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What is purgatory? In Shahriar Mandanipour’s stories, purgatory transgresses memory, personal history, political upheaval, war, and social norms. Boundaries and lines of demarcation are not clear in this collection of stories. These stories invoke constant unease in the reader – the feeling of dislocation from place, time, society, and self that one imagines must accompany any purgatory. Each story leaves you haunted. Ghosts figure prominently in the tales: those who are dead, our past selves, lost loves, drifted purpose, dreams, and memories. No character really cleanses or purifies themselves, and no story ends without interpretive possibilities. Purgatory, it seems, is the act of being human, living with the consequences of our decisions and the realities of our times.
Translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili, and published by Bellevue Press, Seasons of Purgatory is a collection of short stories clearly inspired by the historical events of 1979–1980 in Iran. Revolution, coup d’etat, war with Iraq – almost every story deals in some fashion with the aftermath of this momentous period in Iranian history. No character is left unchanged by these events. Each mesmerizing story follows decisions of dissidents, soldiers, and families.
Captain Meena – the only character who appears in two stories within the collection – grapples with the complexities of his decision to let a defecting Iraqi soldier die to protect his own men (“Seasons of Purgatory”). This soldier, named Nasser, becomes a specter for the soldiers in this mountainous outpost, his corpse decomposing on the mountain, the white flag waving in his bony hand. His corpse seems to move – one day his head is looking left, the next day it is looking right – sending Captain Meena into a sort of madness from which he cannot escape. In a later story, “The Color of Midday Fire,” Meena reappears. Facing burnout, fatigue, and questionable mental stability, he is on a mandatory vacation when his daughter is killed by a leopard. He hunts the leopard, facing him directly at one point in the story: “he explained that during his fray with the leopard, for a few seconds, they had locked eyes. He spoke of the leopard’s amber eyes, of their coldness, of the icy flames that lived in those eyes”. Meena, though given ample opportunity to kill the leopard, never kills him. “I couldn’t,” he says. “My child’s flesh is in its body…my child’s blood runs in its veins… I just couldn’t”. This is a purgatory, and it will last all the seasons of Meena’s memory. As readers, we are left to question Meena’s decision making – his leaving Nasser to die, not taking out revenge on the leopard – and imagine our own decision making if put in these situations. They are not morally rational decisions, but rather choices fraught with the complexity of life, death, and the connected nature of reality.
Animals and seasons figure prominently in these stories. Bellevue Press publishes books that seek to open interdisciplinary dialogues at the intersections of arts and science, according to an imprint at the back of the book. Two questions seem central in Seasons of Purgatory: what makes human decision making primal/animalistic? And, does “nature” (in the form of seasons and animals) act more rationally than man? A truly gut-wrenching story in the collection, “Shatter the Stone Tooth,” portrays the limits of man’s compassion for the animal world. In the story, the narrator serves as an aid worker in a remote village struggling with crop failure, poverty, and disease. A stray dog comes to the village, is assisted in survival by the aid worker, but is ultimately gruesomely killed by the villagers. This act of human cruelty sends the aid worker into a downward spiral of madness expressed in letters sent home to the love of his life. She cannot decipher the letters, as they become increasingly erratic and delusional. He speaks of a cavern where he has discovered a carving of a man and a dog. The aid worker is trying to decipher the cavern art – what does it mean, its significance to his own situation. He is driven to the cavern, never heard from again. Is this a return to the elemental – our primal relationship with animals in the face of so much human cruelty – or psychological madness? These types of uneasy endings and questions typify Mandanipour’s stories.
But, as importantly, the stories play with this uneasy relationship between reason and madness, particularly in the juxtaposition of humans against the natural world. Animals and seasons have knowledge and agency in each of these stories. Fish are premonitory, vipers develop agency, trees, mountains, and streams contain secrets and truths.
The psychological and sociological consequences of retreating into ourselves, that results from our own and other people’s decision-making, is another theme of the stories. Most of the characters find themselves alone. In “Shadows of the Cave,” Mr. Farvaneh remains socially isolated, unable to sleep after his release from incarceration during the coup d’etat. Farvaneh is haunted by the dark, the shadows – he leaves lights on and must resort to having neighbors stay with him until he falls asleep. The soldiers in “Seasons of Purgatory” are haunted by the night sky: “in the middle of the night, one of us would jolt awake, drenched in sweat, and he would listen to see whether he heard that scream in his sleep or whether someone in the valley was calling for help”. Dorna, the main character in “If She Has No Coffin,” suffers from a psychological affliction, perhaps split personality disorder, perhaps just an imaginary friend, that accompanies living in a war-torn nation. Similarly, the narrator of the closing story, “If You Didn’t Kill the Cuckoo Bird,” is imprisoned. He seeks to remember the woman he loves, and through narrative stories he shares with his cellmate, awaits the day when he will be released from prison and reunited with her. In the end, we cannot as readers reconcile whether his cellmate is real or fictional. The narrator doesn’t escape prison, nor is he released. He is left only with his memory.
The stories also deal explicitly with the ramifications of war, injustice, cultural norms, and forgiveness. Two stories highlight these themes poignantly. “King of the Graveyard” centers the narrative on two parents grappling with the disappearance of their son by the state. The mother, Mahrokh Khanoom, seeks to find her son’s grave after he was wrongfully accused of a crime and executed. The father believes he has found the grave but is not certain. His source seems shady and untrustworthy, motivated by his own financial gain, and the mother questions whether the grave is that of her son throughout the story. By the end, the father also has his doubts. It is a heart-wrenching tale of not having closure on the death of a loved one. In “Seven Captains,” the cultural issue of stoning adulterers to death is examined. Decades after he slept with a married woman (Kokab), a man seemingly from a Western country, returns to Iran to visit the site where she was stoned to death. He wonders why, after planning their escape, she never came to be with him. The story questions the cultural practice of stoning, but also people’s decisions to participate in such practices. In this story, the narrator is culpable in Kokab’s death.
As a closing note, a word more about the narrative style of these stories. Part of what makes the collection so arresting is the writing. Many of these stories are nonlinear. They flow back and forth between memory, dreams, and the present. They transport you in a disjointed fashion across the narrative arc. Thus, readers are encouraged to read slowly and carefully. You will not always understand the construction, nor the conclusions, but this is part of Mandanipour’s project: to put us into a state of disequilibrium in a way that highlights the complexities of the human experience in the fallout of war and revolution. Seasons of Purgatory is not an uplifting book of short stories. Many are quite jarring, discombobulating, and challenging to read. But they are necessary.
Seasons of Purgatory
by Shahriar Mandanipour
Translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili
Bellevue Literary Press, 208 pages
Paul Eaton is host of the Rhizomatic Reader Podcast. He is a bibliophile and book enthusiast. His professional job is as Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX. He lives in the Houston, Texas metroplex.