By Vikas Datta

One of the oldest, most dynamic and yet still thriving literary traditions in the world, its impact spans centuries and continents. If it were only known for its medieval – but still popular – Sufi mystical poets, its national epic that spans mythology to recorded history, or its tales of star-crossed lovers, it could rest on its laurels. But Persian literature has much more up its elegant sleeve.
Take, for example, a 14th century satire that could be the possible predecessor to the cartoon Tom and Jerry, an early 20th century work so grimly pessimistic that it was banned on the grounds that it could make its readers suicidal, and a straight-talking story for the young at heart, set in the midst of revolution, war and heartbreak – in a graphic novel format.
Additionally, there is also a distinct Indian connection to modern Persian literature – both in content and production, in keeping with the age-old ties between the two civilizations.
However, whenever we think of Persian literature, what usually comes to mind is its glittering firmament of classical poets, who flourished from the 9th to the 13th centuries. Let’s start with them only.
There is Hafez (or Hafiz), who was even once quoted by Sherlock Holmes (although there are literary scholars who dispute the reference), or Sheikh Sa’di, from Bustan, a verse work enlisting the standard virtues for people, and Gulistan, a work in prose, liberally sprinkled with short poems of aphorisms, advice and reflections on the fickleness of fate, and one of the first expressions of the absurdity of existence human.
Omar Khayyam, the “Sage of Naishapur”, has to his credit the Rubaiyat, one of the best-known works of world poetry, especially after its interpretation in English by Edward Fitzgerald. This rather loose translation would not only inspire the titles of works by authors as diverse as Agatha Christie, Eugene O’Neill and Rex Stout – but achieve the singular task of making Khayyam popular again in his homeland.
Above all, there is Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, whose emphasis on personal paths to understand and unite with divinity, and the overwhelming nature of selfless and sacred love, make him one of the most popular and popular poets in the world, especially in the United States. , where even recordings of his work topped the music charts.
And then there is Rudaki, the first poet to write in New Persian. He was said to be so skilful that he was once tasked by a king’s nostalgic courtiers to persuade their ruler to abandon his favorite campsite – where he had been staying for more than two years – and return to their hometown of Bukhara.
Rudaki penned a poem so evocative that, according to one account, it so moved the king that halfway through he jumped on a horse and rode off so fast that his courtiers had to chase him for miles before they could persuade him to wear shoes. as well as leggings, and he never pulled the reins until he got home.
There is also Nizami Ganjavi, whose fame rests not only on two impassioned but doomed works of love Khosrow and Shirin (whose Shirin-Farhad episode is better known than the whole work) and Layla and Majnun, who is of Arabic source but essentially reworked.
He also deserves to be known for his Iskander-Nameh, relating the historical and fantastic episodes of Alexander’s life, and the very exotic and esoteric Haft Paykar.
Mention should also be made of The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar, another mysterious look at the path and purpose of life, told through discussion at a gathering of feathered beings, as they seek an executive.
In the realm of prose, Ferdowsi/Fardushi’s Shahnameh is not only a captivating reading of the country’s mythology and history, but it also stands as a glorious testimony to how a national civilization thrives despite religious change.
And there’s the 14th century writer Ubayd Zakani, whose Mush-o-Gorbeh (Cat and Mouse) is about a cat that drinks and kills mice, then repents, but gets so mad about a mouse that he gathers an army to fight the little creatures. It may sound like a children’s fable, but it’s actually an incisive political satire targeting organized religion and its hypocrisies.
Persian literature has also not left its peak in modern times – even as the country was plagued by social and political unrest. There was a growing belief that literature should reflect, and not stay away from, contemporary realities. There was even a directive from a prominent mid-19th century statesman, who reproached a poet for “lying”, that literature should espouse modernism.
But litterateurs are a stubborn bunch and work according to their own whims and fancies. Let’s also take a look at some modern works.
Among the first standard-bearers of Iranian modernist literature, Sadegh Hedayat is known for his too morbid The Blind Owl (1936 in Persian, 1957 in English) – originally published in a limited edition in Bombay and stamped “Not for sale or publication in Iranian “.
With Hedayat in India to learn about her country’s ancient Zoroastrian religion and learn Sanskrit, the novella infuses Indian and Iranian myths and icons.
In two parts, it begins with an anonymous painter as narrator, who sees in his feverish dreams the regular presence of death, and whose daytime nightmares begin when he goes to get something for his uncle who has returned from Bombay, then begins to to write. . The second part takes place in the past and with his character – who is no less miserable – as the narrator.
Hedayat, who took his own life in 1951, was also a prolific short-story writer – but these are also far from cheerful.
Slightly happier but unrestrained in its satire is Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Uncle Napoleon (1973 Persian; 1996 English), a coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of the Allied occupation of Iran during World War II.
At its heart, it’s the story of the struggles of the anonymous narrator – a high school student – to block his cousin’s pre-arranged marriage to another cousin in order to have her for himself.
She happens to be the only child of her maternal uncle – the “Napoleon” of the title, a name sarcastically given to her by her nieces and nephews due to her obsession with the French Emperor, and otherwise a paranoid, delusional character who believes the British and their ‘lackeys’ invaded the country to get revenge on him for ‘opposing’ them during the Constitutional Revolution more than three decades ago.
A phalanx of constantly scheming family members, police investigators, government officials, an incompetent doctor, a preacher, devious servants and others round out the cast. Among them stands out an Indian Sikh businessman named “Sardar Maharat Khan” and considered by the uncle to be a British spy.
And finally, no literary tradition can be complete without mentioning the voices of women, who, otherwise repressed, can use the pen to share their fate and even fight back.
Women Without Men by Shahrnoush Parsipur (written in the 1970s, but first published in 1989 in Persian and 1998 in English) uses interwoven narratives and magical realism to depict the social condition of Iranian women and their desire to release.
It features five women – a former schoolteacher struggling with a disturbing experience, another in search of independence and a husband, an old woman shaken by revelations about virginity, a disenchanted housewife and a cheerful prostitute. , who find themselves in a mystical garden, where they can freely reflect on their life, their dreams and their desires.
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis series is well known as a semi-autobiographical account of the loss of faith and trust in religion, society and even relationships, but it is her Embroideries (2003 French; 2005 English) that strike most in its candid discussion of sex between three generations of women in one household and some of their friends and neighbors.