Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat

How do you review books about trauma? I've been thinking about that a lot the last few days, as I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say about this book, and also the two I read around the same time. I've said the universe sometimes throws me books in clumps? Well, this time it was three about traumatic experiences under authoritarian governments. Two fiction, one non-fiction.

And the non-fiction is probably the hardest to review. When someone is relating their life story about horrific events, as, in this case, the author's story about being arrested in post-revolution Iran, sent to prison, tortured, sentenced to death, having that sentence commuted to life, being pressured into marrying a prison guard to get some semblance of freedom, and so on. It's not an easy story, and I applaud Nemat's ability to get it down on the page.

What about literary value? How do you even assess that in this type of story? In this case, the prose is spare and not particularly descriptive. Maybe that's the only way to get these words on the page - you can relive it, but even for that, there's a limit. So as a literary achievement, it's impossible for me to say good or bad. If it were a novel, I'd critique it more heavily. As a direct expression of trauma, it is a difficult read. And that probably should be the point.

There was some controversy a year or so back, when one of the panelists on "Canada Reads" accused this book of being untruthful, but I just did a google search, and I can't find anything specific about that, no specific accusations or individual claims of untruth. So that judge may have been talking out of her ass, but it raises what is almost always with us with nonfiction these days, particularly memoirs. After James Frey and the Three Cups of Tea controversy, these types of books are under more scrutiny these days, and that has good points and bad points.

But even if there are inaccuracies, which I'm not sure that there are - at least I can't find any records of people picking out specific things - I'm reminded of a story from one of my more theoretical drama classes, "Geographies of Emergency." The prof told us a story about collecting testimonials from Holocaust survivors, and in particular, a story one woman told about Jewish resistance at one of the camps, and her very clear memory of three of the smokestacks blowing up.

Except that we know that only one smokestack blew up at that particular camp. So what do we do with her testimony? It cannot be simply dismissed because, in the middle of trauma, she didn't get every detail exactly right. For one, it is testimony to something that we never think of connected with the horrors of the death camps - active resistance. But yet, obviously, memory is inherently faulty, and those accumulated during trauma even more so.

It's a difficulty I continue to struggle with. But I believe these stories have to be told, and even if some details are wrong (and again, I don't know that any are), that doesn't immediately invalidate a story. Everything has to be assessed for what it is, and with understanding of context and history. I know incredibly little about Iran, and I should know more.

I feel like I've talked less about the book, and more about the thoughts that I had to get out of the way before I could write a review. Somewhere along the way, the two merged. But my final thought is that this is a good book, not a great one. And I think it will have done its job if it causes people to explore more, rather than read one book and stop.

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