Title: ghàsh-o zà’f (Weakness and Fainting)
Author: Awat Poorabdollahi
Review by Mahdi Alizadeh Ziaei (Department of English, University of Edinburgh)
For those who are not familiar with any previous work by Avat Poorabdollahi, Weakness and Fainting may come as a shock. Readers who are used to the classical and traditional styles of writing will need more than a few lines to adapt themselves to Poorabdollahi’s style. Throughout the book, there are several spelling errors, and at times, positions of letters have been changed. At first, you may think they are typos but when you face the frequency of the errors you come to think they have been deliberately incorporated into the stories. When you read the introduction, you understand you should not expect a collection of happy-ending stories or modern fairy tales. The introduction prepares the reader for the gloomy atmosphere that is dominant throughout the book. It all starts with “feeling of death, suffocation under pressure, buried under the rubble, a rubble of dead bodies, …” and the same ambience can be seen in all the stories to the end of the book.
The themes of death, suffocation, pointlessness and nothingness run through the whole collection of stories. In fact, the titles of some stories, such as “The Corpse”, “The Unfinished Story of a Story which had Died before it Started”, and “Report of an Unfinished Death” have direct connections with the main themes of the book. In many of the stories, you come across motifs and images like a rope around the neck, coffin, blood and cliff. All the motifs and themes have skilfully been employed by the author to reflect the inner feelings of the narrator. The author says that he finds the material for his reports in rubbish bins, corners of the city, death announcements, wanderings, sewers and words of vagrants. And it is true about Weakness and Fainting. It is made clear from the first story – “Twenty Thousand and Two Hundred Toomans” – that the narrator is not omniscient nor is he a well-informed or educated narrator. He is young but poor; apparently with little education and experience, but well-experienced in the university of life. However, as he himself admits in the first story, being poor is perhaps the worst offense of all! He is no one; he is nothing; he has no identity. The point is further confirmed by the fact that he admits he never tells his real name to the bus companies he travels with. There are several bawdy references in the stories but we cannot blame the author for them as you cannot expect such a narrator to use elevated language. He does his best to show the facts as they are without sugarcoating them.
The narrator acts as an observer of the ugly side of the society. He has developed sharp eyes to spot the injustice and the wide gaps between the wealthy and the poor; how the rich show off their wealth and how the poor try hard to pretend they are better off. Perhaps that is why he describes people as walking corpses. There is a common metaphor in the Iranian society to refer to the people as zombies. It indicates the lack of compassion among people, which is replaced by competition and corruption. It seems that Avat Poorabdollahi has used the same metaphor in his book to place a mirror before the people and the society and show them how evil they have become; to show them they have turned into zombies walking aimlessly and showing no mercy to anyone.
References to the contemporary Iranian society are abundant in the works of Avat Poorabdollahi. In Helplessness of Ahmad Panahipoor, he tries to shed some light on the ugly but less obvious aspects of the society. He wrote about people who do not appreciate a poet; people who do not understand art. Weakness and Fainting is a darker book in that sense. The references to a society full of suppression and wrong beliefs and customs are more evident and even more annoying; dead bodies walking, monsters, skeletons and lunatics. These are like eyesores. They are everywhere in the society but some of us may fail to notice them; however, the author draws our attention to these obvious and everyday facts. He makes a few references to the inappropriate relationships of the people within the society and the stinky smell that is spread everywhere. Nobody pays any attention to anyone else and it is a picture of the current Iranian society; a bunch of walking corpses marching in the streets.
Sometimes, allusions to the Iranian society become more noticeable in this book. While the author tries to avoid direct references to political and religious figures and names in Helplessness of Ahmad Panahipoor, his references to religion and politics are more noticeable here. In one of the stories, he talks about the judge and the ruler and mentions their turbans and beard: two religious symbols utilised to rule over the Iranians. His political references are even more direct and significant. In the opening story, the narrator mentions the president and Zarif, the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and blames them for the high prices. However, the most significant instances of the political references can be found in the story called “Nabbing” where he refers to Mir Hossein Mousavi, former Iranian Prime Minister, currently under home arrest for the accusation of provoking people for an uprising. The narrator wisely says that Mir Hossein Mousavi is dead because if we do not hear about someone, that person is dead; just like what the Iranian regime intended for Mousavi.
There are also more subtle allusions in the stories to the current state of affairs in Iran. Inflation, lethargy, corruption and depression are the words that subtly describe the current condition of the people in the society. One of the stories, “Apostate, All, Nothing”, refers to another important social problem: love is gone from among the people. Falling in love is a great and strange sin, and it is a tradition to pluck out the eyes of the lover.
Weakness and Fainting is another “report” (as the author calls his works) by Avat Poorabdollahi that records and displays the dark and unattractive side of the contemporary Iranian society where people do not show respect or sympathy towards each other and where turbans and beard are abused to subdue the public. The theme of death is prevalent in the book and most of the stories are told by a person who hardly has any identity. Almost all the characters in the stories suffer from some physical or mental problem; some are dead, some are mentally deranged, some suffer from lack of affection and some are vagrants. However, the author uses all these to show the reader what the contemporary society looks like.