Book Review: The Septembers of Shiraz-Nobel Enough?

Sometimes books come to you in different ways: an intriguing cover, a recommendation, even a mix up at the library. This novel, written by debuting author Dalia Sofer, has come to me twice now. I proofed pages of it when I first moved to New York City as an intern with Ms. Sofer’s literary agent. Then my current boss, who works in finance, recommended I read it. The book had been published! And on the shelves of Borders, O sweet measure of success these days. So I finally paid attention this weekend, reading The Septembers of Shiraz like a zealot.

This story of a family living in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution conveys a vivid historical reality, but only as a backdrop to the changing relationship and lives of Isaac, his wife, and children. Isaac, being a prosperous Jewish jeweler, attracts the unwelcome attention of the Muslim revolutionaries. The novel opens on his arrest–seized and taken to prison on suspicion of being a Zionist spy. Isaac endures prison and torture until, with a well-placed Koran verse and his life savings, he buys his freedom. He returns to his home and long-estranged wife, who he had come to love in a most basic and humble way.

One of the joys of this book is how it tells the story of this long-married couple who have ceased to know each other and who need each other. Their ability to come together after great loss, as they escape into Turkey and freedom with their daughter, says much for the resilience of the human spirit. Sofer has a real gift for the nuances of how people relate to those closest to them, and the interaction of the family she creates in The Septembers of Shiraz feels as real and nuanced as one’s own.

But to follow my mental chain of thought away from the story itself, The Septembers of Shiraz strikes me decidedly as an American author delving into a different national character. Sofer left Iran at the age of 10. She is Iranian and also American. So I wonder what Enghdal, the permanent Secretary on the Nobel Prize for Literature, would think? Enghdal said recently that U.S. writers are:

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”

I’m not proposing that Sofer has in any way earned a Nobel prize with this lovely novel, which does not approach greatness. But I am suggesting the American heritage is so diverse that it seems ridiculous to call it insular. I’m not sure what world dialogue is going on in European literature that is so enlightened, but doubtless that is because I am American. (Although by American, I mean to say I am both an American and a Swedish citizen.) However, I don’t wish to argue that excellent American authors are engaging in international dialogue in a way that merits a Nobel. I would argue that great writing, wise and brilliant and innovatice and beautiful, earns itself recognition for just those qualities. Whether the work is simultaneosly eccentric and insular is on no great importance, as so long as our common humanity is clear enough. That seems to be something that Sofer, Iranian or American, has done beautifully here; the same is said easily enough about John Updike or Philip Roth as well.

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