This is foreign territory. Its map needs to be foreign. I want it to make you stumble. I want you to be disrupted when you arrive here, feel some discomfort, feel out of place.
Thus warned—and beguiled—we enter into Poupeh Missaghi’s debut novel, trans(re)lating house one (Coffee House Press), which is beyond the simple demarcations of prose or poetry, fact or fiction; in English, but woven through with the rhythm and feeling of a culture far away, and for some, only alive in their memories and longstanding habits. Missaghi’s expertise as a translator places us in skillful hands that conduct these diverse voices to sing in unison.
I want to start in the after: the aftershock, the aftermath, the afterworld. I want to start with the slippery, the intangible. I want to start with the impenetrable, the incomprehensible.
I want to start with the world of dreams.
As a reader pages through the novel, they immediately notice the variations in layout. Some pages single-spaced and left-justified, some double-spaced and right-justified, and others centered, with only several words on the page. From the beginning, there is contact and conflict of language and style, each coming from opposite directions, different continents, complex environments, meeting in the middle of the spine. The spine of the book, the spine of a people, and the spine of the author.
Early in the book, after several finely drawn snapshots in first and third person, Missaghi writes, “The city is losing its statues.” And so the reader is off on this search for lost monuments, which soon become a larger elegy to lost people, and perhaps even, the lost soul of a culture. Interspersed throughout the novel are lists of these missing statues accompanied by detail about their provenance and meaning, most of which “went missing from public spaces in Tehran in the spring of 2010, in the aftermath of events,” in reference to the 2009 election and the Iranian Green Movement.
The hybrid nature of this book suits the immense scope of what Missaghi is exploring—how do we experience and talk about extraordinary, inexplicable loss? It’s her talent as a translator—one who is naturally always seeking the perfect word—that makes this book so impactful.
Rather than using separate sections for each variation of narrative, Missaghi connects the components almost cinematically, angling the literary lens in and out. In lesser hands, these disparate pieces could feel disjointed. Yet she chooses wisely, giving the reader distance from the more harrowing death reports and anchoring the dreams with more grounded sections. Missaghi’s talent is weaving together these perspectives into a deeply felt and expertly drawn mural of a culture and of a time.
Missaghi asks complicated questions of a country that uses its power over the bodies of the dead in order to control the populace and minimize protests.
How many deaths?
How many are enough?
Should the list include everyone? Can it?
How can a list be complete when it cannot account for the ones who disappeared without a trace, whose bodies were never turned over to the families, who have no cemetery plots or sites of memorial?
With this layered approach, she also provides the reader the opportunity to choose one’s own journey. After reading the book once through, I found myself opening it randomly to read sections “out of order.” Indeed, it’s clear that there are a variety of narrative expeditions that Missaghi could have selected with this content. This non-linearity is another aspect of the book that makes it as poetic as it is literary, as visual as it is linguistic.
One of the book’s narrators, the one who speaks from right to left, double-spaced, could be our stand-in. This is the seeker on a Sisyphean quest, whose voice is not anchored by facts and figures, who is entirely human, with a deep, aching heart:
And so she goes looking, searching without asking, sifting through
whatever the city and its bodies reveal, not wanting to excavate or
exhume, not wanting to make a noise or draw attention to herself,
hoping to slink quietly toward the lost bodies and resurrect them.
The variety of literary devices Missaghi employs—poetry, reportage, dreams, quotes, and questions—to explore cultural and personal events underscores the fact there are no permanent conclusions in history. We are constantly in the process of altering our relationship to our experiences, as well as trans(re)lating our understanding of them, to ourselves and others. We are always a process, and never an end.
Interspersed with academic and journalistic sections are emotive dream sequences and almost romantic interludes that evoke much of the Persian soul: the poetry, the food, the community—all of which keep the culture alive in times of significant social oppression. The quotes Missaghi uses—ranging from Theodor Adorno to Martin Zebracki, with Anne Waldman, Carl Jung, bell hooks, Margeurite Duras, and Roberto Bolaño, among others—enhance the flavors of the multi-course meal presented to the reader. They also subtly underscore societal interrelations, regardless of citizenship. The poets, the philosophers, the artists: those who study the human condition and are able to translate the most difficult of emotions through their work, bringing the reader closer to each other, and to understanding and acceptance.
I realize I will never be done reading this book or reviewing this book, because we can never be done with the questions Missaghi asks. Not until we end the systematic slaughter, not until we find where the figurative and literal bodies are buried, not until we say their names, all their names. Missaghi takes on this minefield and masterfully addresses it in all the words, and languages, and forms she has in her toolbox, but we must still wrestle individually with our own experiences and our own complicities.
There are times when the review and the reviewer are altered by current events. The devastation of Iran by COVID-19 adds painful dimension and meaning to Poupeh Missaghi’s book, as we contemplate the country’s citizenry facing so much misinformation and unutterable loss, and the frankly heroic measures they are taking in the face of such catastrophe. I keep returning to this section, which surely has resonance for all of us, Iranian or otherwise, wherever we are in this besieged world:
How to translate loss into language?
How to survive loss?
How to bear memory?
How to bear witness?