The Complete Review's Literary Saloon continues to be the blogosphere's principal source of information about the global book business. If you want to know what Chinese, German, Turkish, whatever book has just won something, been reviewed somewhere, finally been translated into English or scandalously been ignored etc then the Literary Saloon will most likely have the story. Michael Orthofer, the site's founder and sole contributor, has wonderfully catholic tastes and casts his net worldwide; his global vision is certainly something fully to applaud and acclaim. He does, however, sometimes say the most stupid things.

Witness today's post about the Winners of Sacred Defense book festival. As Orthofer tells us, the 'Sacred Defense' is what Iran calls the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s. In an offhand remark, tangled as ever inside a parenthesis locked inside yet another bracketed sub-clause, Orthofer complains that it is astonishing and sad that the war "is still a major (and I mean major) one in contemporary Iranian literature." Astonishing and sad!? What is astonishing and sad -- beyond the fact that such a well-respected blog still cannot use ellipses properly -- is that such an ignorant statement should occur so casually.

During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War -- backed and extended by the US for numerous geopolitical reasons -- "perhaps as many as a million people died, many more were wounded, and millions were made refugees" (Iran Chamber Society). That it continues to be a focus for Iranian literature, a mere twenty years after it ended, is hardly astonishing and sad. Indeed, with a belligerent USA still stalking the region, it is entirely understandable. And nor is it particular different to "our" own obsessions. The UK book market continues to be flooded with books, fiction and non-fiction, besotted with both world wars; a growing stack of 9/11 novels infects the US. Astonishing and sad, then, that Iran's literary preoccupations are not seen as being remarkably similar to our own.

Readers Comments

  1. The euphemism "conflict" is telling. It was an invasion of a sovereign nation that's never invaded anywhere, yet is now a *threat* to Israel and us because it dares to try to defend itself from further attack. What's astonishing and sad is the spectacle of *intellectuals* free to speak out against war contributing to the drip-drip-drip of propaganda to manufacture consent for more mass murder of civilians. The language is almost identical to the lies prior to the invasion of Iraq. What part of "Never again" don't these people understand?

  2. The "drip-drip-drip of propaganda" which is recirculated by liberals and leftists is particularly pernicious. I'm astonished by the bad faith of the liberal who, suddenly, almost overnight, becomes an expert in a particular country or area of the globe (which, coincidentally, is the country that our USUK masters are next thinking about bombing, and which yesterday they knew fuck all about). Our liberal can pontificate at length about all the soon-to-be-destroyed country's failures and inadequacies, its anti-democratic ethos, its misogynistic culture and the many ways in which it poses a danger to the very fabric of our lives, but seems entirely blind to how and why they have come across all these devastating facts. The information they can recite is often locally fascinating, but it has no context and is politically naive to a frightening level.

  3. Michael Richards Tuesday 29 September 2009

    You're right to highlight this, Mark, but it's a product of our Western view of the world which is barely more sophisticated than Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cartoon: How often do we hear about the two Westerners killed in an African air crash or Indian ferry disaster? And wouldn't global warming be taken more seriously if parts of Long Island and San Francisco were washed away on an annual basis instead of piss-poor deltas in Bangladesh?

  4. Michael Orthofer Tuesday 29 September 2009

    Thank you for the kind words; as to the slap on the wrist: no doubt I often make foolish statements, but as to this one: one reason the remark is off-hand is that I have covered this ground repeatedly, mentioning Iran's 'Sacred Defense lit' elsewhere over the years. No doubt, I should state my opinions more carefully and fully each time, but this one doesn't seem to require that much discussion. I am disheartened by the fetishization of this conflict in Iran, and the terrible effect it has had on literary production there. It's great to see that some literature is actively promoted, less great that it is actively promoted by authorities with a specific agenda in mind. And it is especially troubling given the crack-down in recent years that has seen publishing permits withheld from even the most prominent authors (most recently and notably -- but just one example among hundreds -- for Mahmoud Dowlatabadi's 'The Colonel') and the almost complete control the government has over what can be published in Iran, leading to this attempt to channel all energies into literature about this particular event (since fiction about it is among the little fiction that seems to have much of a chance of getting published). I remind you that this prize is given by something called the 'Foundation for the Preservation and Publication of Sacred Defense Works and Values', and that it ranks among the most widely supported and publicized in Iran -- perhaps comparable to the British Orange Prize in reputation and (limited) purpose.

    I find the fetishization of the Iran-Iraq War in Iran deeply unsettling -- and very revealing (because it demonstrates a failure -- and fear -- to get on with things and confront the very real issues Iranians face today). No doubt, 'Western' nations fetishize their wars as well (and, of course, there's always the Holocaust), but few have fostered that fetishization on the same scale as Iran is doing with the 1980-88 period. In the US, the 'Greatest Generation'-enthusiasm of recent years certainly got out of hand -- yet could fairly easily be ignored as just one of many dozens of other literary (and other) fads. In Iran, the focus is far more strongly on that single conflict. And it doesn't seem to me like that's a healthy preoccupation. Even engagement with the 'Iranian Revolution' would seem to me to be more useful, but that's a can of worms they don't want to mess with too much (since the Iranian Revolution was not as clearly cut an Islamic revolution as they now like to see it). The martyrous sacrifice of so many in the Iran-Iraq War is easy to glorify but surely not a healthy thing to cling to so strongly -- or continue to revel in (and that is what the Iranian authorities are doing). The reason they cling to it is clear: it is the only period that the authorities can hold up as some sort of ideal, when Iranians were united against a common enemy (sure, there's always the Great Satan, but lets face it, even this regime realizes that America and a lot of American things (notably pop culture) are incredibly popular among Iranians; Saddam Hussein and his attack, however, was something even those who were opposed to the Mullah-regime could (and did) rally against).

    My disappointment that the Iran Iraq War still is such a dominant subject-matter in Iranian literature stems not from the fact that authors want and do engage with it but rather that the current regime makes it so difficult, if not impossible, for them to engage (and to engage their readers) with any other sort of literature. Surely it's clear that Iran would be better off if its writers were allowed to move on and deal with current issues (such as those next-door conflicts Iran is sandwiched between …) more extensively.

    The Iran Iraq War shouldn't be forgotten and certainly deserves the attention of artists, but it shouldn't be the one and (as it sometimes seems) almost lone subject matter that writers are pushed towards (or allowed to be) writing about.

  5. A dictatorship prolonging its grasp on power through a literary prize given by said dictatorship during the "Festival of Selecting the Sacred Defense Book of the Year" meant to deflect current unrest by reflecting on a rose-tinted past, as well as pushing independent writers toward writing on this subject and on this subject only.

    That, my friends, is indeed something worth defending.

    Seriously now, has a winner of this vaunted prize written of say, the religious brainwashing of children sent to trigger land-mines with their little feet, or the plight of the Iraqis sent by their dictator to die for no apparent reason? Somehow I doubt it.

    Mitchelmore: Rightfully discrediting the Iranian dictatorship's propaganda arm doesn't mean supporting a US invasion of Iran. Your reading between the lines is highly conspiratorial.

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