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Last song in Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian

February 11, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Last song in Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian (2012) Original French title: Dernier refrain à Ispahan.

nahapetianI bought Dernier refrain à Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian at Quais du Polar last year. It is a crime fiction novel written by a Franco-Iranian author. Naïri Nahapétian left Iran in 1979 when she was 9 and when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran. She came to France with her family and became a journalist. She goes back to Iran regularly and has started a crime fictions series set in Iran. Dernier refrain à Ispahan is the second book of this series.

The book opens with a crime. The singer Roxana is murdered in a theatre in Ispahan. Women are not allowed to sing in public in Iran and Roxana is back in her hometown after living for decades in the US. She was a very popular singer when the Shah was still in power and moved to California after the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded. She was secretly working on a show with two other singers, Shadi and Nadia. There’s a good chance that her death is linked to this project.

Two recurring characters of the series become involved in solving the crime. The first one is Narek, a Franco-Iranian journalist who was staying in Iran for professional reasons. The second one is Mona. She was Roxana’s friend, they grew up in the same neighborhood and were good friends. Mona is a midwife and she operates a clinic who helps women with gynecological issues and everything around that. Her mission includes helping prostitutes.

The modus operandi of the murderer mirrors the lyrics of one of Roxana’s most famous song:

Dans un royaume où les ignorants son trois, un homme a volé la voix des femmes. Il a emporté leur chant, semé des tulipes sur leur chemin ; et la joie s’en est allée. In the kingdom where ignoramuses are kings, a man stole the women’s voices. He took away their singing, scattered tulips in their wake and joy deserted the place.

This intrigues Mona and pushes her to dig further.

Out of the two characters, Mona has the strongest voice and is the most likeable. I found Narek a little thin. Mona raises her teenage daughter alone and doesn’t know if her husband is alive or not. He was summoned to the police station one day and never came back. Her work is her way to express her feminism and we discover the condition of women through her eyes. Her life in unconventional for her country and it’s not easy to keep living it. She’s a bit of an outsider, just like Anne Perry’s character Hester in her William Monk series. (Hester runs a shelter for prostitutes in Victorian England).

In his review about Three-Card Monte by Marco Malvaldi, Max from Pechorin’s Journal wrote something I totally agree with Some crime novels are about the crime. Some only have a crime to give the characters something to do. Dernier refrain à Ispahan belongs to the second category. The plot is suspenseful but the context of the murder and the setting were the most interesting parts. Dernier refrain à Ispahan is a window on the Iranian society and the condition of women. Naïri Nahapétian shows all the little things that are controlled to ensure that men are not in contact with women who are not their wife. I’ve always thought that the concept of hiding women not to trigger men’s lust was terribly offensive for men. The underlying idea is that they cannot interact with a woman without getting horny, as if they were only animals in heat. Isn’t that insulting?

Despite all its qualities, Dernier refrain à Ispahan remains a book written by a Western writer. Sure, Naïri Nahapétian gets the ins and outs of her country of origin. She knows Iran well, she understands its culture and I’m sure that what she writes is accurate. We do have a good sense of place, contrary to Alexis Aubenque’s rendition of Alaska. But her book is written for a French readership. It’s not the same as reading a translation of an Iranian book who was written for a local audience. It’s not as genuine and for me, it is French literature set in Iran and not Iranian literature. And that makes all the difference. So if you can recommend an contenporary Iranian novel, please leave a message in the comment section.

Recent political events pushed me to take this novel off the shelf. Tony from Tony’s Reading List had the same urge with Iraqi’s literature and you can find his review about Iraq +100 – Stories From a Century After the Invasion by Hassan Blasim, here. Reading books from these banned countries seems futile and yet, if literature weren’t powerful why would dictators always ban books?

Dernier refrain à Ispahan is not available in English. If someone’s interested in everyday life in Iran, there’s this wonderful film, Wadjda, about a girl who wants a bicycle even if girls are not allowed to have one. A good movie to show to our Western teenagers.

