Persian Nights

Jones, Robert

35* BOOKS The roar & the silence PERSIAN NIGHTS Diane Johnson Alfred A. Knopf, $17.95, 348 pp. Robert Jones In our age of glorified selfdetermination, the idea of a cosmic jokester...

...Think for a moment of books like A Passage to India or Daisy Miller or Portrait of a Lady...
...And in the din of the shouts for the death of the Shah, we cannot help but think of the echoes of Alexander's soldiers marching towards Persepolis...
...Can Chloe keep her affair with Hugh Monroe secret...
...To prove that we have been here is the only way we separate illusion and fantasy from what is real...
...What is memorable about Miss Quested, Daisy Miller, or Isabel Archer is how each character ventures into the world and learns about the irrevocability of human carelessness and error...
...and it probably didn't make any difference if a bomb fell on, say, New York, beyond the immediate tragedy of death...
...We are dependent on the world for our identity...
...In Persian Nights, the Iranian husband of an American is arrested in the middle of the night...
...And in these tales, what is often mistaken for concern about the world is really concern with ideology...
...While in Persepolis, Chloe looks over the city destroyed by Alexander the Great and thinks: That these streets had been full of living people walking along, hearts full, hearts pounding, should have struck her with its poignance, but she felt indifference...
...What Chloe discovers about the world in Iran, she learns incompletely, but this is how each of us most truly meets experience...
...Johnson's world is one in which people are no match for the cosmic and political forces that usually get the better of us...
...That the universe is palpably, visibly hostile is a given in Diane Johnson's novels...
...Persian Nights tells us that all human action and desire falls somewhere between that roar and that silence...
...Who knows her...
...Who is the dead man in the cave...
...The whisper soon disappears, and so does the soldier...
...Johnson brings the novel's threads of paranoia and uncertainty together in this episode as the tourists stumble upon soldiers looting ancient treasures...
...What would be left anyhow in ten centuries...
...In the feminist novel, the homosexual novel, the novel of black experience, the heterosexual novel of betrayal in the suburbs, the self remains the subject, no matter what the narrative tells us secondarily about society...
...It is understanding of a world independent to the self that seems absent from many of the books we read now...
...Johnson's genius for social comedy is so assured as she piles layers of romance and intrigue upon the more menacing questions of political treachery, that it seems as if Jane Austen might have returned to take notes among the Persians...
...But an emergency 359 keeps him at home and Chloe travels to Shiraz alone...
...Johnson assembles a rather alarming collection'of Americans for her story, from Chloe's lover, Hugh Monroe...
...In the modern mind's celebration of the isolate self, the world loses its impact, and along with it, the ideas that form its intellectual and moral base...
...Chloe has no clue whom to trust among the soldiers or among her friends and yet she wants to make an impression against the screams and gunfire that surround her...
...The irony of each of Chloe's acts of bravery, of course, is that they make no difference...
...She suggests instead that it is a measure of Bronte's artistic daring to "risk heroines so deviant as to be plain...
...It is Chloe, intermittently wise, frequently irritating, opinionated, and superficial, who sustains the labyrinthine plot...
...But it means nothing to them...
...Johnson brings us into Iran immediately before the fall of the Shah...
...We feel the entire structure of the universe at work: how the heavens, society (most often represented by the police), and one's friends and family conspire against the individual...
...How hollow, how brittle is the living self, so like the shell of a locust, about to shatter, with nothing inside...
...the revolution about to erupt in Persian Nights...
...Will Noosheen escape her withered husband's embraces and marry Abbas...
...Johnson ends the novel with a magnificent description of the fall of Tehran, of Chloe and Hugh being swept away by mobs storming the American Embassy, of the excitement and certainty of change...
...I think Johnson intends a similar strategy with Chloe Fowler...
...Junie...
...Marybeth, the terrorist in Lying Low, learns in her life underground that with enough money to purchase a fake i.d., a social security card, and a driver's license, she can literally buy a new self...
...She saw the deficiency in her imagination__her imagination had provided her with no more than a benign region of camels, and mosques, and well-run hospitals of the American kind....This is real, she thought with a shiver...
