In Mehrdad Baladi’s disturbing novel, Houri, there’s a brief moment at the beginning that is emblematic of much of the subsequent story. As the narrator returns to his native Iran and the airplane enters Iranian airspace, “Flight attendants hurried to remove wine and whisky from trays. Men rushed to rinse the stink of alcohol from their breath. Women donned dark hejabs to hide their hair and curves, scrubbed makeup from their faces. Passengers were bracing for an inquisition, or something worse. Even from thousands of feet above, and an hour before the plane landed, I caught a sense of the intolerant terrain waiting below.”
To a certain extent, that passage tells it all. It’s just a few years after the beginning of the Iranian revolution, and Shahed, who has lived in the United States for many years, returns to Tehran for his father’s funeral. It isn’t long before we learn that his father, whom he calls Baba, spent his entire life skirting the harsher restrictions of Islam. He drank excessively, squandered his money, and lived a flashy life, cheating on his wife and chasing every woman he could find. Even his obsession—his American Buick, which he called “The Bride”—became his excuse to pick up and seduce women. Among the negative memories Shahed has retained of him was his duty to wash his father’s car almost every day in order to keep it looking like the perfect example of Western ostentation.
Baba was a scoundrel. He borrowed money from everyone and his creditors were always shadowing him. He had no job, but lived mostly by selling off parcels of land his father left him. Almost every day, Baba ran off to expensive restaurants, while leaving his wife and two children to fend for themselves. He’s an extraordinary character, full of life, a little like Zorba the Greek. But he’s darker than Nikos Kazantzakis’ memorable rogue, because Baba is also a con-man, a trickster, a shyster, who would even take the food from his children’s plates if they ate too slowly. He flounced orthodox Islam and, because most of his life was lived before the Revolution, he was able to get by with his flamboyant and duplicitous lifestyle.
There’s very little plot to Baladi’s novel. Instead, the story is largely the tension between father and son–no equal playing field because Shaded was still a boy when he fled Iran. It was impossible for him to fight back. The anger that his father engendered in him resulted in part in his son’s exile, with little or no intent of returning home and encountering his father again. It was Shahed’s mother who gave him the money for his flight from Iran in order that he could escape his father’s negative influence.
The plan didn’t exactly work. In the United States, Shahed never completed the degree his mother hoped would restore the family name. He dropped out of the university, found it difficult to hold down jobs, and by the time his mother asks him to return for the funeral, Shahed is pumping gas. Worse, like his father, he has difficulty committing to one woman, though the attraction to all women is a constant reminder of his father’s philandering.
The title juxtaposes the obsession both men had for beautiful women, the houri of the Koran, “Nymphs of Paradise.” There’s an actual woman in Tehran whom Baba chases, and whom everyone calls Houri, though she is married. Before Shahed departs for America, he also lusts after the same woman. In the United States, the one woman Shahed has an on-going relationship with he treats shabbily—making the “like father, like son” cliché accurate. Scoundrels both.
The scenes in the story that take place in the United States are rendered mostly as flashbacks, sometimes awkwardly placed in the narrative. Perhaps it is no surprise that both countries take a beating in Shahed’s always lively account of his father’s and his own shenanigans. As one of Shahed’s Iranian friends observes of America, it’s a “strange country. Everything costs money here except sex and matches.” The remark is ironic, since there’s more smoking than sex in the story. The author might best be described as a cultural historian. The details he provides throughout the story describe Iran vividly, even memorably, and—when necessary—frighteningly. The cultural vigilantes are everywhere on the streets of Tehran, yet there goes Baba again, slipping past them in pursuit of another loose woman.
The ending of Houri is a little predictable, perhaps fated to be so. The publisher states of the writer that the story is “based largely on the personal experiences of an Iranian-American….” After coming to the United States as a young man, Baladi himself returned to Iran and worked as a journalist for various international news services until he was banned from working there. During that time, he apparently came to grips with his father’s negligence of wife and children.
We observe the movement toward that understanding as the narrative progresses. After a particularly nasty incident, Shahed understands that his father always put himself first, before anyone else—even if that meant betrayal of others. The son astutely remarks,
“Yet, as much an indication of his deceit and manipulation, this episode reveals his lusty drive to live, unhampered by scruples and fears of being judged. These two are at the root of my ambivalence toward him. How should I really judge my father…based on which trait: his dishonesty or his obstinate zest for life? Should I curse him forever for pulling a fast one on me, or worship him as an earthly prophet?”
I doubt whether this novel will be translated into Farsi.
By Mehrdad Balali
The Permanent Press, 304 pp., $29
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.