Simin Daneshvar: Death of the storyteller

Hamid Dabashi pays tribute to Simin Daneshvar, the premier Iranian female novelist, who died last Sunday.

Simin Daneshvar’s first novel, Savushun, is one of the most powerful literary episodes in Persian fiction [GALLO/GETTY]

New York, NY –  Much of the world’s attention was drawn to the confounding speeches of President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the AIPAC gathering in Washington, DC, early in March 2012. But while many were trying to decipher every word, every syllable, and even every glance of their respective statements and gestures – by way of fathoming what the two leaders of the two particularly warmongering countries had in mind for Iran, one towering figure in contemporary Persian letters quietly passed into eternity. 

A legendary name in her own homeland, Simin Daneshvar (1921-2012) is widely known and translated in the English-speaking world, and perhaps even known in Israel. But her gentle and dignified passing was completely eclipsed by the fear cast upon 75 million human beings, that any day the Israeli warlords led by Binyamin Netanyahu might strike at their homeland. 

How can a nation mourn when they fear a pending military strike?

Precisely on the day of her passing, on March 8, 2012, on the homepage of major Persian websites around the globe, the obituaries of Simin Daneshvar appeared next to the news that Binyamin Netanyahu had said, “He will not attack Iran over the next few weeks, but he is not going to wait for years either”.   

That is the mood, the spirit, the daunting fear under which people must learn to mourn a lasting sign of what is most dignified in them.   

The master storyteller 

Simin Daneshvar lived a long, rich and fulfilling life. She was born in 1921 to a prominent Shirazi family. Her father Mohammad Ali Daneshvar, known as Ihya’ al-Saltaneh, was an eminent Shirazi physician and public figure, and her mother, Qamar al-Saltaneh Hekmat, was the principal of an art school as well as an accomplished painter. 

She received an exquisite education in her hometown and moved to Tehran, where she received a doctoral degree in Persian literature in 1950, having written her dissertation – Beauty as Treated in Persian Literature – with the legendary Persian aesthetics literary scholar Badi’ al-Zaman Foruzanfar.

“Simin Daneshvar emerged as a luminary figure of Persian literary scene entirely of her own making, steadfastly adhering to her own prose and precision…”

In the same year, she married the prominent public intellectual, Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923-1969), went to Stanford, California, for a post-doctoral degree and returned to her homeland to become definitive to the moral and intellectual disposition of her time. She began teaching at Tehran University in 1959. Just a year after the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, she retired from teaching, but continued with her writing until old age and illness gently saw her into quietude. 

Daneshvar was definitive to the rise of contemporary Persian literature. She has told the story of how, one day a young gentleman came from Tehran to their home in Shiraz, and her father asked her to take him to a nearby café and show him who Dash Akol, a local hero, was. That young gentleman from Tehran was Sadegh Hedayat, the founding father of Persian fiction, and “Dash Akol” became the subject of one of his literary masterpieces. She was there when legends were made – and she became one of them. 

Simin Daneshvar and her husband Jalal Al-e Ahmad were the defining moments of Iran in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the fact the she lived with a massively egotistical public intellectual and in a deeply patriarchal society, Simin Daneshvar emerged as a luminary figure of Persian literary scene entirely of her own making, steadfastly adhering to her own prose and precision, when an entire country was under the spell of her husband. She outlived Al-e Ahmad by more than four decades and she will outlast him for an eternity.   

She published her first collection of short stories Atash-e Khamush/Extinguished Fire in 1948 and soon emerged as a versatile translator who introduced Iranians to masterpieces of Anton Chekhov and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others. 

A Persian requiem

Simin Daneshvar’s first major novel Savushun/Requiem (1969) became an instant and spectacular success – to this day perhaps the most widely read fiction in Persian. 

Savushun takes its name from an ancient mourning ritual for the legendary figure Seyavash and tells the story of Zari, a young woman married to a prominent tribal leader in Shiraz, when Iran was under the colonial occupation of the British during World War II. 

Zari’s husband, Yusuf, is a prominent member of the landed gentry who, contrary to his elder brother, Khan Kaka, who eagerly collaborates with the British and the ruling regime, refuses to co-operate with the occupying forces.