...This feeling of living on the edge creates an atmosphere of suspicion in which Johnson raises questions about identity and the fear of exposure...
...and the sneering head of the hospital, Dir...
...Will Jeffrey ever arrive in Iran...
...And in saving the soldier, Chloe ignores the cries of help and so may have consigned a friend to his death...
...It is always the "I" that is foremost, and the usual modern drama consists of the thwarted self staking its claim to an experience it feels it has been denied...
...Ill-suited to acts of heroism and ignorant of the complexities of the world she is visiting, Chloe tries to be helpful and take a stand...
...How are we known...
...Birth certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates, photographs, the rituals of everyday life, are like flags waved from a sea of drowning people...
...He awakens to find himself held prisoner by a woman in a toilet and flees in Islamic horror...
...How does the private self belong to the name we are called by the world...
...Uncertain if he will ever return, his wife considers returning to Detroit.' 'If she went back to America, all her years here, her pretty rooms, her speaking Farsi, none of this would matter...
...When the narrator in Johnson's The Shadow Knows (Knopf, 1974) confides that someone is about to murder her, her best friend demurs, suggesting that she is "inferring from the normal malignancy of things some flattering personal attention...
...Questions of fate, destiny, or contingency pale before the tyranny of the individual validating his or her life against whatever odds society places before it...
...Chloe responds to Iran with a lack of self-consciousness we each share in our hearts...
...it would be as if she hadn't lived at all...
...the terrorist hiding underground and fearing recognition in Lying Low (Knopf, 1978...
...She merely suggests an awareness of proportion and degree...
...How did Hugh have shirts pressed at the Tehran Hilton when he claims he has never been there...
...At the very least, she wants to be good...
...She had planned to accompany her husband, Jeffrey, on an exchange program of American doctors at an Iranian hospital...
...But how completely can that self ever be known...
...She has chosen this act as her response to the tumult around her, and so she will not budge, even when she hears someone whisper, "Chloe, help me," from outside the door...
...At the novel's end, Chloe successfully rescues a mutt from a pack of strays and carries him home to America in a makeshift cage...
...Farmani...
...Noosheen, the young, beautiful bride of an elderly doctor...
...Does Abbas want her...
...How we are known, and by what means, matters greatly...
...The broader context of the life they lead matters, much more so than the life itself, because there is an indication in these novels of a world surviving after the characters have left the scene, of lived history and of change...
...Near the beginning of Diane Johnson's new novel, Persian Nights, Chloe Fowler finds herself a victim of the American arrogance that assumes every place is another version of our own backyard: Of course she had not really believed Iran would be a foreign land...
...She is one of the most cloying, and memorable, heroines in recent fiction...
...Experience is a kind of crapshoot in which we hope to avoid the attention of cosmic forces...
...360...
...During an excursion to Persepolis with her friends, Chloe gets her chance...
...The pity of all this destruction should have struck her, rubble where magnificence had been...
...In describing the fragility of personality, Johnson doesn't mean to imply the obvious idea that our public identity is irrelevant, or even secondary, to the central core of the self...
...Alone our identity is an amorphous collection of thoughts, memories, and desires that promise to slip away as if none of it ever existed...
...When she visits a sacred mosque, Chloe thinks of harems, pistachio nuts, and making love among the veils...
...These idiots abroad live in the hospital compound with Abbas Mowlavi, a handsome widower...
...But when Chloe Fowler lends her passport to one of them, the woman is instantly transformed into "an American," someone with different freedoms and the ability to escape...
...There is a sense in which this trumpeted credo of responsibility has turned us into such monsters of selfregard that even the hands of heaven seem tied...
...She gave Noosheen her passport without knowing the visa had been removed by an enemy, rendering it useless to the bearer...
...To lose Paris and San Francisco...
...But it didn't make any difference...
...Johnson is obsessed with the separation between our public and private personae...
...whom does she know...
...Who among the Iranians is Savak...
