[23 October 2007]
Hushang Golshiri’s slim volume preserves within its pages a photographic portrait of the fading nobility of early 20th century Iran, translated into hallucinatory fever-dream prose. First published in Tehran in 1969 under the title, Shazdah Ehtejah, this short novel takes place over a single evening but the journey through memory it encompasses represents an entire lifetime for the title character.
A sepia-toned photographic portrait on the front cover sets the mood for a journey through memory. In this edition translator James Buchan provides a worthwhile introduction that helps immensely in understanding the confused narrative.
Prevented by changing social circumstance, not to mention personal distaste, from living up to the bloodthirsty and vicious example of his father and grandfather, the Prince withers away, dying of the same consumption which has decimated his family tree. His torment and yet his only refuge is in the recollection of his family members, who return one by one to his living presence as phantoms of memory. The Prince’s illness prompts the feverish tone of memories, which are incoherent and disorganized, each brought on by the sight of one in a series of photographs in the Prince’s sitting room, where he wallows in the past and his inconsequential existence.
The fascinating way Golshiri describes the mélange of memory and heirlooms makes this short read worthwhile. The photographic portraits are damaged by the passing of time and due to the inability of the single remaining servant to keep up with her housework while her master insists she takes the place of his dead wife. This strange triangular relationship, between the Prince, his wife, and their domestic servant, lends a bizarre subtext to the journey. The Prince constantly notices the dust his relatives shake off when they inevitably rise to berate him, and remind him of perceived wrongs he has done them.
Even in death, the Prince’s male forebears manage to practice their tyranny upon him, heaping their abuse over the Prince’s failure to preserve the family claim to nobility amid an emerging religion-centric majority in the ruling classes.
Golshiri’s artful manner of moving from a particular photo to a scene from memory and swirling them together so that the beginning of one and the ending of another are completely confused is both a great reason to read this book and what might turn some casual readers off. It ensures that the action is totally nonlinear and difficult to follow until one realizes the entire scope of the book comprises a single evening in the life of the dying Prince.
The Prince provides a fascinating snapshot of life before and after religious groups took over governing in early 20th century Iran, distorted by the fever-dream of consumptive illness though it may be.