The Gardens of Consolation

The Gardens of Consolation

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Overview

A novel of love, family, and a fight for freedom in Iran featuring a “formidable and hard-to-forget heroine” (Publishers Weekly).

In the early 1920s, in the remote Persian village of Ghamsar, two young people dreaming of a better life fall in love and marry. Sardar brings his bride, Talla, with him across the mountains to the suburbs of Tehran, where the couple settles down and builds a home. From the outskirts of the capital city, they will watch as the Qajar dynasty falls and Reza Khan rises to power as Reza Shah Pahlavi.
Into this family of illiterate shepherds is born Bahram, a boy whose brilliance and intellectual promise are apparent from a very young age. As he grows older, Bahram will become a fervent follower of reformer Mohammad Mosaddegh and will participate firsthand in his country’s political and social upheavals, putting himself in mortal danger, in this prize-winning, “compelling book [that] raises important questions about indulgence, gender, community, and the impact of politics on everyday life” (Kirkus Reviews).

“Exquisite . . . the narrative evolves from an intimate chronicle of Talla and Sardar’s provincial lives into a sweeping tour through early-20th-century Iran.”—The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609453503
Publisher: Europa Editions, Incorporated
Publication date: 12/06/2016
Edition description: Translatio
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Parisa Reza was born in Tehran in 1965 to a family of intellectuals and artists, and moved to France at the age of seventeen. She was awarded the Prix Senghor 2015 for her first novel, The Gardens of Consolation.

Adriana Hunter is a British translator of French literature. She has translated more than fifty French novels including Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb and The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa. She was awarded the 2011 Scott Moncrief Prize for her translation of Véronique Olmi.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Havva, The Innocence of Hell

To the east, bare earth, as far as the eye can see. To the west, hills, in places crumpled as a camel's hide, in others smooth as a woman's breast. Then on the horizon, mountains. And a road, traced along the length of the desert, the length of the mountains, from Isfahan to Tehran. Perhaps this road sets off from further away, from somewhere in the south of Iran. Perhaps it begins beside the sea, at Bouchehr. But for Talla, the world does not reach beyond Isfahan and Tehran. Tehran and Isfahan are the most extreme limits she has heard mentioned, the last outposts before oblivion. Beyond that would be home to djinns and peris, will-o'-the-wisps and ogres. Not that this means she can situate the two cities in relation to each other, or even attribute them with any form or substance. They are merely necessary words to shape the world. Tehran, Isfahan, and, between the two, Kashan. And Mecca, the counterweight to the pagan world, holding within its walls the antidote to all the vice and suffering of man, man who is constantly led astray by bewitching creatures lurking in the bowels of the earth. There should be a bridge connecting her world to Mecca, which she pictures suspended in space, hovering over everything. And little more than that.

Talla is traveling this road, riding a donkey, and her husband Sardar walks beside her. No other living creature travels with them. Alone like this, Sardar is afraid of bandits, and Talla of ogres. But they are carried by their faith, for the void contains only God, and the line traced by this road, only man's endless footfalls.

In this year 1299 of the Iranian calendar, Talla is twelve. Three days earlier she left her village, Ghamsar, for the first time.

According to its inhabitants, Ghamsar is a lost corner of paradise fallen from heaven. Ghamsar is ringed by mountains and home to a handful of families whose artistry and workmanship are feted all over the East. For this is where the purest, most fragrant rosewater is made. The rosewater used to perfume Mecca itself.

In Ghamsar, at the gates of hell and the source of paradise, blooms Mohamed's flower; it is here, in this village, to the west of the scorching desert of the Iranian plateau, that the Persian rose grows.

It is no coincidence that paradise was born in the desert. No creature surrounded by greenery could have imagined its glories. When locals say Ghamsar is a paradise, they recognize it as an improbable object of desire: a garden of flowers and fruit.

Here, the red flower blooms among vines, amid trees of hazelnuts, almonds, cherries, peaches ... Here, the river finds its source in the mountains, runs through the village, irrigates the plantations, and never runs dry. Here, people can bathe their whole bodies in limpid pools, or tirelessly drink the pure water as it springs from the ground and flows in peaceful rivulets. At Ghamsar the wind does not raise dust but spreads the smell of roses, a gift from God, the flower of Mohamed. Here, nightingales sing.

In Ghamsar, the art of making rosewater is passed from one generation to the next by a scant hundred men and women. At the end of every spring, at dawn, before the sun's first rays have spoiled the flowers' fragrance, they pick hundreds of pounds of petals and make their precious essence in sufficient quality and quantity to satisfy and honor Iran, as well as Arabia and India, to the west and east. They know that this essence is prized far away, far, far away. But for most of them, the world actually ends twenty miles to the east, in Kashan. In rose season a caravan laden with rosewater travels there with great ceremony. The rest of the year the men go there regularly to sell fruit and vegetables, their surplus produce, and to buy the simplest necessities: sugar, tea, salt, pepper, and tobacco. Occasionally, a few venture as far as Tehran or Isfahan; some never return, others reappear one day like a mirage, exhausted by their travels.

