands that he turn over his crop to feed the occupying army. To do so would result in the starvation of his own peasants. He pays for his stubbornness with his life. The last scene of the novel is that of Yusuf’s burial procession, which is on the verge of turning into a mass demonstration. However, government troops disperse the demonstrators, leaving his body to be carried by his brother and Zari. This scene is among the most moving and well written passages in Persian literature. In Savushun, Daneshvar integrates social events, traditional customs, and beliefs, creating a beautifully narrated story.
Daneshvar’s husband died a few months before the publication of Savushun. After Al-e Ahmad’s death, Daneshvar continued her involvement in the activities that had been important to her husband. She assumed a leading role in the Writers’ Association, which Al-e Ahmad had helped to found, encouraging young writers in their efforts. In her understated yet resolute way, she provided moral support for intellectuals and dissidents opposing the Pahlavi regime. She specifically concentrated her efforts on assisting her students financially and academically. When she refers to political issues in her writings, it is within the broad context of unjust political systems, for Daneshvar never adhered to a particular political ideology. During the mid-1970s Daneshvar kept a low profile. She maintained her position as associate professor and became the chairman of the Department of Art History and Archaeology. In addition to her work at the University, she wrote a series of short stories. A few of these were published in magazines and finally compiled in 1980. To Whom Can I Say Hello? established Daneshvar as a good short story writer, as well as an able novelist. In the stories Traitor’s Intrigue, To Whom Can I Say Hello?, and The Accident, Daneshvar upholds the standards of excellence she had attained in Savushun. In this last collection, Daneshvar expands her earlier convictions. The diversity of her characters and her choice of themes reflect her thorough understanding of the multi-faceted Iranian society. She captures the mentality, the ideals, aspirations, lifestyles, manner of speech, and popular expressions of Iran’s various social strata. Her well-rounded characters are representative oftheir time and place, presenting a colorful view of Iranian behavior. This quality in her writing affirms the faithfulness of her work as being a true mirror of society. Daneshvar’s stories reflect reality rather than fantasy. They contain themes such as child theft, adultery, marriage, childbirth, sickness, death, treason, profiteering, illiteracy, ignorance, poverty and loneliness. The issues she deals with are the social problems of the 1960s and 1970s, which have immediacy and credibility for the reader. Her inspiration is drawn from the people around her. In her own words: “Simple people have much to offer. They must be able to give freely and with piece of mind. We, too, in return, must give to them to the best of our abilities. We must, with all our heart, try to help them acquire what they truly deserve.”
Daneshvar depicts the lifestyles of the lower classes, the traditional middle class, and the bourgeoisie with equal clarity. Through her characters one becomes familiar with these various classes. A few examples will help illustrate the diversity of her female characters. Nadia in The Accident is a bourgeois woman who sacrifices her marriage (and potentially the happiness of her children) to further her desired social image. On the other hand, Zari inSavushun is a traditional middle class, educated woman from a feudal family. She nobly accepts her husband’s self-sacrifice, devoting herself to carry forth his principles of justice and humanity. In contrast, the protagonist in another story, Anis, is a lower middle class woman with aspirations of social mobility. A maid who has come from a village to Tehran, she is impressed by the bourgeois lifestyle. Seeking to emulate it, she abandons her self respect, individuality, and economic independence. Marmar in Vakil Bazaar is a careless maid who foolishly loses her master’s daughter because she cannot tear herself away from a shopkeeper’s flirtations. Daneshvar does a brilliant job reproducing Marmar’s language. The expressions and idioms Marmar uses are common among the women of her class. Bridging the gap between the spoken and written language has been a major preoccupation of contemporary Persian writers. It is mainly through dialogue that a writer can exercise this practice. Daneshvar, however, is successful in reproducing the cadence of spoken language throughout the whole text, not merely in the dialogue.
Daneshvar is particularly concerned with elderly single women who have worked their entire lives to earn a living, but find themselves poor and broken-hearted in their final years. In To Whom Can I Say Hello? Daneshvar sympathetically depicts Kokab Sultan, a hardworking woman who raises her daughter with great difficulty. Having devoted herself to creating the best possible life for her child, she is forced to sell her daughter into marriage when her only source of income is taken away. Daneshvar, who has adopted the plight of the lower classes, especially that of poor women, considers their economic dependence on men as the source of all their misfortune. She largely blames the structure of society for this condition. Muhtaram, the daughter of a poor cobbler in The Man Who Never Came Back, marries Ebrahim, a peddler. She is so thrilled with the few extra material things she finds at her husband’s house that she does not realize that she is still living in poverty. She becomes aware of the desperation of her situation one day when Ebrahim does not return home. Left with little money, no skills, and two small children, she is forced to acknowledge her complete dependance on her husband. This time, though, Muhtaram is lucky and Ebrahim returns home unharmed, saving them from starvation.
Although Daneshvar underscores the social factors contributing to the unfortunate situation of women, she nevertheless maintains her objectivity, at times turning her critical eye upon the individual. Her characters provide role models that are both positive (Zari in Savushun, Maryam in Bibi Shahr Banu, Kokab Sultan in To Whom Can I Say Hello?), as well as negative (Nadia in The Accident, Anis in Anis, the girl in The Playhouse). Out of the changing social milieu of the 1960s and 1970s, writers found it far more difficult to develop believable, progressive characters than to recreate negative characters that were easy to mock. For instance, in The Traitor’s Intrigue, one observes the colonel’s character development. An unsympathetic charac ter at the start, he evolves into a positive model by the end of the story. He finally stands on his own two feet, asserting his individuality in the face of the regime, disrupting the old order. Folklore and traditional Persian customs preoccupied writers in the 1960s and 1970s.
Much of Daneshvar’s work encompassed traditional customs and rituals. She reminds the reader of the virtues and vices of such traditions. Her fiction details superstitions that have survived for centuries, embedded in the extreme religiosity of the lower classes. The common practices of casting away evil spirits and unlocking misfortunes by resorting to magical prayers and witchcraft appear again and again in her stories. Kokab Sultan in To Whom Can I Say Hello? wants to learn the infamy prayer so that she can curse her son-in-law and win her daughter back. The family of the mullah in the Vakil Bazaar want to save their son from the evil spirit which has taken over his body by exorcising him, and offering ablutions and prayers. Daneshvar has no qualms with traditional religious ceremonies and rituals like visiting holy shrines, baking Nazri (an offering of food to the poor), and performing the daily prayers. She does, however, oppose religious superstition, which can brutalize people’s lives. In 1979, Daneshvar retired from her post at the University, and in the following year published To Whom Can I Say Hello?
In 1981, she completed a monograph on Al-e Ahmad, Ghoroub-e Jalal (The Loss of Jalal). This is the most moving piece she has written, as well as the best descriptive work on the personality of one of Iran’s literary leaders. Daneshvar relates her last days with Al-e Ahmad with great detail and emotional understanding. Her prose is formal, proving her mastery of Persian classical literature. Daneshvar currently resides in Tehran and has recently completed a new novel, Jazireh-ye Sargardani (The Wandering Island). Until the appearance of Daneshvar, contemporary Persian literature could boast of only two able women writers–Parvin E’tesami and Forough Farrokhzad–both poets. Daneshvar proved that women could also achieve excellence in prose. Her works stand as precious contributions to the world of fiction in Iran. As a woman and as a writer, she is a model of the up-and-coming women authors who want to address social concerns. Persian literature today has considerable value, especially when viewed as a mirror of society as well as a medium to influence it. Contemporary Iranian writers like Daneshvar have taken it upon themselves to create a link between literature and social change.