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Book Review

Beauty, Tragedy Touch a Westerner in Iran

THE PERSIAN BRIDE A Novel by James Buchan; Houghton Mifflin $23, 344 pages


In this story about a young British drifter who falls in love with a spirited Iranian girl in Isfahan, James Buchan transports us to a world that is strange, puzzling, sometimes enchanting and often downright terrifying. John Pitt, the narrator, comes to Iran in 1974. The shah is still in power. Shirin, the young woman who captures John's heart, is the daughter of a princess. Her father is a general in charge of the Iranian air force. For complicated reasons that neither John nor Shirin seems to fully understand, they elope together. But what is a romantic idyll for the young couple is reported in the news as a crime: It is widely believed that Shirin was kidnapped and probably murdered by the young Englishman. Meanwhile, the lovers hide out in a deserted castle and Shirin gives birth to their child.

A complicated and murky tangle of events leads to John's being separated from wife and child. The Islamic revolution is in full swing by now. John is blindfolded, imprisoned, interrogated, taken off to be executed, returned to jail and eventually permitted to serve as an unarmed soldier in the "holy" war against Iraq. Later, with his knack for finding himself in dangerous hot spots, John spends time in Kashmir and Kabul.

The story, frankly, although filled with memorable scenes, is often hard to follow. On the one hand, this may be because Buchan wants us to be confused: Perhaps this is his way of making us feel the disorientation suffered by his hero in an alien milieu. On the other hand, much of the confusion comes not from the complexity of the situation or the hidden motives of the other characters, but from poorly constructed sentences and gaps and inconsistencies in the book's overall conception. It is one thing that Buchan may want us to be struck by the unfamiliarity of Iranian customs and beliefs, quite another that his British narrator often sounds like this:

"The man looked at me with interest. I hoped that the expected or repeated element in the scene, to which he was alert at every moment--Has someone tried to blackmail him?--had vanished behind my bland grin. . . ."


"I had noticed long ago that many Indians, even intelligence officers, simply cannot begin with cold weather."

Clearly, Buchan intends his hero to have a hard time fathoming the emotions and motives of the people he meets. But it is almost equally difficult for the reader to fathom Pitt's motives, even though Pitt himself is the narrator. He characterizes himself as a drifter, not academically gifted, good with his hands. Yet he speaks a flowery, fluent Persian and can quote poetry and the Koran. He enthusiastically converts to Islam on eloping with Shirin. He revels in the religion and the culture of his adopted land, even while suffering in prison or on the battlefield. So, a character who first seems to function as a kind of stand-in for the uninformed Western reader is mysteriously transformed into a knowledgeable adept--without really cluing us in along the way.

Yet there are passages of remarkable intensity. The novel opens with a delicately modulated portrait of familial joy poignantly fading into dream and memory. Later scenes of prison and battlefield are rendered with a fierce, lyrical vividness. Looking back on his shattered life, Pitt is able to feel a deep acceptance of a tragedy that continues to elude his comprehension: "I knew that we would age and die and be forgotten, yet I must have believed that the scene of our occupations would endure. I now see that was an illusion: that the Isfahan of 1974 was in itself the last phase of a world that was dying, of a precious architecture, the shreds of British and Russian intrigue, of a cult of love and gardens, of an ironical view of history, that was even then falling out of fashion and is now incomprehensible."

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