Review by Lauren Hakimi
“All that remains of us are the stories we tell,” Rabeah Ghaffari told Bustle upon publication of her debut novel, To Keep the Sun Alive. Indeed, for the novel’s protagonist, Shazdehpoor, life as an exile from Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution means still trying to piece together an important story. Over the course of a single day in Paris, the widower reflects upon his and his family members’ lives in Iran at the brink of revolution—indulgent meals and afternoon siestas on the ancient family orchard, young love, and family drama that comes to parallel the struggle for the soul of the nation.
People today tend to misunderstand—or be entirely ignorant of—the turning point in 1979 that transformed Iran into what it continues to be to this day. Images of burning US flags and bearded men in turbans may come to mind. Ghaffari, herself an Iranian immigrant, sheds light on the history surrounding the revolution by giving human faces to different sides of the struggle.
Where one character simply would not do the trick in representing such a complicated history, Ghaffari recruits a whole cast of compelling and multi-dimensional characters, a set of opposing pairs that represent various interrelated battles taking place at the time. Akbar-Agha the judge and his brother Habib-Agha the mullah characterize a battle between law and religion. The matriarch Bibi-Khanoom and her delightfully racist niece Ghamar characterize contemporaneous culture battles and discussions about morality. Shazdehpoor’s opium-addicted son Jamsheed becomes radicalized while his other son Madjid realizes, only once he is in prison, how the revolution got taken away from the people who’d supported it. When the ancient Zoroastrian holiday Chaharshanbeh Suri and the Muslim day of remembrance Ashura fall on the same day, the opposing pairs that animate the novel are brought to a climax.
Among the many dichotomies of the novel, the culture battle between European and Islamic influences is portrayed against a backdrop that can only be Persian. The author, who is also a filmmaker, honors the culture’s long literary tradition with rich imagery and a sometimes fable-like tone. Mirza, the lonely storyteller, interrupts the main narrative to tell Madjid stories that flash back to Iran’s history. And of course, no Persian literature could be credible without a character who accidentally eats his pet chicken.
When Madjid, one of the ‘suns’ to which the novel’s title refers, is released from prison, Mirza tells him a fable about an apothecary-poet. When a general comes to kill him, the poet says, “You can hack my body into a thousand pieces, burn my remains, and bury the ashes deep beneath the earth—but I will live on… I am a story. You cannot destroy what you cannot grasp.” Such is the threat that literature like Ghaffari’s is capable of posing.