Reviews

What Do a Solar Eclipse and the Iranian Revolution Have in Common?

While on the surface Rabeah Ghaffari’s To Keep the Sun Alive is about a family amid the Iranian revolution, the novel opens in Paris in 2012. It’s the day of a solar eclipse and Shazdehpoor, a lonely Iranian man, remembers his life in his home country. The story then alternates between Shazdehpoor’s life in modern day Paris and his family back in Iran in 1978-79.

Retired Judge Akbar and his wife Bibi own a fruit orchard and their extended family joins them for rich countryside lunches where they discuss what’s happening in their country. Akbar’s brother Habib is a mullah who professes the need for religious cleansing. His nephew, Shazdenpoor, has two sons—Jamsheed is an opium addict and Madjid is in love with Nasreen, Bibi’s grandniece. As the political turmoil grows, so does the personal, and in this intersection the two inform one another. The future has been written and the forthcoming events—full of violence and tragedy—will stir the family.

Ghaffari does a beautiful job of weaving the building tensions of the country into the idyllic orchard family gatherings, so the looming revolution surrounds the characters until it’s upon them: “It’s coming to a head. You can feel it in the streets. In the dormitories. You should see the students huddled around in earnestness.” And with such a diverse cast of characters, there is a spectrum of opinions about what’s happening, from passionate urgency to, in the case of Jamsheed, a kind of indifference:

“He found their passions quaint and utterly futile. He smiled as they spoke about injustice, poverty, political repression, and forced progress. He nodded as they spoke about illiteracy, lost lands, rampant corruption, and a government that dragged its bewildered children into the Western century, a country that stood with a dead empire on its back.”

The juxtaposition of Jamsheed, who smokes opium as a way out of the world, and his brother Madjid, who remains grounded in the country’s state of affairs, helps illustrate the revolution and the way it is being perceived. Madjid remains indignant over what’s happening in the country. His literature teacher is taken away for teaching Chekov’s Cherry Orchard and he has a conversation with Akbar about people in power always being afraid of losing it. Madjid agrees, “People can be so frustrating. The choices they make. The things they don’t do. As if their privilege breeds inertia.”

Despite the lazy nature of the afternoon family lunches, no inertia is felt in this novel. In small moments and conversations, layers of tension build until the revolution is upon them. Secrets are revealed, a marriage unravels, and violence escalates. Everything comes to a head on the day of a solar eclipse in 1979, bringing Shazdehpoor’s story full circle.

Comparisons to other novels can be helpful or annoying–the latter when not fully thought through. So it’s with great sensitivity that I say that To Keep the Sun Alive brought heavily to mind Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers.

It’s true that on the surface these novels have little in common, but both are epic stories that alternate with one character in modern day Paris and that character’s family decades earlier in the midst of personal and political upheaval. The presence of one character in the modern day anchors the story and gives hope that at least one character will make it out of the turmoil alive while also creating an urgency to the earlier events. Both novels deal with a difficult subject (the AIDS crisis/ Iranian revolution) yet are compulsively readable tales of the transcending power of art and stories.

Because in the end that’s what To Keep the Sun Alive ultimately is about. More than the Iranian revolution, it’s a meditation on the nature of stories—the way they shape our lives and the power they have to not only enrich, but sustain us.

FICTION
To Keep the Sun Alive
By Rabeah Ghaffari
Catapult
Published January 15, 2019

Rabeah Ghaffari is a writer and film editor whose fiction was included in Reflections on Islamic Art and whose documentary, The Troupe, featured Tony Kushner. Her most recent feature-length screenplay, The Inheritors, was commissioned by producer and costume designer Patricia Field. To Keep the Sun Alive is her first novel.

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