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John Gibbs

The Psychic Toll: ‘Moon Brow’ by Shahriar Mandanipour

Moon BrowA quick summary of Moon Brow (464 pages; Restless Books; translated by Sara Khalili), Shahriar Mandanipour’s newest novel to be translated into English, reads like the stuff of fable. Our main character, Amir Yamini, returns from the Iran-Iraq War saddled with amnesia and bereft of his left arm. Ostracized from his family and community as a head case, crippled by shrapnel, he is repeatedly haunted by the image and piecemeal memories of a beloved. With the help of his sister, Reyhaneh, he searches Tehran for signs of his past, and potentially for the love he no longer recalls, save only in his dreams. In a brazen attempt to rediscover a portion, both imaginative and literal, of what was lost, his journey eventually leads him back to the battlefield where his arm was severed.

From a lesser writer, one might expect numerous pinholes to develop within this complex and twisting storyline, not to mention a sentimentality found in gone-off-to-war pseudo heroic narratives. Instead, Mandanipour treats us to a new kind of story by filtering his novel through the dual personas of the angel of virtue and the angel of sin perched on Amir’s shoulders. Not only that, but Amir himself, at times, converses with each scribe, encouraging one or reprimanding the other. (“Write on my right shoulder that I like the old man. Not on my left, you jerk! The old man has memories of my childhood.”) We’re often shuttled smoothly from one point of view to another, and to yet another, as the past is recast—not so much as fact or history, but as a feeling or moment, transitory and unsettled.

It’s true that much energy is devoted to the playfulness between our sometimes-capricious narrators and Amir and their interpretation of events. (Not to mention the atmosphere of playfulness and carefreeness found in Amir’s playboy lifestyle pre-war, which others relate to him.) Yet Moon Brow is indeed a war story, and takes deliberate steps in describing the horrors of battle

By the time he makes his way to the soldiers, the pleas and howls of three of them have stopped. Like a snake, an intestine has slithered under a rock. A lacerated red mask on a face. One man, sitting on his knees, his forehead on the ground, silently trembles. His uniform is soaked with blood. Is it his blood or another soldier’s?

Amir’s memories of the violence of the front are almost hallucinogenic, a consequence both of the precise language used to conjure such awfulness as well as the already established shifting narrative. The sometimes-brief recollections that spool into one another continuously in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner heighten the drama. Images of war and beauty exist in close proximity, and the sudden turn from idyllic to grotesque mirrors the precariousness of human life in wartime.

To truly appreciate Moon Brow one must embrace a mindset that maintains the world is not black and white, but in fact gray. Amir’s world is one where something can both be and not be in the same breath:

There are and there are not clouds in the sky. There is and there is not the perfume of wintersweet flowers in the air. There is and there is not the tick tock of a clock. There is the smell of dead leaves fermenting and there is no cuckoo of a cuckoo bird.

This is complicated, enjoyably, by the ongoing disagreements between the raconteur scribes. “The account on his left shoulder is faulty,” says the scribe on Amir’s right shoulder. “Not that it is untrue, but it has been written from Abu-Yahya’s perspective. This should not be done.” We inhabit the area between the two, listening to both sides, trying to piece together, alongside Amir, an accurate account of his life before the war. After a while, a certain vertigo permeates the text.

It’s quite remarkable, and should be counted as a tremendous success, then that Shahriar Mandanipour sustains this tightrope act for well over 400 pages, both rewarding and delighting those who make the journey with Amir.

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Landscape as Character, Characters at a Distance: ‘Ema, the Captive’ by César Aira

Ema, the CaptiveCésar Aira’s books often shrug off the shackles of genre, tradition, structure, or sense. They’re also often short. Usually around 100 pages, these novellas are complete in and of themselves. However, readers will most likely leave an Aira text in a completely different mental state than from the one they entered with—such is the challenge and the pleasure of reading him.

Aira’s latest book, Ema, the Captive (128 pages; New Directions; translated by Chris Andrews), is fairly straightforward in substance and story. A 19th-century Western set in Argentina is probably the most succinct way to describe it but to box this book into neatness would be dishonest to its intent. Aira goes to great lengths to paint a living portrait of a time and place replete with war, struggle, brutality, community, and hope. Yet that portrait questions the veracity of the history it presumes to be a part of. (In an author’s note included as a postscript, Aira refers to the book as a “historiola,” and claims to have been struck with the inspiration for it when translating long gothic novels while on vacation.) Irony aside, the novel has been steeped in a kind of mythic dye.

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The Push and Pull of Forming an Identity: ‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith

Swing Time If it weren’t for the prologue in Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time (464 pages; Penguin Press), a reader might be confounded by the many undulations the narrative takes as it kicks off in the present then looks back upon a past traumatic incident, excavating it. What could have been off-putting proves to be an adventure zig-zagging from public housing to brownstones, from England to Senegal, from 1982 to 2008, filling in the gaps in time and place and creating a definitive arc, albeit one completely warped.

Relationships, and the action that subsequently alters them, form the novel’s backbone, cementing the nonlinear action nicely. When we meet Tracey in the book’s opening, she’s another mixed-race girl whom the unnamed narrator has dance class with. Their friendship and fated falling out is the stuff of tragedy in the classical sense; our narrator muses, “there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.” Tracey is, indeed, the narrator’s sole object of obsession, one she returns to at varying points, often by way of other characters, illustrating their karmic inseparability—a lodestar by which she tracks her own success or failure. Tracey is the more talented of the pair, but her talent quickly dissipates when she falls prey to the socioeconomic odds stacked against her, eventually railing to bring the narrator down with her.

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Finding in Music What Language Lacks: ‘A Greater Music’ by Bae Suah

A Greater MusicCommunication, or a lack thereof, is front and center in A Greater Music, (128 pages; Open Letter Books; translated by Deborah Smith) Bae Suah’s latest novel to come out in English. Our music-loving narrator is an unnamed Korean woman living on and off in Berlin and Korea, struggling to learn German. Her difficulties in the structure and rigor of academia are documented throughout, up until she meets M, an unconventional tutor who teaches with wild disregard of basic grammar and syntax in favor of a higher learning and exchange of ideas. Presented near the novel’s conclusion is their initial meeting. M invites our narrator to read from a passage she does not comprehend. “Even if you can’t understand, you can still make me understand. Look at it that way,” M offers as a defense of her methodology, “and as time passes you’ll come to understand it too.”

Such is the philosophy explored at the core of this novel, and in doing so equates language-learning with music, the nuances of which are not directly translatable and more closely align with emotion. So it’s no shock when our narrator and M develop a romantic relationship whose vocabulary has yet to be determined to the reader. M has an alluded-to allergic condition that further complicates and strains their relationship, though other pertinent details are left out. While standing unarguably as the novel’s primary concern, M comes and goes as a memory whose legacy is a piece of a larger puzzle.

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