While Yusuf’s attention is drawn to the politcial turmoil of his homeland, Zari is busy raising her twin daughters, Mina and Marjan, their young son Khosrow, attending to her husband, and leading a dignified and fulfilling life. Her home, her garden, her charities and her family are her homeland. 

Persisting in his opposition to the local corruption and British domination, Yusuf is finally assassinated and his funeral turns into a citywide anti-colonial uprising – while the sudden shock and trauma of Yusuf’s death sends Zari into a stupor which crescendos into one of the most powerful literary episodes of twentieth century Persian fiction. 

Denying the dignity of mourning

“We all yearn for immortality,” Simin Daneshvar once said, “and yet death awaits us all.” She lived a long and noble life and will live forever in and through what was best in her – her stories.

What is calamitous is when a nation cannot mourn in peace the iconic passing of its defining moments. Simin Daneshvar passed into eternity at a particular moment when Iranians are at the mercy of two confounding calamities – one named Ali Khamenei and the other Binyamin Netanyahu.

Iranians around the globe are left wondering which one to disregard first, before they can mourn their beloved writer in peace. Two frightful apparitions, at each other’s throats, stand between a nation and a moment of respite to sit down in peace, and think gently for a moment, and recall what it is that they have lost. 

As it happens (and what strange serendipities define legendary writers), Daneshvar’s masterpiece, Savushun, also crescendos to the moment of an impossible mourning, when mourning, as a deeply metaphysical act, becomes an arresting political gesture. It is the mourning of Simin Daneshvar herself that is today denied in her nation. 

Precisely on the day that we lost Simin Daneshvar, on March 8, International Women’s Day, leading Iranian women’s rights activists were busily preparing a succession of taped messages from Iran, pleading against war on their homeland. Unbeknown to themselves, they were mourning the passing of their master storyteller too. 

How is a nation to mourn the passing of one towering literary figure when it is ruled by a gaudy tyranny at home and is at the mercy of a criminal banality from outside? There is no respite, there is no public domain, safe, sane and solid enough to sit down and mourn in peace. Every single day, every news outlet from Tel Aviv to London to New York is bombarding the media with the news and analysis of a pending war on Iran.

From those who endorse and shamelessly argue for the war to those who oppose it, the talk of war has inundated the news – and thus Netanyahu has succeeded once again to distract attention from the bare and bold fact that he is prime-ministering one of the grandest land thefts in human history, a theft he calls “Israel”.

“For Simin Daneshvar, her death is the framing of her own Savushun – the impossible, the inconsolable, mourning.”

As with Savushun, so the death of its author is embedded in regional tyranny, European colonialism and the fate of a people caught in their midst. 

What is denied Iranians is now emblematic of what is denied humanity – the denial of dignity – and it is thus that a literary figure registers her global import. 

The unconsoled, the incommensurate

In his magnificent essay, “The Storyteller” (1936), Walter Benjamin makes a stark distinction between storytelling and the rise of the novel: 

The earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times. What distinguishes the novel from the story … is its essential dependence on the book … The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounselled and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life.

Though Benjamin’s observations appear apt (as they always do) about European bourgeois modernity, their application to the colonial edges of that modernity is (as always) dubious.

Novelists such as Simin Daneshvar emerge from the oral traditions and are drawn back into them. The novelist here becomes a storyteller and the novel she has written becomes a story, and both the novel and the novelist, the story and the storyteller, are drawn inward towards the inner sanctum of the nation, where legends are made, stories are told and novels are written.     

“Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell.” So said Benjamin. “He has borrowed his authority from death. In other words, it is natural history to which his stories refer back.” That is more like the storyteller we know. 

For Simin Daneshvar, her death is the framing of her own Savushun – the impossible, the inconsolable, mourning. She died on the day that her daughters had gathered to oppose tyranny at home and to plead against war waged against their homeland. Simin Daneshvar died the fulfillment of her own lasting, loving, ennobling, story.

Rest in peace, master-mother storyteller. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His books and articles on Iranian cinema include Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema (2007).