...So when she sees a soldier fall to the ground, she decides to save him, with no idea if he is a follower of the Shah, a defender of Persepolis, or a despoiler...
...He is simply a body in need of salvation...
...When her lover, Hugh Monroe, confesses his secret visit to the Shah, of all the details she most wants to know is what the Empress was wearing...
...In reducing Chloe's desire for heroism to the rescue of a puppy, Johnson does not cynically oppose the emptiness of human effort to the tremendous scope of the past...
...Within the characters' feeble attempts to disguise their adulterous behavior, Johnson suggests more sinister secrets...
...Johnson goes so far as to suggest that the private self can wither without the external evidence that makes us visible to others...
...And so armed with only a passport and a knowledge of Sassanian pottery, Chloe Fowler makes her entrance to Iran in Persian Nights...
...But so do we all...
...We possess the power to make our own lives...
...Who is betraying whom to their respective authorities...
...In each case, not only is their mobility determined by a piece of paper, but so, too, is the very self that is known to the world...
...I am not at home here...
...Feeling virtuous, Chloe creeps from her hiding place and drags him to safety in the ladies room...
...In Johnson's last three novels, the narrative begins with the threat of something calamitous about to happen: the terrified, possibly paranoid, narrator waiting to be attacked in The Shadow Knows...
...to her husband's colleague, Dick Rothblatt and his lover, Junie...
...She says her name out loud, "Theodora Wait," because that is all she has to establish her difference from her captors, to prove that she has led a life...
...Johnson is fascinated with the way documents identify us within society...
...Does he want Chloe...
...made no difference to the universe, to history, to the bare ground that went on being...
...Who are we...
...There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, of course, except that in depicting political injustice through art, the world can too easily be divided into black and white, and so lose track of the ambiguousness that is its truer nature...
...But in the best tradition of novels about the voyage out, Persian Nights creates a world that dwarfs its characters with its richness and detail...
...And it shows us how in the disruption of the familiar, we learn the most about ourselves when we are the farthest from home...
...In the desire to know and be known, paranoia and understanding unfold into each other...
...And the truth of what she sees, coming as it does in flashes of insight from a fussy, unremarkable brain, has the power of seeming lived, and not the product of an ideology or a dream...
...Who among the Americans is CIA...
...Existence is split between the desire to shield ourselves from view and yet establish a lasting identity against the anonymity that causes each of us to vanish...
...In an essay about Charlotte Bronte, Johnson rejects the feminist interpretation that views the plainness and passivity of Bronte's heroines as the yearings of female masochism...
...Will Chloe and he divorce...
...Think how it is when you try to explain an event that changed you to a stranger...
...As Chloe mingles with her compatriots, the plot of Persian Nights assumes an almost nineteenth-century complexity...
...Persian Nights evokes how we are each part of the world's transience...
...to Dick and Sugar Dunham from Chapel Hill...
...Can Dick Rothblatt similarly hide his affair with Junie...
...Without it, they are prisoners of the state...
...Yet despite these odds, Chloe wants what all of us want: to do something heroic, to make herself known against the impersonality of history...
...At the end of Lying Low, the woman who owns the house where the others live is taken hostage and fears dying anonymously...
...Experience constantly conspires to lose us in forgetfulness...
...Instead of a noble creature with impeccable instincts, or instead of the usual victim, Johnson gives us a woman as muddled as most ordinary mortals...
...Yet Ouida, the maid in her house, lacks a passport and fears deportation because she cannot prove her existence to the authorities...
...She thinks, "How sad that everyone should turn out to be strangers...
...Robert Jones In our age of glorified selfdetermination, the idea of a cosmic jokester whimsically yanking our puppet strings seems a throwback to the days of Mount Olympus...
...The Iranian wives in Persian Nights lack the green stamp on their passports that indicates their husbands permit them to travel...
...Language and description seem at their emptiest...
...Romantic ideas about the private heart of the individual become sentimental in an age of police states and political betrayal...
...She speaks too loudly and too often...

Vol. 114 • June 1987 • No. 11


 
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