A tourist who asks a long-term resident for directions might find himself being advised to make turns where the old church or the grocery store used to be. We have all learned to navigate our familiar spaces in a complex mixture of standing landmarks and memories of what is no longer there. Our hometowns are the repositories of our emotional attachments to nonpermanent objects we still see as standing.
Poupeh Missaghi situates her new novel, “Trans(re)lating House One,” in Tehran shortly after the 2009 Green Movement, where peaceful protesters demanded democracy in the wake of the contested results of a presidential election. The narration switches back and forth between a first-person account that readers understand to be the narrator, and a third-person narrative that the narrator designates as witness. Much of what was familiar is already gone, and she wonders whether her witness can create maps that depict these absences. And what is it that’s initially missing? The city’s statues.
“I want her to map the city, to follow the trail of lost statues. The statues disappear. The public spaces once dedicated to their bodies remain void. The city has more space, less space. I want her to find the bronze bodies. Find the bodies. But no one can find the bodies. Once they disappear, they are gone.”
In societies in which vast numbers of people disappear as a consequence of a repressive government’s intervention, memorializing the dead comes with tremendous risk. Thus those whose loved ones disappear are frightened into silence over what their families have suffered and are no longer allowed to speak their grief in any way that challenges power.
What then of the witness who still sees the disappeared?
In powerful writing, Missaghi reclaims the original meaning for the word “martyr.” Both “martyrdom” and “testimony” share an Arabic etymology, just as the Greek word for “witness” is martis. Questioning why some witnesses are lauded as martyrs while other witnesses are erased is one of the many astute questions raised here.
Throughout her searing novel, Missaghi not only seeks to map the spaces that are left over when those who occupied those spaces are gone, but also questions whether her cartography can be a memorial to the lost. What about writing a novel? Is that adequate to the task? And when does summarizing loss in writing itself become another way of bandaging that which resists healing?
“How can we, within the frame of a book, keep these bodies and their voices alive, audible, relatable? Do the wounds of their bodies and ours heal within the frame of a book that promises to hold on to the scars?”
Lorraine Berry is a writer in Florida.
Trans(re)lating House One
By: Poupeh Missaghi.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 282 pages, $17.95.