“Would you be so kind as to carry me across the river?”
According to Iranian myth, this request is made by the creature Davālpā, an elderly man-like form whose legs unfurl like leather straps from the base of his torso. Unable to move on its own, it enlists passerby to hoist it onto their shoulders. It is a grave mistake, however, to consent to carry the Davālpā. Once hoisted, the creature wraps its straplike legs around the carrier’s neck, thus strangling its victim into submission for as long as they both live.
The Davālpā and its tenacious grip haunt the protagonist of Shahriar Mandanipour’s novel Moon Brow, which has just been published by Restless Books. Amir Yamini is a former Iranian soldier attempting to navigate a new postwar reality with a splintered mind and a severed left arm. Through Amir’s mental scrambling of time and memory, the mythic and the modern manifest without distinction in a progression through Iran’s cataclysmic recent history. It is not strange, then, to find the Davālpā wailing on the staircase or under the shedding cherry trees in the backyard. Amir wonders: when did he allow the creature onto his back?
In Moon Brow, as in postrevolutionary Iran, history refuses to ease up on the neck of contemporary times. Amir’s struggle with the past begins in his private life. Rebellion against his powerful and ultra-religious family takes the form of heavy drinking and sexual libertinage. But Amir’s conflict soon expands into the political realm as he witnesses the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and then serves in the Iran-Iraq War. The fragmented nature of the narrative suggests shell shock, and Amir attempts to recount in his own troubled manner the recent history of his country. It is through his haunted eyes that we see mobs chanting “Death to the Shah!” as royal monuments in Tehran are uprooted; the newly-reigning Islamic Republic erasing Western references (a street named for Anatole France, for example, becomes Qods, or “the Holy”); and the salvo of Iraqi chemical bombs against the Kurdish people in 1988.
The interfacing of past and present in the Islamic revolution was once praised, in its beginnings. When French thinker Michel Foucault visited Iran at the moment of revolution, he wrote, “It is something very old and also very far into the future, a notion of coming back to what Islam was at the time of the Prophet, but also of advancing toward a luminous and distant point where it would be possible to renew fidelity rather then maintain obedience.” According to Foucault’s enthusiastic account, the revolution was a time in which the Iranian people simultaneously gazed into the nation’s past and distant future, and thus envisioned a more informed transformation.
Moon Brow is a polemic against exactly this utopian interpretation of the Islamic regime change.Revolution ushers in an authoritarian rule that incessantly intrudes on the personal lives of Amir and others. Surveillance looms over Amir’s backyard, where revolutionary guards are often stationed. Amir and his sister Reyhaneh suspect that acquaintances, such as their driver, are government informants. She struggles to comply with the state-required chador, the traditional Iranian-Islamic attire for women that covers the upper body and leaves only the face exposed. Amir’s friends relay the brutal killing of members of the underground Marxist-Leninist revolutionary group, the Organization of the Iranian People’s Fedaii Guerillas.
Amir’s own personal rebellion against his family takes on wider implications in these new political circumstances. When he breaks the newly-enacted law against alcohol consumption, he is arrested and punished with eighty lashes. In a bewildering move, he secretly enlists himself in the Iranian military and serves in the horrific Iran-Iraq War, a conflict that directly resulted from the revolution.
Amir’s military background parallels that of author and Iranian exile Shahriar Mandanipour. The criticism of history’s unyielding hold over his country is a recurring theme in his work. His first novel translated into English, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, recounted an author’s struggle to write a love story that would be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, a government agency in Iran that restricts access to unapproved media. In a 2009 essay for The Guardian, Mandanipour wrote of the current Iranian zeitgeist,“we cling to our past and rarely look to the future. We are forever proud of our glorious ancient history and are satisfied by it . . . Yet many of us still have a culture of religious zeal and fanaticism in our blood.”
Just as the trajectory of Iranian history calls for a thorough retracing, together Amir and Reyhaneh search for clues to piece together the shards of Amir’s memory. He is certain that he was secretly engaged to a woman he names Moon Brow—but nobody can tell him her identity. The narrative climaxes when Amir journeys back to the battlefield to seek his missing arm, desperate to find an engagement ring on its decayed finger. With each progression toward the buried bones, the narration speeds and turns, uncovering memories at an exponential rate. As he digs, the contexts of refrains and prior passages throughout the narrative are brought to light, and, like Amir, we are able to retrospectively shape a hazy but linear arch.
Moon Brow eschews propriety for disturbing realities. The Davālpā’s suffocating grip appears to extend to the rampant misogyny that Amir, his friends, and his fellow soldiers entertain. War especially offers a hyper-masculine landscape on which every enemy’s mother and sister is a hypothetical object vulnerable to violent sexual desires. Judgment is administered through the use of the angel of sin and the angel of virtue, who sit on Amir’s shoulders and act as scribes. The angels take turns recounting events depending on the matter at hand and often dispute what should be written and by whom.
Amir’s own impassioned thoughts are reflected in direct, often careening quotations that trail off before hurtling inquiries and interjections. Passages of Amir’s present quest for memories are interposed by the unearthed images themselves; thus, the structure emulates the disjointed remembrances of trauma. Translator Sara Khalili retains the richness of the language, which oscillates between the sublime and the grotesque. While the political facets of Amir’s story report the grim truths of contemporary Iranian history, the physical and emotional world described in Moon Brow is alive with vivid and provocative encounters: the pattering haze of rain, the muffled shouts and groans on the battlefield, the crashing Caspian Sea, and the mystic reverie of romantic love.
The story of the Davālpā is but one myth recalled in Moon Brow. Another relays the death of Attar, the eleventh-century poet who was decapitated during the Mongolian invasion. According to legend, he bent down, picked up his own head, and walked away with it cradled under his arm, his displaced mouth still reciting poems. Shahriar Mandanipour’s narration likewise sings despite the dreadful realities it faces. It offers beauty while confronting the ugliness of revolution, oppression, and war. Moon Brow forms a melodic whole in the face of the traumatic fracturing of both the protagonist’s body and the body of a nation. To its mournful song, we should bear to listen.
© Damara Atrigol Pratt. All rights reserved.