Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The Secret Letters from X to A by Nasrin Parvaz

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It is about a year now since I read Nasrin Parvaz’s powerful memo of her experience of torture and imprisonment in Iran, One Woman’s Struggle in Iran.

Parvaz’s memoir showed how the humanity of the women in prison nonetheless survived. It was a story of friendship and mutual support, of how the women drew strength from one another and found endless small ways to show kindness and even find tiny specks of joy.

This novel is drawn from the same brutal experience, but is necessarily a different beast. It takes as its starting point the decision of the Iranian government to turn its centre for interrogation and torture into a museum – erasing its own role and showing only how torture was used in the same building by the Shah’s regime, overthrown in 1979.

Faraz is a young history teacher whose cousin was turned in by his own father and executed by the regime of the Islamic Republic. When his uncle offers him a job helping to prepare the building for its transformation into a museum, his family are horrified – won’t he be collaborating in the erasure of history? But believing this may be his only chance to find out what happened to his cousin, Faraz accepts the job.

What he finds inside the prison is not a trace of his cousin, but a series of secret letters, written by a young woman X to her husband A, and hidden in cracks in the walls and under the floor. As Faraz uncovers more and more of the tiny, fragile hand-sewn notebooks, he pieces together a picture of X’s terrible treatment inside the prison. But will he ever find out her final fate? And what will happen if he unveils the truth behind the regime's banal lies?

X’s letters to her husband are full of tenderness and love – a love that gives her courage and keeps her going in the darkest of circumstances. Like Faraz, we are drawn into her story, as desperate as he to find the next cache of letters. And we know that Parvaz is writing from the depths of her own experience, the details drawn from her own eight years in prison.

The Secret Letters from X to A not only unmasks what happened inside one of Iran’s notorious prisons (the Joint Committee Interrogation Centre, also known as Towhid), and the hypocrisy of the regime in trying to cover it up. It shows the pressures facing young people in Iran today, trying to cling onto some kind of normal life. And it portrays Iran as a deeply divided society, with rules that only apply to those not part of the privileged elite.

Nonetheless, we in the West should be careful not to place ourselves on some kind of blame-free moral high ground. From complicity in torture to indefinite detention to our whitewashing of atrocities from our Imperial past, our hands are far from clean. This book has lessons for us all.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: One Woman’s Struggle in Iran by Nasrin Parvaz, Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of imprisonment and torture

Perfect Accompaniment: Coffee and Mirzagasemi (smoked aubergine and garlic)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Epistolary Novel

Available on Amazon

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