Monday, July 18, 2011

The Magic of Realism

I read fiction for two main reasons. First, to dive headlong into someone else’s life and forget about my own for a few hours at a stretch. Secondly, to learn something new about this vastly fascinating world we live in. The latter reason is why I am drawn to books set in other countries and cultures. I’m a literary explorer at heart.

Recently, I read a book that satisfied on both fronts: Cry of the Peacock, by the Iranian-American author, Gina B. Nahai. Although a literary novel, this book has a plot as riveting as any suspense, combined with Nahai’s lyrical prose and memorable characters. It’s set in Juyy Bar, Esfahan’s Jewish ghetto, a community whose presence in the city stretches back 3,000 years. Against the backdrop of Iranian history, the novel chronicles the tragedies and triumphs of a single Jewish family across seven generations and over 200 years. The story weaves myths and legends into the lives of its characters and combines magical realism with actual historical events.

Although the Jewish characters at the heart of the story are all fictional, we also meet real historical figures, such as Nasser-ed-Din Shah, the Qajar king who ruled Persia for 50 years; Prime Minister Mossadeq, who wrested control of Iran’s oil industry from the British in the 1950s; and Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The book is narrated as a series of linked stories featuring characters with such wondrous names as Esther the Soothsayer, Joseph the Winemaker, and Taraneh the Tulip. But the real star of the tale is Peacock, who at the age of nine marries Solomon the Man. Solomon is the only Jewish singer at the royal court of Esfahan’s governor (who also happens to be the son of the king, Nasser-ed-Din), and a favored toy boy of the aristocratic ladies. Peacock shocks the entire ghetto when she does the unthinkable and becomes the first woman in the community’s history to leave her husband.

Esfahan Synagogue
Photo by Hamed Saber
She defies her neighbors’ expectations again by not coming to a bad end for breaking the long-standing tradition of wifely obedience. Instead of dying of shame, the now-young mother moves to Tehran with her two daughters and becomes a jewelry peddler, selling gold and gemstones to the city’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens.

Although Nahai vividly describes a world of suffering, tormenting her characters with plagues, poverty, and indignities—Jews were not allowed to leave the ghetto during rainstorms for fear that their impurity would wash off and contaminate Muslim souls—the story is ultimately a tale of hope. Peacock lives to the ripe old age of 116, and she never loses her faith that hard times are transitory. Perhaps when you live that long, it’s easier to see the big picture and tell yourself, “this too shall pass.”

The use of magical realism lends the novel a mythical quality, and yet Nahai has said that she based the stories on the lives of real people whose personal accounts she’s collected over the years. And the appearance of historical figures, combined with actual events and specific dates, ground the story in reality.

This contrast makes the tale a quintessentially Iranian one, from a culture where symbolism is everywhere and an ability to read between the lines is a useful skill in everyday conversation.

With its vivid imagery and emotional depth, Cry of the Peacock is a story that’s stayed with me long after I turned the last page.


  1. Whenever I hear "magical relaism", I think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His work has plenty of examples of magical realism, but they are woven so masterfully into the story, I accept it as part of the culture of which he writes.

  2. Rebecca, I also associate magical realism with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who incorporates it into his work so beautifully. Persian culture also reflects a similar view of the world. Probably there are others too. So many cultures are connected in different ways.