A few weeks ago on Amy’s blog Amy Reads, she reviewed a novella by the Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur which followed the intersecting lives of five Iranian women and their quest to live free of male control. Based on her review, the book sounded promising. Even though I read mostly nonfiction, every so often I crave a bit of fiction. And when I do indulge, I tend to gravitate towards the international stuff. And since I’m participating in Helen’s Middle East Reading Challenge, better yet if it’s from that part of the world. So with that in mind, I figured if I ever got a chance I’d give Parsipur’s novella a shot.
Well, about a week ago I happened to be rummaging through the “international authors” shelf at my public library (which over the last few years has led me to several nice works of international fiction including Tayeb Salih’s A Season of Migration to the North, Taslima Nasrin’s Revenge: A Fable and Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone) when I came across Parsipur’s Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran. Realizing this was my chance, I grabbed it along with a few other books and headed home. After it sat on my desk for a few days I picked it up and started reading it, finishing the short novel in what seemed like no time.
Unlike many works of fiction, Women Without Men belongs to the genre of magical realism, which to quote the great oracle Wikipedia “magical elements blend with the real world”. Long associated with Latin American literary giants Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Luis Borges, the literary style has been employed by a host of renowned authors including Gunter Grass, Italo Calvino and Tim O’ Brien. By taking this artistic approach, Parsipur is able to gives her novella a mystical flavoring.
One of things I liked about Women Without Men is its ability to challenge our stereotypes of Iran. Instead of a hyper-religious, male-centric and oppressive society, in Parsipur’s magical realist version of Iran her characters might be spiritual, but no one is religious, at least in a traditional sense. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember the word god or Allah mentioned once. Instead of living as second class citizens, her five female protagonists follow their own agendas unhindered by male interference.
Many people over the years have waxed poetically that fiction contains more truth than nonfiction. With that in mind, I’d love to believe that Parsipur’s Women Without Men, as magical as it is, tells us much about the people of Iran. Like the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave, the mystical world she describes is a reflection of the deep and secretive collective soul of the Persian people, older and more mysterious than any Ayatollahs and their allies would lead us to believe.