The women, though, never leave the village. To them, the mountains have only one face, the one they see with their own eyes. The other face exists only in fables about the adventures and loves of princes and kings who confront giants, ogres, and dragons.

Talla has never been beyond the mountains. And yet her reclusive life felt enormous to her. She worked in the orchards, picked roses in spring, fed and slaughtered hens, milked ewes and made butter, cheese, and yogurt. She believed in all the legends people told, in djinns and peris, in curses and talismans. But what truly delighted Talla was climbing to the tops of trees, swimming in fresh water, running across the plains, and hollering across the mountains.

They left Ghamsar at dawn on the track that runs along the foot of Mount Ashke. Once out of the mountains, Talla saw a vast desert of red sand before her.

She can now associate the word desert with its reality. A fascinating reality. They make slow progress. The donkey's hooves sink into the sand, slowing its pace. The sun is already up, the kindly rays of mid-fall spare them any crushing heat. Talla thinks she is in a dream, in the middle of nowhere. But Sardar speaks softly to her. He has already experienced this terror, this lost feeling, so he reassures, gives hope.

"When we arrive, when we reach the place you can't yet see, there will be life again, and water and greenery and a secure future."

Talla looks off into the distance, but the glaring light of the desert masks the view. Dazzled, she appeals to heaven and endlessly recites verses from the Koran. Does she know that the desert prophesy lies in this same light, this very silence? Does she know the desert kills or toughens those who cross it?

Several times Talla thinks she sees an oasis. She points it out to Sardar, who explains about mirages: evil creatures that trick travelers from one illusion to the next, luring them toward the wastelands from which no one ever returns. Talla shudders at the thought of invisible malevolent creatures marauding around her, and does not stop praying the whole time it takes them to cross those sands.

The day trickles by with her in this same state: half wonderment, half torment. They arrive on the outskirts of Kashan at sunset, and spend the night in a caravansery. A ruin. A few walls, barely still standing, whose only purpose is to mark out a space in which men and animals sleep side by side. What matters is for the donkey to eat, drink, and rest. Sardar and Talla settle in a corner well away from the camels and their owners. They spread a length of cloth on the ground, eat some bread and cheese, and lie down next to each other. Talla looks at the sky, the intricate lace gilded with stars that she is used to seeing overhead every night and that can be viewed this clearly from only two places on earth, this being one of them. But the geographical characteristics and the astronomical visibility of the place matter little to Talla; she is an inherent part of the natural world and its manifestations — and these include the sky, be it immaculately blue or starry black. And she falls asleep.

For three days now, Talla has been gazing at the road. Fascinated by this long line she must tread without ever straying.

She was so gripped by Kashan's beauty and all the fantastical things it had to offer, she almost fell into a swoon, but soon found it hard to cope with this surfeit of new sights. What a relief it was leaving the town behind and returning to the calm of the desert. She is still afraid of meeting beasts and monsters, though.

"Which hole in the ground will they emerge from?"

Neither the donkey's regular hoofbeats on the earth beaten by successive caravans nor Sardar's monotonous voice talking constantly to reassure her succeed in disturbing the silence of the desert. A great emptiness absorbing them, indifferent to their passage. Talla is numbed by it.

As she snoozes she becomes obscurely aware of a sound. She strains forward on the donkey's back and peers into the distance. The noise grows louder and suddenly rips through the peace of the desert. The source of the sound is hiding behind a cloud of dust, heading straight for her. The monster finally appears, a black headless hulk with bulging eyes set into its body, its round feet powering toward her at inconceivable speed, its mouth exhaling a horrifying scream. Her every ancestor's every nightmare instantly leaps to life in her mind. But at the last moment her survival instinct gets the better of her terror, and she jumps from the donkey and runs away, shrieking in horror and calling on all the saints for help.

Sardar is astonished to see his wife leap from the donkey with the agility of a tiger, and he takes a moment to realize Talla has never seen a car before. He has a lot of trouble calming her and persuading her to remount the donkey. How to explain cars to her? He himself took a while accepting that such contraptions could exist even though he did not understand how.

"We don't need to understand everything," he says. "If we had to stop every time we came across something new in a big city, we would travel as slowly as a tortoise. You just get used to it."

As for the passengers in the passing Renault, Talla's panic certainly made them laugh; they were quick to relate the anecdote when they arrived, roaring with laughter all over again. They were so used to the contraption they thought they had invented it.

Sardar is twenty this year. Three years earlier, after his father died and his inheritance was shared out with his three brothers, he called on his uncle and asked him to climb up the hill with him. This is where men go to discuss important matters. They climbed the hill side by side in silence, and at the top, overlooking all of Ghamsar, they could see the roofs of houses scattered among the orchards, as well as the river, the plantations, women's colorful scarves, flocks of sheep, and a few donkeys. Here Sardar turned to face his uncle, head lowered in deference to his elder, and told him he was leaving for Tehran, for good. Not saying whether he was seeking adventure or fortune. Then he asked whether his uncle would like to buy his land and his rifle. His uncle thought for a moment, then offered him five tomans for the lot, there and then. He did not try to hold his nephew back. Virtually no one ever sells land in Ghamsar; plots are handed from father to son and stay in the family. This was a godsend. Sardar was making a poor deal but a man cannot barter with his own uncle; uncles are owed respect and consideration, particularly as, since Sardar's father had died, this uncle had become head of the family. Sardar's land should stay in the family. Selling it to someone else at a better price would have been a betrayal. Sardar agreed, although he thought privately that his rifle alone was worth five tomans. And, on that same hill, he promised himself he would make a fortune with his five tomans so that word of this would one day reach his uncle's ears.