  1. February 11, 2017 at 6:02 pm

    As I was reading this, I thought that this wasn’t for me even before you mentioned that there is not translation.
    Can’t think of any iranian authors, sorry

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    • February 11, 2017 at 8:59 pm

      Even if there were an English translation, I’d tell you you can pass on this one. It was OK.

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      • February 11, 2017 at 11:15 pm

        There are far too many “just ok” crime novels out there

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  2. February 11, 2017 at 6:31 pm

    Ah, interesting comment on it! We saw the author together, of course, in Lyon last year, and I bought one of her books too on the back of that (but haven’t had a chance to read it yet). There is quite a pressure, I suppose, to write for the audience of the country you are in if you write in that language. The recent book ‘Guapa’ was written in English by a Lebanese-German-Palestinian-Iraqi man, and it contained quite a few additional details and sensibilities which perhaps served to make the book more understandable and palatable for Western audiences. I’ve seen this on a small scale myself: I was reading from my first novel set in Romania (written in English) to a writing group and they kept asking for more explanations or making false assumptions.

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    • February 11, 2017 at 9:03 pm

      I’m curious to read what you’ll think of it. Do you have the same one as me?
      There are details about everyday life that are useful to a French reader but would probably not be in a local book.

      Speaking about Romania. I have the book Terre des Affranchis by Liliana Lazar. Same scenario except that she’s lived longer in Romania. She was born in 1972 and came to France in 1996. She writes in French. I have it on my list for “EU 27 reading project”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 11, 2017 at 9:58 pm

        Ooo, curious to hear about that one. I have ‘Qui a tue l’ayatollah Kanuni?’ by Nahapetian.

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        • February 13, 2017 at 11:35 pm

          That’s the first one of her series.

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  3. February 11, 2017 at 7:35 pm

    I agree with you, I read “Un agent nommé Parviz”‘ some time ago and get the same feeling as you “it is French literature set in Iran and not Iranian literature.” I also discover that she write directly in french.

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    • February 11, 2017 at 9:11 pm

      OK, same feeling for you then. I guess it’s unavoidable. She’s been in France for too long and spent her formative years here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 12, 2017 at 2:46 pm

        Don ‘t remember to have read any other writer from Iran, except Persepolis.

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  4. February 11, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    I thought she was still living in Iran. Sounds like it’s not the real thing. But still interesting.
    I have a few Iranian authors. Abbas Maroufi whom I haven’t read yet and another one I loved but can’t find and the name was so long, I can absolutely not remember it. I’ll come back once I found the book and maybe others.

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    • February 13, 2017 at 11:35 pm

      Thanks. I hope you’ll remember the name.

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      • February 14, 2017 at 9:53 am

        I finally found the book. The author’s name is Haj Seyed Javadi. I own a German translation of the book, so the name must be the germanized version. I thought it was fantastic.

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        • February 15, 2017 at 10:09 pm

          Thanks! I’ll try to find it in French.

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  5. February 15, 2017 at 1:57 pm

    Did you read the first one? Perhaps that added some flesh to Narek, though if so the flesh should still show as it were in the second.

    It sounds solid, but as you said with Guy there’s lots that are good but not great. I strongly agree with your take on the difference between being a French writer and an Iranian writer. I see that a lot in English language fiction – a writer is described as being Indian or Pakistani or Chinese but when you look up their bio it turns out that actually they’re British or American, went to Oxford or Duke or whatever, and it’s their family that’s from those places.

    Re films, I’ll check that one out. I saw A Separation by Asghar Farhadi a while back and was very impressed by that, and he is as far as I know genuinely an Iranian filmmaker. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is pretty good (if achingly hip, but that’s what it sets out to be) but is actually a US film set in Tehran made by an Iranian American rather than a home grown product.

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    • February 15, 2017 at 9:53 pm

      I didn’t read the first one but you’re right, maybe it was more about Narek.

      I doesn’t matter how many times these writers from foreign origin go back to their parents’ country, it’s never the same as being raised there.

      I’ve heard about A Separation and I should watch it. thanks for the reminder.

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  1. February 18, 2017 at 8:19 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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