The Meeting of Modernity and Tradition in Parisa Reza's The Gardens of Consolation
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“Talla has lived for twelve years in a star-shaped green valley between mountains that change color with the passing seasons…”
Franco-Iranian author Parisa Reza’s novel, The Gardens of Consolation opens with Talla, a girl from the village of Ghamsar, in central Iran, famous for its production of rose water—the kaaba, or cube, in Mecca is washed with rose water from Ghamsar each year—riding on a donkey past the mountains towards Tehran, where her young husband Sardar is bringing her to begin a new life. It is the early 1920s and the Qajar dynasty will soon fall, as Reza Khan will rise to power after conducting a coup against the pro-British government, eventually taking the reigns of the country in 1923.
Parisa Reza was born in Tehran and moved to Paris as a teenager. She wrote The Gardens of Consolation in French, the book won several awards and was beautifully translated into English by Adriana Hunter and was published early this year. Although it is a fable told in lyrical tones, Reza manages to pack in a lot of history, using Talla’s innocence and lack of education as a device to educate her reader.
We move ahead with the story and Iranian history along with Talla, who builds her character with the help of her steadfast husband, the shepherd Sardar. After tragically losing two children, the couple finally has a boy, Bahram, who is the apple of their eye. He is a gifted student, the first from his village to be awarded a high school diploma; he then gains a scholarship to attend university. Bahram is a fervent supporter of Mohammad Mosaddegh, a politician who advocates a secular democracy and resistance to foreign domination, pushing through Parliament a vote to nationalize Iranian oil, for example.
Bahram and his illiterate parents are the perfect representation of the encounter between modernity and tradition in an evolving society. As the elite shakes up tradition, Talla and Sardar feel politics don’t concern them; they are content with simple pleasures. These changes, which affect Iranians in different ways depending on their position in society, bring up important questions, not least the position of women in a patriarchal society. Reza tackles the vast inequalities between men and women, in particular covering grey areas, and using Bahram as an example. As intellectually evolved as he is, he does not see women as his equal.
When Mossadegh is ousted in a coup organized by the CIA, Bahram is awakened to the political realities of a global game, with his parents helplessly living in another era. It is this time lag that is fascinating in a region of the world that has since seen so much upheaval. But Reza’s novel is not only a political and historical one. It is filled with love stories, humanity and universal trials and tribulations.
One can only hope that Reza’s next novel, le Parfum de l’Innocence (The Perfume of Innocence), which continues the story of Bahram up until the Iranian revolution in 1979, will soon be translated into English.