The recent success of memoirs set in Iran, such as Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran," indicates that interest in the culture of...

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“Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature”
edited by Nahid Mozaffari, poetry editor Ahmad Karimi Hakkak
Arcade, 494 pp., $26

The recent success of memoirs set in Iran, such as Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” indicates that interest in the culture of that country is growing. If that’s the case, then this PEN anthology has been timed just right. It’s a fine sampler of short stories, poems and excerpts from novels by 50 or so contemporary Iranian writers, spanning a period of 25 years.

The introduction to “Strange Times, My Dear” brings to light a literary revival that has gone largely unnoticed by Western readers.

Despite the 1979 revolution that ousted the shah, a war with Iraq in the ’80s and the stifling censorship of a repressive theocracy, Iranian literature has been quietly flourishing. Many of the contributors to this collection have suffered political or religious persecution. Some have fled to other countries and now live in exile. Yet they do not abandon their calling.

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Writers from the pre-revolution period explore the topics of alienation, oppression, social injustice and corruption, while younger writers largely concern themselves with gender and women’s issues, society’s hierarchies and love. In order to cope with the demands of censorship and address the complexities of the modern world, many writers present their works in such a way as to allow multiple interpretations.

In Mahmud Dowlatabadi’s story “The Mirror,” the main character is so alienated from the government that he has not only lost his identity card but forgotten his own name. “It had not yet crossed the mind of the man walking down the street that he should remember it had been fifteen years since he had looked at himself in the mirror.” He sets out in search of archival records, only to lose the remainder of his identity.

Ahmad Mahmud’s novel excerpt “Scorched Earth” portrays Iraq’s invasion of Iran in realistic terms. In the stifling heat of late summer, residents of a town learn that Iraqi tanks have advanced to within 10 kilometers of their city. In their will to fight, they demand weapons. “Voices are rising like the sound of the sea before the storm breaks, a roar that sinks fear into your heart. Sometimes a resonating voice overtakes the noise and rises above it, drives toward the garrison, and echoes like a wounded bird hitting its flailing head against the wall.” A subsequent defeat brings loss of honor and humiliation.

In “The Grocer from Kharzeville,” a lonely young man who lives in exile makes attempts to strike up a friendship with his next-door neighbors but doesn’t succeed. Author Nassim Khaskar captures the pain of cultural dislocation: “You see everything but at the same time you see nothing. The pain penetrates to your bones; you feel you’re cursed. Damn it, remembering the past has no boundaries — any phrase, any word, triggers yet another memory. Nothing you do brings any relief.”

Voices of several women from different strata of society can be heard in an excerpt from the novel “Women Without Men.” Author Shahrnush Parsipur was imprisoned for publishing this novel, which addresses women’s plights in a male-dominated culture. In one episode, Farrokhlaqa, a beautiful middle-age woman, is unhappy with her husband, Golchehreh. “Whenever he was in the house, she would lose her ability to move, and she would hide in a corner.” Her distrust of him and a misunderstanding between them brings tragedy to her life.

Reading the biographies that precede each piece, it becomes obvious that these authors cherish intellectual freedom more than their own personal safety.

It is Seyyed Ebrahim Nabavi who perhaps best exemplifies a love of the written word. As a political analyst and satirist, he has been jailed twice. In his short story “First Love,” a bookish young boy falls in love with a pretty girl. “It wasn’t really my fault,” he says, as a way of justifying his newly felt emotions. “I don’t know why, but every time I’d read a book, I’d end up wanting to fall in love.”

While it might be tempting to search for a unifying theme in this rich collection, none is apparent. The volume of work extends over a quarter-century under different forms of government and represents widely varying experiences.

The only commonality might be that the stories are often pensive, with characters trying to hide their frustrations at the lack of control over their lives.