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The Angels' Call to Islam : THE PILGRIM'S RULES OF ETIQUETTE by Taghi Modarressi (Doubleday: $18.95; 280 pp.)

August 27, 1989|Donne Raffat | Raffat is a novelist and author of "The Prison Papers of Bozorg Alavi" (Syracuse University Press). and

Hadi Besharat, a professor of ancient history, lives in "compulsory retirement" in his unheated house in Tehran with his books, writings, and complaining wife, Farangu, a former actress who in happier times played such stellar roles as Desdemona and Tosca.

The month is February, the year, unmentioned until the final chapter, is 1983, the fourth year after the Iranian Revolution and the third into what has already become a seemingly endless war with Iraq. Tehran by now has been turned into a grim and wasted city, subjected to bombings, blackouts, food and supply shortages, public funerals and dirges, and tiresome revolutionary constraints and sloganeering. To boot, the winter cold is "merciless."

Where and how to seek relief from such conditions?

For the disgruntled citizenry of Hadi's neighborhood who are "obsessed" with leaving, there are essentially two forms of physical escape: either go to the Front--as has Mehrdad Razi, Hadi's sole remaining pupil--or leave the country for America, where most of the parents, including Hadi, have sons.

For Hadi, however, there gradually emerges a third alternative: to listen to one's "beautiful interior music" and thereby go the way of the angels. Such is the way of the "pilgrim," for which one requires an understanding of the "rules of etiquette."

Hadi already has this knowledge through books. He is, in fact, a pre-eminent authority on angels--pre-Islamic, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian--and, throughout the story, is sporadically engaged in various writings, including unanswered letters to his American friend and former colleague, Prof. Rudolph P. Humphrey of Whitehurst College.

What turns Hadi's reflective life into one of action, however, is not his study but the shocking news of the death of Mehrdad. Apparently, the lad--a true disciple--had volunteered to go to the Front in order to get a personal look at "Mesopotamia."

For this rash act, Hadi both feels and is made to feel guilt; particularly by the boy's mother, whom he visits. The scene between them is at once poignant and comical: a blend of realism and parody.

Consider: Hadi's arrival is preceded by the routine call of Revolutionary Guards, who offer the grieving mother their "congratulations and condolences." (Such is the usual salutation.) More bizarre, however, is that these same people have "executed" the woman's husband "in somebody else's place by mistake." (These things, alas, also happen.) Yet the purely fictive twist is that Mrs. Razi's name in Persian means "contented." She is, in fact, the most bitterly discontented character in the novel, outcomplaining even Farangu.

Thus, when Hadi arrives to give his sympathy, he receives the full blast of Mrs. Razi's pent-up fury, causing him, in turn, to lose control and to respond in kind.

Fortunately for Mrs. Razi, she has one remaining son, and so her course is set: She joins the band of parents who are bound for Los Angeles.

Indeed, the lure of America for these Iranians--as with the Front in the case of Mehrdad--is that they have not been there. For those who have, such as Hadi and his decrepit, wealthy neighbor, Mr. Bayat (the name means "stale"), such a course is no answer to life's problems. Mr. Bayat returns to Tehran with his black-market dollars and smuggles whiskey to lead a supine existence, while Hadi Besharat (literally "mankind" or Everyman) intuits that the way to go is that of Mehrdad: by responding to the call of "angels."

Taghi Modarressi's stunning accomplishment is that he has written a novel that is wholly accessible to the reader of both English and Persian. Modarressi's third novel and first in English was so close a rendering of the Persian that the reader in English was distracted by its abstruseness. But in this, his fourth novel and second in English, Modarressi--who, as ever, writes first in Persian--achieves a masterly balance that makes his storytelling universal.

Also distinctive of Modarressi's style is that the comic and tragic are not just interwoven, but perceived as such in order, ultimately, to be transcended. The end here is not irony but illumination. This, perhaps, is what marks Modarressi as being an innately Persian writer, at one with his roots, in both prose and poetry. Yet there is also a qualification.

The illumination comes by way of not the author but his characters, who remain closed about their revelations. The real visionaries here are, first, Mehrdad, who is never seen but whose presence is felt throughout the story; then Heli, the young woman who is blinded by having acid thrown in her face "because she wasn't properly veiled according to the new Islamic rules" and who, in transcending that experience, becomes a "seer"; and, finally, Hadi himself: the seasoned scholar, who is commonly regarded as having read too many books for his own good and who, with his small physique, walrus mustache, blue beret and umbrella, becomes a sort of Persian Don Quixote, pursuing "angels" instead of windmills.

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