Simin Daneshvar, who was the most potent surviving symbol of the vibrancy of 20th-century literature in Iran, died on March 8 in Tehran. She was 90.
Relatives, who confirmed the death, said she had had influenza.
Iran’s turbulent modern history, defined above all by foreign exploitation, framed Ms. Daneshvar’s life. During World War II she witnessed the Allied occupation of her country. It provided the backdrop for her masterpiece, the sprawling family saga “Savushun,” published in 1969.
In the novel, set during the war, an Iranian family tries to cope with the demands of British occupiers. One brother collaborates, which brings him wealth and temporary protection. Another chooses patriotic defiance, with tragic results. The second brother’s wife — the family’s matriarch and the heroine of the tale — seeks to balance those two urgent priorities, love for her family and love for her nation. For Ms. Daneshvar, that dilemma symbolized Iran’s: submit and suffer, or rebel and die.
Simin Daneshvar (pronounced sim-EEN dan-esh-VAR) was born on April 28, 1921, in Shiraz, the birthplace of two of the greatest classical Persian poets, Hafez and Saadi, whose verses Iranians still memorize. She attended an English-language school and, while in the eighth grade, published her first article, “Winter Is Not Unlike Our Life,” in a local newspaper.
After entering Tehran University with the intention of studying Persian literature, she found herself obligated to support her family after the death of her father, a doctor. She took a job with Radio Tehran, rose quickly — in part because of her fluency in English — and began writing short stories. Like her contemporaries, she was concerned with social themes, including the contrasting lives of Iran’s rich and poor.
After obtaining her doctorate with a dissertation titled “Beauty as Treated in Persian Literature,” she married the leftist writer and social critic Jalal Al-e Ahmad. He shared her outrage at the power that foreigners had come to exercise in Iran, and is said to have coined the term “gharbzadegi,” sometimes translated as “westoxification.” Nationalists used it to describe the extent to which Iran had fallen victim to foreign power.
During a two-year Fulbright fellowship at Stanford University, Ms. Daneshvar studied under the writer Wallace Stegner, who later visited her in Tehran. Afterward she returned to Iran and taught art history at Tehran University. Pressure from the government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, which saw her as potentially dangerous, prevented her from being granted a full professorship.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Ms. Daneshvar became known as a translator of Chekhov, Shaw, Hawthorne, Schnitzler, Saroyan and other writers. She also published short stories, including several that focused on the oppression of Iranian women. Until the publication of “Savushun” in 1969, however, she was generally assumed to be living under her husband’s literary shadow. No one ever thought of her that way again.
“Despite the fact that she lived with a massively egotistical public intellectual and in a deeply patriarchal society, Simin Daneshvar emerged as a luminary figure of the Persian literary scene entirely of her own making,” the Columbia University scholar Hamid Dabashi wrote. “She outlived Al-e Ahmad by more than four decades, and she will outlast him for an eternity.”
“Savushun” — the title refers to a Persian mourning ceremony, and some editions translated it as “A Persian Requiem” — revolutionized Iranian literature and helped change the way Iranians viewed themselves, from a defeated people to an independent, self-respecting one. For the generation that came of age in the 1970s — and gave birth to the revolution that convulsed their country at the end of that decade — Ms. Daneshvar was the indispensible literary inspiration.
“They killed my husband unjustly,” the heroine tells the police during a climactic funeral procession, after the husband had been assassinated under murky circumstances. “The least that can be done is to mourn him. Mourning is not forbidden, you know. During his life, we were always afraid and tried to make him afraid. Now that he is dead, what are we afraid of any more?”
Ms. Daneshvar’s novel was the most widely read Iranian book of its era. It is a linear story, told from a woman’s point of view, set against a widely shared and deeply painful episode of foreign intervention. Its characters deal with a range of emotions as the plot unfolds through marriage, childbirth, adultery, poverty, loneliness, political defiance and death.
Some critics believe that although “Savushun” strikes a rich chord in Iranian hearts, it is less durable as literature than avant-garde novels like “The Blind Owl,” a dazzlingly modern work of violent fantasy by Ms. Daneshvar’s contemporary, Sadegh Hedayat. Her book, however, was far more widely read in Iran.
“Simple people have much to offer,” Ms. Daneshvar once asserted. “We, too, in return, must give to them to the best of our abilities. We must, with all our heart, try to help them acquire what they truly deserve.”
During the decades of Islamic rule over her country, Ms. Daneshvar continued to write. She had no children.
“ ‘Savushun’ will probably not make it to the best-seller list for reasons that are not far to seek,” a reviewer for Middle East Journal wrote after her masterpiece was published in English. “In a culture where it takes a devastating war to bring an area of the world to public attention, only to watch it recede into oblivion after a few days of relative calm and quiet, there is not much hope for a single book to make an impression, whatever the effort to enable it to communicate its message to American readers.”
- Farewell to Simin Daneshvar (Iranian writer) (doodlejuice.com)