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Bozorg Alavi: چشمهايش (Her Eyes)

If you read only one Iranian novel, this should be it. It is rightly considered the masterpiece of Iran’s best writer and really should be better known. The story is quite simple. The narrator is the director of a school of painting founded by Iran’s greatest painter, Ostad Makan (apparently modeled on Kamal-ol-molk), who died ten years previously. In addition, the narrator is the curator of the museum attached to the school, which houses many of Makan’s paintings. The narrator plans to write a biography of Makan but he has one problem. Makan’s best-known painting – Her Eyes – is clearly a painting of a woman but no-one knows who she is. Makan was not known to have any close relationships with women, was never married and was estranged from his family. So who could she be? By some clever detective work he does find out. Much of the book is her story and how she came to be the woman of Her Eyes.

She – known both to the narrator and to Makan as Farangis, though that is not her real name – is the daughter of a well-to-do landowner. She is spoilt and her father indulges her. She wants to become a painter and is bought all the equipment. Her father suggest that he take her to Makan, the best-known painter in Iran. When he does not follow up his suggestion, she goes on her own but is rebuffed by Makan. She is deeply hurt and soon after leaves for Europe – specifically France and Italy – to study painting. She is apparently very beautiful and many men fall in love with her. She rebuffs them all. One – an Italian, aptly named Donatello – kills himself as a result of her indifference. However, she does become friends with one Iranian, a young man who already has a girlfriend and who is ill with tuberculosis. This man puts out a widely distributed newspaper critical of the regime in Iran and she starts to help him. He tells her that he is in France only thanks to the help of Makan. Indeed, he sings the praises of Makan, both as an artist and as a human, as he, Makan, is very active in the anti-government movement in Iran.

Farangis agrees to help this movement and returns to Iran to do so. She makes contact with Makan and, to cut a long story short, she starts helping, not least with her father’s money, but, as well, the two fall in love. The love affair is complicated by the reservations of both, for their different reasons, as well as the complications of their political work. Her father is implicated in the work and exiled but still she continues. Finally, Makan is arrested and, to save him, Farangis has to both compromise herself and cut off all future ties with Makan. Makan is sent into exile, where he paints Her Eyes.

Farangis is, of course, no saint but she is a tragic figure. Alavi portrays her skillfully, with the contradictions in both her character and her relationship with Makan. He is clearly one of those people who can take their inspiration from the people, care for the people, but remain apart from them. Not only does he remain essentially solitary – except for his brief fling with Farangis – he seems indifferent to the harsh treatment the regime metes out to him. Yet, Alavi shows him – and convinces us – that he is a great painter as well as a great human being, who clearly has a profound effect on all who meet him, the Shah included. But it is his painting and its effect that leaves us entranced.

Publishing history

First published in 1952 by Mu’assasah-‘i Intishārāt-i Nigāh
First English translation in 1989 University Press of America
Translated by John O’Kane