October 3, 2007

Notes from a bleak life


Review by Adrian Turpin


Published: September 29 2007 00:50 | Last updated: September 29 2007 00:50


Symphony of the Dead

By Abbas Maroufi

Aflame Books £8.99, 272 pages

FT bookshop price: £7.19


In this print-on-demand age, it’s remarkable how much writing still fails to cross international borders. Abbas Maroufi’s first novel, Symphony of the Dead, was published in Iran in 1988, and immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece. But this new translation marks his Anglo-Saxon debut. Only in Germany, where Maroufi has lived in exile since 1996, after being accused of “insulting eminent revolutionaries and Islamic values”, has this book been rendered from Farsi.


At its simplest, this is the tale of a dysfunctional family living in the provincial town of Ardabil in the years after the second world war. Djerban, the patriarch, bullies his children and submissive wife. His eldest son, Yousef, is disabled after jumping from a window. Ideen, who wants to be a poet, succumbs to madness under his father’s brutality, while Ideen’s twin sister, Ida, is marginalised. Only the youngest son, the sly, money-loving Urhan, thrives in this domestic tyranny, devoting his energies to the family business while harbouring murderous thoughts about his siblings.


What distinguishes the book from a typical domestic saga, however, is its structure. Based on symphonic form, with different narrators for each movement, it switches back and forth between first- and third-person with no warning. That can be an effective device in a story so concerned with memory. But it’s also exasperating to have to re-read key passages, trying to work out who did what to whom. (More footnotes explaining culturally specific references would also have been welcome.)


Does this matter? Not if you’re patient and can relax into the stream of consciousness. What lingers is a series of apocalyptically bleak impressions – ravens in a ferocious winter, a shallow forest grave – punctuated with rare moments of connection. Symphony of the Dead may not be the most comforting take on human nature, but in that sense of desolation lies something austerely grand.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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