Book Review

There is a map on a café’s back wall in a city—unnamed, but clearly Tehran—in Poupeh Missaghi’s trans(re)lating house one. The female protagonist of one strand of the book observes the map. It is:

. . . a map of the city, not framed, adhered to the wall with dozens of wads of chewed gum. The map looks blurred and is illegible. She gets as close as she can to the railing. The map is many maps of the city, the norths and souths and easts and wests overlaying one another, the dates in the upper right corner turning into a year in a future that may or may not arrive or in a past that has disappeared without any trace, the streets and alleys and highways converging into a labyrinth with no entrance or exit in time or space. There are several red pins dotting the map, but the lines and words and numbers are so interwoven that no one can really decode the locations they mark or their purpose.

Just as the map evokes layers of histories and realities in a city whose story is difficult to excavate, the book itself demands readers not expect a diagrammatic blueprint to its narrative or to the city itself. “Cities are spilling over their historical containers,” writes Missaghi,

becoming fluid amalgamations of the good and evil of various cities and landscapes, real and fictional, local and global, past and present and future, natural and artificial, composites of the heavens and the underworlds . . . the only thing that really matters is to keep wandering, to keep searching, to keep asking questions, to become the questions, to aim to create not a map that leads to arrival, but a map for getting lost deep in the city.

Missaghi’s book is that map, and a questioning search for the city that is at its core. It maps the city and its dead, maps the way women move and act in public and private spaces in the city, maps history and overlaps it with a present.

The book is labeled “a novel” on its cover, as if to reassure the reader that that is indeed what it is. However, using the word “novel” as a signpost toward this particular work might lead the reader in a pointless direction. Rather, it’s a collage of different forms—both fiction and nonfiction, both dreamlike and factual—compiled in the search for the city. It contains terse information on sculptures vanished from city squares, fragments of biographies of Tehran’s actual dead protesters, scraps of dreams captured in balls of words, quotations and academic commentary ranging from the poems of Daniel Borzutzky to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams to a collection of essays entitled The Uses of Art in Public Space, and questions posed by what the reader perceives to be an authorial voice. The one fictional strand seems to be the story of the unnamed female protagonist, a woman traveling through streets and hidden night clubs and secret gardens in search of the missing sculptures, the missing “bodies,” in the ever-changing city. The text of this fictional strand is aligned to the right side of the page, mimicking the mapping of Missaghi’s first language, Persian, and unsettling the reader of English by moving text into vaguely unfamiliar territory.

By employing these varied narrative forms, Missaghi asks the reader to pay attention to how each text segment juxtaposes with surrounding segments and informs the work as a whole and to become more aware how, by engaging in the process of reading her book, we are creating our own map of the city’s story. As an example, let’s look at four consecutive segments toward the beginning of the book. In the first, the unnamed protagonist of the right-aligned narrative follows a woman into a dead end and is handed a scrap of paper with the scribbled words, “Keep looking for the bodies,” although what the woman has been looking for are the statues missing from public squares. The next segment is in the first person authorial voice and asks a long series of questions about how to search for and write about the bodies, among them:

What bodies to follow? Why these bodies?
What point of entry should I adopt for resurrecting these bodies? What angle should I take? What point of view? What voice? What form? What setting?
At what time should I enter these (hi)stories?
For what times should I tell them?

Following that, the third segment is entitled “Corpse (1)” and tells the story of an individual, unnamed in the narrative but identified in the back of the book as Alireza Sabouri Miandehi, a twenty-two-year-old student shot in the head during protests in Tehran in 2009, who survived for just over two years with shrapnel in his brain but succumbed to his injuries while in exile in Boston.

The accounts of the dead protesters are reminiscent of the descriptions of dead girls and young women—written like forensic reports—in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a work Missaghi’s authorial voice cites as an inspiration for trans(re)lating house one. In the section just before the biography of “Corpse (2),” that voice asks: “Why do narratives of the dead cast a shadow over narratives of those who survived? Why this obsession with stories of the dead?” And later on: “How should one tell stories in the face of death?”

The role of the writer in bearing witness to the dead in a society that attempts to erase them from its narrative is a thread running through Missaghi’s book. How do we write about the dead? I’m writing this review at a time when the question of how we will remember our dead—our dead from COVID-19, our dead from racist violence, our dead from continuing global conflicts and civil unrest, so many of our dead—feels all too relevant. We, too, have no blueprint capable of capturing our reeling times. Yet, as Missaghi does, we collect fragments of biographies, facts, stories, and must continue to ask searching questions that inform a continually evolving map of our present like the map on the café’s back wall: labyrinthine paths, fractured narratives, layers of history, crowded spots dense with “lines and words and numbers,” empty spaces.

After recounting the life and death of the person Missaghi calls “Corpse (1)” in her book, the fourth of the consecutive segments described here is a page that is blank except for the words: “I want to hold a moment of silence here. Out of respect. In memory.”

About the Reviewer

Lisa Harries Schumann is a translator from German, a 2020 graduate of Boston’s Grub Street Short Story Incubator, and is currently at work on a series of stories that stem from her obsession with narratives left ignored by histories and buried by families.