The cover of "The Walking," and author Laleh Khadivi. (Meghan Mcneer / Bloomsbury )
In "The Walking," a simple and pure young man circles half the world, on foot, by ship and plane, to a place he's longed to see.
As a boy growing up in Iranian Kurdistan, Saladin lost himself in the dreamy vision of California he's seen in the movies. After the new, hard-line Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini comes to power in Iran in 1979, he imagines Los Angeles as a place of refuge. "As long as he could remember, it had forever been America and always California, not the Texas of the cowboy movies or the glass canyons of New York, but Los Angeles, and eventually, of course, Hollywood."
L.A. might have remained a distant fantasy for Saladin were it not for the violent events that open Laleh Khadivi's deeply affecting novel "The Walking," the second in a planned trilogy. "The Walking" picks up the setting and tragic themes of the first novel, 2008's "The Age of Orphans," which won the Whiting Writers' Award.
In "The Age of Orphans," the Kurds are an ethnic minority in the 1920s resisting the heel of Iran's post-colonial army. In "The Walking," half a century has passed, and the secular dictatorship has been replaced by a religious one. Now it's the ayatollah's henchmen who've come to test the Kurds' loyalty.
Brothers Saladin and Ali are rounded up by revolutionary guards and forced to make the kind of cruel choice totalitarian armies impose on conquered peoples: kill or be killed.
Somehow the young men flee into the Zagros Mountains. "Kurds have always escaped through these mountains," Ali tells his brother. "We are no different. Even you, you who have lived in the cinema… We will follow in their footsteps and there will be a place to stay, a place to hide for a few weeks and then we can go home."
But the road into the mountains doesn't circle back home. Instead the journey that follows takes the brothers from one stop on the Kurdish immigrant trail to the next, each scene richly imagined and filled with surprises.
It's a route that crisscrosses the path of the Odyssey, and like that epic poem "The Walking" is also lyrical and deeply emotive, as Khadivi takes the brothers to a border crossing at a mountain lake, to the teeming neighborhoods of Istanbul, and to an island and an ocean archipelago.
The brothers have discovered they are wanted men and can't go home. "Ali, it doesn't matter where we go," Saladin tells his brother as they prepare to drift on a cargo boat westward. "We can't stay here. We will be strangers, but not witnesses or murderers. We will still be Khourdi brothers. Together."
But we learn very early in "The Walking" that the duo is not fated to complete the journey together. That's because in alternating chapters we're told the story of Saladin's arrival, alone in Los Angeles, and his first days in a city where so many of the world's diasporas end.
"This is here," Khadivi writes, describing Saladin's first sunset in Southern California, at the beach. "There is no forward and no return, and Saladin is happy, caught between this coming night and days of dreams he has dragged halfway across the earth."
There is much in Khadivi's description of Saladin's first days in Los Angeles that will be familiar to California readers: for instance, the outsider's confusion with exotic American ways (including a misadventure in a movie theater), and the multicultural cast that greets Saladin at every turn.
But Khadivi beautifully renders Saladin's sense of wonder, and the pain of displacement and loss that leads him to simply walk from one L.A. neighborhood to the next, unable to find the gleaming city center he's looking for.
"Who has ever been this hungry?" Khadivi writes. "Who, in the American movies, has ever been so lost?" More pointedly, she describes the unique fear that envelopes Saladin during the hostage crisis, when to be an Iranian in America was to be loathed and spit upon.
At a bar, he's told: "The sign says NO EYE-RAINIANS. Right there, and right under it says NO DOGS."
Saladin's story is, in fact, one among tens of thousands of Iranian immigrants, as Los Angeles becomes a second home to many kinds of people fleeing the Islamic regime. In alternating chapters, Khadivi tells the larger story of this community. These chapters often feel more like essays than fiction but are affecting nonetheless.
"Yes, you will complain there is no garden and there is no fountain and no grandfather's smoking bench and no grandfather," Khadivi writes, describing the collective sense of dislocation and adaptation of Iranian immigrants as they make L.A. homes. "Turn it into a paradise of jasmine and honeysuckle and impatiens, a lifted Eden of seeds you planted…"
These chapters also recount a few real-life incidents that are key moments in Iranian American history but which have nothing directly to do with Saladin's story — for example, the 1987 demonstration in which Neusha Farrahi set himself on fire in Los Angeles to protest the human rights violations of the Islamic regime.
Khadivi's account of that event is as beautifully written as the rest of "The Walking," though it ultimately feels like an unnecessary tangent to the compelling story that's at the heart of the novel.
But that's the smallest of quibbles. "The Walking" is a book that manages to convey painful truths with a rare combination of grit and tenderness. That makes it not just an important addition to the literature of California's immigrants, but also a universal story of suffering and resilience told with elegance and compassion.
Khadivi will appear at the Festival of Books Sunday at 3:30 p.m. on the panel "Fiction: Immigrant Stories" along with Aris Janigian and Pauls Toutonghi. More information: latimes.com/festivalofbooks
Bloomsbury: 272 pp., $26