Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: Rooftops of Tehran

Rooftops of Tehran, Mahbod Seraji


NAL Trade, 2009
ISBN: 9780451226815
368 pages


Multiple-choice question: This book is about
1) Shah Pahlavi's secret police.
2) Love.
3) The people of Iran.

Answer: Yes.

I may flunk the making of test questions, but this first novel by Seraji deserves an “A”. In the tradition of The Kite Runner, and to drag out the most clichéd of all clichés, I could not put this book down until I had read the last blank leaf.

The year is 1973. Pasha, the book’s narrator, and Ahmed, his life-long friend, are both seventeen. This, then, is a coming of age story or, as a Doctoral candidate in creative writing told me, a bildungsroman—defined as the moral and psychological development of the characters.

Pasha, a bookish boy, has a mentor whom everyone calls Doctor. Doctor is an avowed Communist, beloved by all in the neighborhood because he is a radical, and betrothed since birth to Pasha’s next-door neighbor, Zari. Pasha falls in love with Zari, who will forever be unavailable to him. But how does he stop love, a love he did not ask for in the first place? This is his bildungsroman: he cannot stop thinking of this seventeen-year-old girl, and at night he agonizes over his guilt and his desire for the forbidden.

Ahmed, who provides comic relief and a well-tuned sense of the absurd, has a girlfriend whom he courts in the traditional Western manner. Shah Pahlavi was Muslim, but he modernized Iran by doing away with the burkqua and arranged marriages. He was also a dictator and could not allow radical groups, mostly Communist, to exist. SAVAK, the secret police, hunted, imprisoned, tortured, and killed dissidents—one of whom was Doctor.

Doctor’s fate is not only devastating to Zari and Pasha, Ahmed and Faheemeh, and all the parents and relatives; all the neighbors who live in the alley (street) are outraged too, that such a horror has happened to one of their own.

This is where Seraji shines. In addition to creating characters I could not help but like, he peppers the book with stories of the Iranian people to balance the stinging salt of the heavier themes. He points out that Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, and their language is Farsi, not Arabic. Despite hundreds of years of oppression by both invaders and dictators, the people are unusually kind, gracious, and form friendships for life. They love the beauty of their country, which is predominantly mountainous, green, and the land fruitful. They love their rooftop terraces too, where they can gaze at the stars or watch the activity in the alley.

Through flashbacks, Pasha relates stories of his and Amed’s childhoods, their days at school with teachers whose cruelties rival those of Catholic nuns, of Ahmed’s often brash and hilarious antics—and of odd relatives who are comical because of being odd.

The love story: I’m not going to say one word, not one peep, not even if you send me an email begging me to reveal it.

For me, this little gem takes it place beside the works of Khaled Hosseini and Jhumpa Lahiri, even though Seraji’s writing does not rival either one of them as poetry in prose.

And about the rose on the cover. It has a very special meaning ...

22 comments:

savannah said...

and here i am going to the bookstore later today! i'll just have to add this to my list, sugar! xoxoxo

(aside: have you read anything by the egyptian writer, naguib mahfouz? i think you might enjoy his style.)

Attila The Mom said...

Love the review!

Diane said...

I've seen this one around and everyone has seen to have enjoyed it. Great review Charlie; thanks

Pat said...

That sounds enchanting and will definitely go on my list which is growing faster than I can keep up.

Mary Witzl said...

I look forward to reading this too. I loved Khaled Hosseini's books and if this one is similar, it goes on my list.

Mary Witzl said...

I meant to add that the Iranians I know of who've relocated here have houses with rooftop terraces with grapevines and succulents. Interesting.

Charlie said...

SAVANNAH: Thanks for the tip--I'll do some Amazon window shopping for Mahfouz.

MARY: A rooftop terrace also played a part in The House of Sand and Fog.

Jimmy Bastard said...

Secret polis huh? I bet their questioning techniques are quite a spectacle to be seen.

Wandering Coyote said...

Wow. I am putting this on my Amazon wishlist ASAP!

Tiffin said...

Good review, Chas. Must look that one up as I don't think I've read any Iranian Lit. Mahfouz's "Midaq Alley" was an interesting read. Orham Pamuk is a really good Turkish writer too. Thank goodness for good translators who are making this accessible to us.

John D said...

Nice review Charlie, and the book sounds excellent. I bounced around a lot of different genres last year, but the Kite Runner was one of my favorite reads. I'll definitely seek this one out.

Fay's Too said...

See, there you go again! I keep telling you my "to read" pile is growing to quickly and you keep coming up with more things for me to read. Sheesh!

laytonwoman3rd said...

Iranians are Persians, not Arabs. I've been trying to make one of my uncles understand that for a long time...he isn't at all interested in the distinction, unfortunately. This sounds like a wonderful book. I may have mentioned being a sucker for the bildungsroman (yeah...I happen to know at least one PhD candidate who might have explained that term to you. And she's "defending" this afternoon. Cross yer digits.)

Charlie said...

LINDA Yes, that was the candidate who introduced me to the term. And since it's 3 p.m. "out East," I have my fingers crossed for her.

laytonwoman3rd said...

Thanks, Charlie. She's probably in the midst of it now. I thought I couldn't bite my nails with my fingers crossed, but I find that is not true.

Madame DeFarge said...

Great review, reminds me that I really need to start reading books again. Ones without pictures.

TechnoBabe said...

Hi Charlie. You have been tagged if you would like to play. See the post called Tag on my blog. I hope you enjoy your weekend.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

This sounds like a beautiful book. I love a well told story that opens worlds to me about which I have previously known too little. Thanks!

Lady_Amanda said...

My Goodness,I love coming to your blog. All of my other blogs are about mental illness, but yours always puts a smile on my face. True I came to blogspot because I wanted to write and read about mental illness. It's kinda of like another support group for me. However, I don't know how in the heck I found you. I know some of your followers are my followers. Maybe you found me. However, I LOVE BOOKS! My bachelor's is in Lit. Which I am probably telling for the 100th time. But you have wisdom of one of my greatest loves, Lit.

Thanks my blog buddy,
Amanda

Charlie said...

AMANDA: What nice things you said! You are, indeed, a Lady.

kara said...

you go through these too fast! i'm just now in the middle of This is Where I Leave You. i can't keep up, man. it's cutting into my go-out-and-drink time.

John D said...

Hi Charlie. We just picked this up from the library and I've made a start. So far so good.

Ooh. Want to hear something funny/weird - the word verification code I have to enter for this comment is "ablogr". How did you do that?