A novel wins an award, and I wonder: what makes one person’s story stand out among the thousands of others being published that year? Sometimes the author is a whisperer of words and brains, but (::petite curtsy to Gustave Flaubert::) our world is only graced with so many of those. Sometimes a story is no more than very well done, but performs better than it otherwise would because it resonates with the fetishes and fears of its time. Do novels like these content themselves with being prizewinners, or can they change public consciousness for the better? Maryam Madjidi’s autobiographical novel Marx and the Doll, winner of France’s Goncourt prize for “best and most imaginative prose work of the year” in 2017, seems to take a well-deserved bow, thank the audience, and back away.
Marx tells the story of 6-year old Maryam’s journey from post-revolutionary, wild-east Tehran to political exile in Paris and beyond. Marx is a nod to her underground-communist-militant parents, and the Doll gazes back to the toys she had to bury behind the home they fled in 1986 (her parents bury contraband books in the same spot). This hasty tomb of treasured objects serves as a metaphor for the axial theme of the book, the devastation of an Iranian identity buried alive.
The text weaves through disjointed pasts and presents that the reader reassembles as they advance through the book. It begins in the throes of the 1980 Cultural Revolution, in utero, when her mother jumps out of a window while seven months pregnant to escape right-wing paramilitary forces attacking the university of Tehran. She and her mother both survive, and remain in Iran until Maryam turns six. As the parents’ political movements are stymied repeatedly, and friends and family disappear or get executed one by one, the father escapes ahead of his family to make a base for them in France (Joining Maryam’s father in Paris spells the end of her mother’s dream of studying medicine, a blow she only seems to register more deeply as the years go by). Security detains Maryam and her mother at the airport, and they barely board the plane to join her father abroad. There begins their scourge of a new life, sharing a 15-by-15m maid’s chamber in Paris: Dad strings together odd jobs and smokes opium, mom slips into chronic silence, Maryam feels like an outcast at school, and at home refuses both her croissant and her Persian lessons. Later on and through adulthood, she ends up re-learning Persian, writing a thesis in comparative literature, travelling the world, and returning to Iran before she sighs into France as her home. Every other vignette, unresolved memories appear in figurative forms to alert her to her own trauma. They get dropped carelessly like euro bills at a metro stop, fly as birds around her mother’s head, or carry a cane and limp as an imploring old woman.
What the book does well is walk us through stepping stones along Madjidi’s path of growth, from a fragmented identity to a smooth one that she can touch without wincing or having a panic attack. Her dissonance pulls between France and Iran, but it could just as easily be Germany and Lebanon, or Sweden and Chechnya; it is a personal narrative that limits its scope to personal ghosts.
Still, what happens to be an Iranian tale appears at an opportune time, with talk of Iran oft on the news, in the headlines, and huffing out the American president’s mouth. The unfortunate upshot is that Western readers are left like 7-year-olds without babysitters to imagine Iran for themselves, at the same political moment that news producers project its flag alongside North Korea’s to herald a blurb on nuclear war. Readers looking to challenge Western lore of Iran need look further than Marx and the Doll, because the memories carrying the protagonist’s dilemma are the same ones driving our fuzzy optics on the Middle East: revolutionary head-clubbing to “Allah Akbar,” regime-sanctioned torture and the smell of tea, a woman kidnapped for her improper veil, that bread you just can’t find anywhere else, second wives and a tattooed Iranian lover who’s a thug but sweet on the inside. In other words, just as y’all suspected: Iran is one of those backwards places racked with civil unrest but saved by hospitality, shrewdness, and amazing traditional snacks. Perhaps Iran’s shot at a more nuanced reputation counts among the casualties of exile.
In her book, Madjidi acknowledges that stereotypes and orientalism limit the ways French people think about Iranians, rooting popular focus in politics, a dry climate, or at best classic literature, rather than the ways institutional differences shape the experience of everyday people. For example, what’s the proportion of technical schools to liberal arts schools in Iran, and how does a heavy technical emphasis shape peoples’ community involvement? More interestingly, as I recently learned from “Moral Refinement and Manhood in Persian” by Mana Kia, classical Persian morals hinge on intentions, while more Western schools of thought place judgement on behaviors. So the idea of having bad intentions while remaining civil (or conversely, being abusive even if you didn’t mean to be), is foreign to Persian thought. Can’t literature give us some more perspective on that?Anyway, she is candid about the way her younger self used to kindle the simplistic sexiness of being “Eastern” as a party trick to seduce French friends:
Usually, these people had heard of Iran through the news, books and movies. All that’s a bit distant and intangible, but now they had before them something very much alive. And so I became a storyteller before an audience thirsty for exotic tales; and I exaggerated here and there and made my tone dramatic and I saw their little eyes glisten with rapture, giving me the floor completely: some of them, the most sensitive ones, were even brought to tears. I was a triumph (pp 74-75, “Vision”).
When the book ushers the reader further into her adulthood, she’s repeating this same masquerade at yet another party, when she suddenly floods with panic; in the corner appears the huddling ghost of her uncle Saman (a former political prisoner), contemplating her with disappointment and apparently missing a mouth. Sweating, she hails a taxi home where she’s greeted by the ghost of her grandma, who tells her to drop the act and to “let your pain speak.”
Madjidi did grow up to let her pain speak, raw yet measured, universal yet intimate, in the form of this accomplished book. But reading it left me wondering, especially in this climate, about Iran’s collective pain and the ways that we stifle it by repeating stories that we have all come to expect. When Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won the Oscar for best foreign language film with “The Salesman” last year, critics complained the jury’s choice was more political than artistic, maybe even a gesture of support to Iran, who president Trump had slammed with the immigration ban. As with “the Salesman,” the timing of Marx and the Doll is not the sole reason for its critical success, but it does burden the work with the opportunity to portray Iran responsibly, which Farhadi alone did beautifully. One can’t take umbrage at Madjidi for declining this opportunity in favor of telling her own story. But it would have been nice.
In the end, forgoing defense or analysis of her homeland was probably the most honest thing for Madjidi to do; as her parents did, she sacrificed heavily to salvage what she could of her country, but had to let it go to survive, ultimately leaving Iran to fight for itself. In the chapter “History repeats itself,” her father returns to Tehran in 2009 and observes young protesters in the streets during the Green Movement. Guilty of having fled to survive, he no longer feels entitled to demand a better future for Iran:
His heartbeat thrills, he wants to join them…he would like to join them as he did thirty years ago. But at 59, he can’t join them anymore. He stands motionless, helpless on the curb, a grief-stricken spectator, and wonders what is happening within him… he no longer wants to die in the name of ideas… he watches to be a witness, and that’s all that he can do. (p 59)
It’s at this moment that the author seems to look Iran in the eye, and where the story’s pain is most visceral and unique. Maybe Madjidi didn’t defect from a higher cause, but rather saw herself as unworthy of the uniform. If letting her pain speak was the best that she could do, her story stakes a flag in the ground for future recruits to see and take heart: “I am a garland of words hanging from a tree that a child points out” (“Once upon a time,” p202).