Writing a great, multi-generational and nationalist novel is no small feat. Salman Rushdie did it with Midnight’s Children, Junot Diaz did it with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Gunter Grass with Tin Drum, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in a manner of speaking, with One Hundred Years of Solitude. With the exception of Marquez, these works are all first novels—and it’s felt. There’s a fury behind these books, a sort of life-long culmination of historical impact whose magnitude can only be realized when rendered into fiction. Often in these epics, magical realism is used to intensify the world into something stronger and brighter than the history that belies the backdrop. When used well, magical realism enhances reality; it gives plot reverberation and power.
What draws an author to write in this way comes from a fire in the gut, to be sure, but the chops to actually pull off this sort of saga requires confidence, talent, wisdom, and stamina. No doubt these elements are present in Ali Araghi’s debut novel, The Immortals of Tehran. The story starts just before the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran during World War II, which forced the abdication of Reza Shah, bringing to power his son, Mohammad Reza Shah – the last shah of Iran. Spanning decades, the story develops amid Mohammad Reza’s reign, which culminates after the 1979 Iranian Revolution when he is overthrown. The revolution is the north star of Araghi’s story.
The novel opens on the wedding day of ten year-old Ahmad, Torkash-Vand’s older sister. A thick, dense morning fog serves as a bad omen to tragedy, which begins with gunshots fired from a minaret in the town mosque. The source is Ahmad’s father, Nosser, a former soldier who suffers from war trauma and shoots at imaginary Russians. Summoned by Nosser, Ahmad ascends the minaret, where his father explains that the boy must protect his family since the entire country is under attack. Nosser then sticks the rifle into his mouth, and instructs Ahmad to clench his hands around the gun. It is Nosser, though, who pulls the trigger.
The tragedy of this event unlocks the trajectory of the novel. Ahmad, traumatized himself, never speaks again, resorting to a life communicating by notepad that will lead to a career in poetry, and later, politics. If this seems a bit far stretched, it is; but, I forgave these slightly underdeveloped leaps as the overall portrayal of Ahmad’s life expertly mirrors Iran’s dynamic changes. What’s important to the story isn’t so much how Ahmad comes to poetry and politics, but for what purpose. What does his role play in the world around him, as influenced by the politics at the time? Araghi deftly integrates an environment of famine, chaos, and protest with a cast of fully-fleshed characters. Each character plays a role towards the novel’s apex: the revolution.
A greater force is at hand, however. Like its predecessors, the novel integrates magical realism to intensify conflict and add a surreal element to explain the emotional destruction of war and political turmoil. Ahmad’s grandfather, Khan, owns and runs a successful family orchard, where Khan’s own grandfather, Agha, lives in one of the trees. Venerable and jolly, Agha also has a quiet wisdom about him. Upon Nosser’s death, he tells Ahmad a tale about cats. In Agha’s story, a boy on a journey, the same to which he lost his parents on, happens upon a cat city, where one human woman lives. Together, the boy and woman have a large family, which inadvertently destroys the cat city. In retaliation, the cats poison the family’s water, killing everyone except the now grown boy who therein becomes immortal. And so the curse begins: for every other generation, a man must watch his parents, and then his children, die while he continues to live eternally. Agha believes his family is part of that lineage. He believes the cats are seeking revenge on Tehran in response to the boy’s destruction of the cat city.
At first, Khan dismisses this story but, as he ages and considers Nosser’s death, he sees the pattern. The family’s move from Tajrish to Tehran has Khan on a cat hunt. Agha’s advice to kill the cats to end the city’s suffering now rings true. He also goes to great pains to prevent Ahmad from having children, which would end the curse. It is believed, in the midst of all this, that the cats are responsible for the country’s troubles that are meant to incite the impending revolution.
The novel successfully incorporates magic into the narrative without distraction or hyperbole. Nana, the elderly woman who helps with an illegal hat cooking operation, is clairvoyant; Ahmad has a profound, almost-magical strength and intelligence; and dead Nosser secretly visits Ahmad’s mother.
However, the plotline involving cats falls flat. When the revolution comes, the cat actions are far fetched, and the initial discovery of cat intervention by Khan doesn’t quite come together. That said, while the cat rebellion is a motivator in the novel, its page space is limited. Ahmad’s development as a flawed but real character with complex relationships, and the evolution of a city that can’t quite get its political footing are by far the biggest and most fascinating drivers of the novel.
If one is not up to snuff on their Iranian history, they would do well to brush up before cracking open the novel. While clear markers and well-rendered action indicate big events, the weight of these moments have more significance when the context is understood. The same can be said of the plot, which builds itself on Iranian history. Without good knowledge, readers may get lost. The benefit in Araghi’s approach, though, is that the novel is not a history lesson; rather, it asks its readers to look at how history and politics parlay into people’s lives. Araghi’s stunning novel embraces family and independence, political strife, and, despite its display of conflict, a profound love of Tehran and its history.
The Immortals of Tehran
By Ali Araghi
Melville House Publishing
Published April 7, 2020
Sara Webster is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. She earned her MFA from NYU, and in her spare time teaches Creative Writing at Colorado Free University. You can find her at www.sarawebster.net, or on Twitter @sarawebbee. She's at work on her first novel.