An Elegant and Complex Mosaic: Persian Literature Through the Centuries
By Vikas Datta
One of the oldest, most dynamic and yet still thriving literary traditions in the world, its impact spans centuries and continents. If it were known only for its medieval—but still popular—Sufi mystical poets, its national epic that spans mythology to recorded history, or its tales of star-crossed lovers, it could rest on its laurels. But Persian literature has much more up its elegant sleeve.
Take, for example, a 14th century satire that could be the possible predecessor to the cartoon “Tom and Jerry”, an early 20th century work so darkly pessimistic that it was banned on the grounds that it could make its readers suicidal, and a candid coming-of-age story, amidst revolution, war and heartbreak – in a graphic novel format.
Additionally, there is also a distinct Indian connection to modern Persian literature – both in content and production, in keeping with the age-old ties between the two civilizations.
However, whenever we think of Persian literature, what usually comes to mind is its glittering firmament of classical poets, who flourished from the 9th to the 13th centuries. Let’s start with them only.
There is Hafez (or Hafiz), who was even once quoted by Sherlock Holmes (although there are literary scholars who dispute the reference), or Sheikh Sa’di, from “Bustan”, a work in verse enlisting the standard virtues for people, and “Gulistan”, a work in prose, liberally sprinkled with short poems of aphorisms, advice and reflections on the inconstancy of fate, and one of the first expressions of absurdity of human existence.
Omar Khayyam, the “sage of Naishapur”, has to his credit the “Rubaiyat”, one of the most famous works of world poetry, especially after its interpretation in English by Edward Fitzgerald. This rather loose translation would not only inspire the titles of works by authors as diverse as Agatha Christie, Eugene O’Neill and Rex Stout, but also accomplish the singular task of making Khayyam popular again in his homeland.
Above all, there is Jalal al-Din Muḥammad Rumi, whose emphasis on personal paths to understand and unite with divinity, and the overwhelming nature of selfless and sacred love, make him one of the most popular and popular poets in the world – especially in the United States, where even recordings of his work top the music charts.
And then there is Rudaki, the first poet to write in New Persian. He was said to be so gifted that he was once tasked by a king’s nostalgic courtiers to persuade their ruler to abandon his favorite campsite – where he had been staying for more than two years – and return to their hometown of Bukhara.
Rudaki penned a poem so evocative that, according to one account, it so moved the king that halfway through he jumped on a horse and rode off so fast that his courtiers had to chase him for miles before they could persuade him to wear shoes. as well as leggings, and he never pulled the reins until he got home.
There is also Nizami Ganjavi, whose fame rests not only on two impassioned but doomed works of love “Khosrow and Shirin” (whose Shirin-Farhad episode is better known than the entire work) and “Layla and Majnun”, which is Arabic in source but substantially reworked.
He also deserves to be known for his “Iskander-Nameh”, recounting the historical and fantastic episodes of Alexander’s life, and the very exotic and esoteric “Haft Paykar”.
Mention should also be made of Farid ud-Din Attar’s “The Conference of the Birds”, another mysterious look at the path and purpose of life, told through discussion at a gathering of feathered beings, as they are looking for a leader.
In the realm of prose, Ferdowsi/Fardushi’s “Shahnameh” is not only a captivating reading of the country’s mythology and history, but it also stands as a glorious testimony to how a national civilization thrives despite the religious change.
And there’s the 14th century writer Ubayd Zakani, whose “Mush-o-Gorbeh” (“Cat and Mouse”) is about a cat that drinks and kills mice, then repents, but gets so mad about it. a mouse that gathers an army to fight the small creatures. It may sound like a children’s fable, but it’s actually an incisive political satire targeting organized religion and its hypocrisies.
Persian literature also did not leave its heights in modern times, even though the country was plagued by social and political unrest. There was a growing belief that literature should reflect, and not stay away from, contemporary realities. There was even a directive from a prominent statesman of the mid-19th century, who reproached a poet for “lying”, that literature should espouse modernism.
But litterateurs are a stubborn bunch and work according to their own whims and fancies. Let’s also take a look at some modern works.
Among the first standard-bearers of Iranian modernist literature, Sadegh Hedayat is known for his overly morbid “The Blind Owl” (1936 in Persian, 1957 in English) – originally published in a limited edition in Bombay and stamped “Not for sale or publication in Iran”.
With Hedayat in India to learn more about her country’s ancient Zoroastrian religion and learn Sanskrit, the short story infuses Indian and Iranian myths and icons.
In two parts, it begins with an anonymous painter as narrator, who sees in his feverish dreams the regular presence of death, and whose daytime nightmares begin when he goes to get something for his uncle who has returned from Bombay, then begins to to write. . The second part takes place in the past and with his character – who is no less miserable – as the narrator.
Hedayat, who took his own life in 1951, was also a prolific short-story writer – but these are also far from cheerful.
Iraj Pezeshkzad’s “My Uncle Napoleon” (1973 Persian; 1996 English), a coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of the Allied occupation of Iran during World War II, is a bit happier but unrestrained in its satire.
At its heart, it’s the story of the struggles of the unnamed narrator – a high school student – to block his cousin’s pre-arranged marriage to another cousin in order to have her for himself.
She happens to be the only child of her maternal uncle – the “Napoleon” of the title, a name sarcastically given to her by her nieces and nephews due to her obsession with the French Emperor, and otherwise a paranoid, delusional character who believes that the British and their “lackeys” invaded the country to get revenge on him for “standing” against them during the constitutional revolution more than three decades ago.
A phalanx of constantly scheming family members, police investigators, government officials, an incompetent doctor, a preacher, devious servants and others round out the cast. Among them stands out an Indian Sikh businessman named “Sardar Maharat Khan” and considered by the uncle to be a British spy.
And finally, no literary tradition can be complete without mentioning the voice of women, who, otherwise repressed, can use the pen to share their fate and even fight back.
Shahrnoush Parsipur’s “Women Without Men” (written in the 1970s, but first published in 1989 in Persian and 1998 in English) uses interwoven narratives and magical realism to depict the social condition of Iranian women and their desire to break free.
It depicts five women – a former schoolteacher struggling with a disturbing experience, another in search of independence and a husband, an old woman shaken by revelations about virginity, a disenchanted bourgeoise at home and a cheerful prostitute, who find themselves in a mystical garden, where they can freely reflect on their life, their dreams and their desires.
Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Persepolis’ series is well known as a semi-autobiographical account of the loss of faith and trust in religion, society and even relationships, but it is her ‘Broderies’ (2003 French; 2005 in English) which is more – punchy in its candid discussion of sex between three generations of women in one household and some of their friends and neighbors.