Sardar wanted to leave at any cost. He wanted to leave because he believed — no, he could feel — that this land was becoming cursed. Too many envious eyes had been cast over it. The outsiders who sometimes came to stay in Ghamsar, the dignitaries from Kashan who had built houses to enjoy the mild climate in summer or the isolation, far from the world, in the tranquility of their gardens, or even the traders from Kashan who sometimes came to sell their wares here; they must all have cast a spell on Ghamsar.

In less than fifty years, in his father's and grandfather's lifetime, Ghamsar had endured cholera, then an earthquake that destroyed everything. Death upon death ... And in his own lifetime, famine. It was when he was nine, he remembers people selling off their land for a few zucchini, remembers being hungry, eating tree roots and meat from dead animals, remembers his mother dying in pregnancy, exhausted, and this on land that can provide a profusion of delectable foods. She died in this corner of paradise, so powerful was the curse.

And now pillagers, bandits, and Mashallah Khan Kashi's gang appeared out of nowhere taking everything in their path. People fled into the mountains and came home to find only desolation.

The evil eye. Ghamsar was too beautiful for the jealous desert people to leave it in peace. Sardar could feel it: If he stayed here he would perish. He did not know when or how, but he felt quite sure of it.

Once the sale of his land was concluded, Sardar approached his uncle on a supremely important point: He asked him for Talla's hand. The girl with the green eyes from the upper end of the village, the girl for whom his heart beat. He wanted Ghamsari blood to flow in his children's veins, and told his uncle so. Sardar had often watched his chosen one: She would make a good wife, for she was hardworking. She came and went with conviction and no childish dallying. And beautiful, too, with her emerald eyes, tall and slender, a very pink little mouth, and two braids falling down to her waist from beneath her scarf. He did not intend to take her with him, but meant to leave her in Ghamsar while he found himself a position in Tehran, and then he would come for her. He did not know Tehran, nor the road there; it would be wiser not to involve Talla in this hazardous adventure straightaway. But his heart was instructing him to marry her before traveling so far afield. He knew he needed to be married to Talla in order to accomplish great things, he needed her to be waiting for him.

As a general rule, the people from the upper village and the lower village in Ghamsar lived in peace alongside each other; nevertheless, they did not mix, choosing to keep their distance. Depending on which part of the village they came from, people's lives were not altogether the same, and neither were their dreams. The lower village was on the way out of Ghamsar, and its inhabitants were more outward-looking, more influenced by the outside world. Had Sardar lived in the upper village, he might not have had such a strong desire to leave. But the route to the wider world was on this side, it called to people, lured them; some took it and others did not, but all inevitably contemplated it.

Talla's father thought this young man from the lower village who had the courage to travel far was honoring his family. That is what he said. Truth be told, what struck him most was that Sardar was a nephew of the new head of the clan in the lower village. Good alliances should never be turned down, and daughters were a way of sealing them. That was their primary value. Beyond that, whether they stayed or left mattered little.

Out of respect for customary propriety, Talla's father took some time to reflect and to discuss the matter with the mullah, then he granted Sardar Talla's hand. Having agreed they could be married, he said the marriage should not be celebrated or consummated until Sardar's return. If Sardar met with misfortune, if he did not return, Talla's father wanted to have no trouble in finding another husband for his daughter. Her innocence must be preserved.

And so, at the age of nine, Talla was married, and proud to be so. She liked the look of her husband, he was a tall young man with wide shoulders and a fine bearing. He had a luminous face and was a good man, she knew it.

The couple did not speak to each other until the day Sardar left. In the meantime the groom first visited Talla's house with his uncle to ask for her hand, and then they returned to hear her father's reply. On the day they were married, they both sat on the ground, Talla on one side of her father and Sardar on the other, heads lowered, eyes downcast. The mullah recited the marriage ceremony and asked for their consent. They said "yes" and the mullah pronounced them man and wife.

The day Sardar left, Talla's family came down from the upper village and joined all of the lower village as they gathered around him to pray and say their farewells. Talla was allowed to stand at the front. When the time came for him to begin his journey, Sardar spoke to his wife for the first time with a simple goodbye.

"May God keep you," she replied.

For three years Talla waited for her husband. It was known that he was still alive and would come for his wife. He regularly sent word with travelers who stopped in Kashan and passed on his news to a tradesman who, in turn, transmitted it to a Ghamsari. The news was always brief: Sardar was well, he was working hard to set himself up, and would soon come for his wife. No one doubted his honest intentions; he was a good man, a worker, a man of faith. No one thought for a moment he might take another woman and not come for his wife. No one, except Talla.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Gardens of Consolation"
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Copyright © 2015 Editions Gallimard, Paris.
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