Esmail Fassih: ثريا در اغما (Sorraya in a Coma)
The narrator of this novel is Jalal Aryan. He works for the Iranian National Oil Company. He had been stationed in Abadan, when the Iraqi forces invaded. At that time he was in hospital, recovering from a stroke, so he was unable to fight. However, during the course of the book, we get scenes from his time in Abadan and it is very grim, reminiscent of scenes from Stalingrad, in such books as Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) and Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate). While he is there, he receives word that his niece, Sorraya, has been involved in an accident and is badly injured. Sorraya is the only child of his divorced sister, Farangi. She had been studying in Paris. Farangi cannot leave the country but, as an employee of the oil company, Jalal can. We follow in detail his exit from the country to Paris. He is smuggled out of Abadan, which is very much under siege. He then has to take a long bus journey to Istanbul. The border crossing is particularly complicated, somewhat easier on the Iranian side than on the Turkish side. What is interesting is that, on the whole, the Iranians on the bus stick together and help each other. Jalal meets a man on the bus who is able to help him with his tickets for the flight from Istanbul to Paris.
In Paris, Sorraya is, indeed, in a coma. She will remain in a coma for the whole of the book. Jalal visits her regularly, talks to the doctors and nurses in his bad French and reports back to his sister and to his various friends in Paris. We get detailed medical reports on her condition, which does change, usually for the worse. However, despite the fact that Sorraya is the main character, we never see her conscious, not even in flashback. This book is primarily concerned with the Iranian exile community in Paris. In Tehran, they would meet in the Café Riviera and, there, they were somewhat influential. Here, in the Café de la Sanction, they are no longer influential and no longer really relevant. They try to avoid talking about the Iranian Revolution, which has driven them out of their country, though they do talk about the Iraq-Iran War, which is going on. But much of their time is spent either gossiping, about one another or about past times, or worrying about money. Some have managed to marry or, at least, get involved with rich people. Others have money already in the country. One or two are engaged in currency smuggling. Indeed, there seem to be three kinds of refugees – those who fled before the Revolution, those who fled after the Revolution and those who fled after the Iraq-Iran War started. Each group is somewhat different and has its own concerns.
Jalal has his own money problems. Sorraya had finished her course and was just filling in time before going home As a result, her insurance was no longer valid. Jalal has some money but not a great deal, certainly not enough to pay the hospital bill. Sorraya’s French friends had signed a guarantee that the bill would be paid. During the course of the book, several of his Iranian friends offer him money but he declines them all, though he is more than willing to engage in currency smuggling, which he does. Another leitmotiv of the book is his reading. He spends the whole book reading bits of The Dogs of War. During the course of the book, he also sees the film, which he finds very disappointing.
When not visiting Sorraya, he spends much of his time with other Iranian exiles. He shocks them by turning up at the Café de la Sanction with a prostitute, called Adele, he has picked up, not least because he introduces her as Adele François Mitterrand. He is fairly critical of most of these people but still manages to spend some time with them. Nader Parsi for example. whom he only vaguely knew, is a poet, novelist, famous actor, translator and bon viveur. He is apparently writing the Great Iranian Revolution Novel. He has left his wife for a richer French woman. He also seems to love getting in to fights. Jalal despises him but is also interested in him. Ahmad Safavi is a translator who keeps having to go back to Iran to collect his pension. In particular, Jalal meets Leila Azadeh. Jalal and Leila had had an affair some years ago but it somehow never worked out for them, though it is not clear why. Since then she has had three or four husbands – no-one seems to be sure of the exact amount – and is again single. Jalal is a widower. She had been a successful writer in Tehran. During the course of the book, Jalal and Leila dance around one another and look to be coming together on several occasions. However, Jalal is not the only man interested in Leila.
According to the introduction to this book, Sorraya can be seen as a symbol of Iran – she is dissociated from the world, unresponsive to outside stimuli, there are many concerned for her but none has any influence on her. Will she recover? is the question that all ask. Jalal himself has his own problems, as he still has heart problems since his stroke. This book works very well, as we follow the Iranian exiles, generally engaged in worthless pursuits, pretending that what is happening in Iran is not really happening and that, here in Paris, they somehow matter the way they did back home. Jalal presumably represents the reasonable man, the author no doubt, who observes, somewhat detachedly, somewhat cynically, the world of the exiles around him, but is also worrying about Iran/Sorraya. It is a fine book about exile and about death and about how people cope with their own futility.
First published 1982 by Nashr-i Nū
First English translation by Zed Books in 1985