PERSIAN NIGHTS

By Diane Johnson.
New York: Fawcett Crest Books, 1987. 338 pages. ISBN: 0-449-21514-8

Comments of Bob Corbett, August 2000.

Chloe Fowler ends up alone in Iran just weeks before the uprisings against the Shah begin. She was to have been there with her physician husband, but a last minute airport emergency sends him back to California and her on to Iran alone.

What follows is a curiously and successfully written book in which the story of Chloe's life, loves, travel experiences, third world discoveries and marriage-failing-at-a-distance are all treated with a great deal of humor and human warmth. At the same time another entire strain of the novel deals with deadly seriousness and profound sadness of the suffering of the Persian people caught up in this difficult moment of national history.

Chloe has gotten a personal grant to do archeological research. Her husband was to do voluntary medical service. Instead she ends up living alone in the medical compound on the outskirts of the regional town of Shiraz. The director of the center believes her to be a CIA agent. Others hardly know what to make of this seemingly frail California woman alone and on her own in Iran.

Chloe is quite politically and culturally na´ve and uninformed. She has a good heart and is a caring, giving person. She shows great strength in coping with the unexpected material hardships of her living situation, and, while clinging rather closely to the foreign-dominated medical compound, moves beyond that circle more than many other foreigners would or did in the novel.

Her entire story reminded me greatly of similar situations I have experienced in my many trips to Haiti. Just like Chloe, we usually live in some compound separated from the average Haitian and dedicated to the American. Like her character, I usually pushed our own group to go out into the Haitian world and experience more than just this limited and protected situation. However, like her, many of the people I took to Haiti struggled with the enormous differences between the usual comforts and security of the United States and the much more raw and often dangerous situation in which we found ourselves.

The last fifty pages or so come fast and furious and things rush down up the country of Iran and upon the reader. This relaxed paced novel which had developed the above themes with grace, humor, pathos and at a relatively leisurely pace, becomes wildly hectic just as the situation in Iran explodes upon the Persian people.

The sole task for the foreigners is to quickly get out of Iran and the last 30 or so pages is the single day of a mad dash to the Teheran airport and the tensions, fears and exhilaration of the several main characters and they prepare to leave the battles of Iran to the Iranians.

This section was for me the most familiar of all. I have been in that situation many times in Haiti, times of coup d'etat, attempted revolutions, failed presidential elections and other disruptive occurances. Through Johnson's exquisitely paced writing I could relive the naked fear, the thrilling sense of participation, the desire to both be in the midst of it and escape it as quickly as can be. I could feel in my gut memories of moments of terror when leaving seems impossible as flights are cancelled and the airport closed. I could vividly recall the excitement and relief of last moments, when hope was nearly lost, of mounting the stairs of a waiting airplane and being whisked away from the dangers, heat, sweat and fear of Haiti to the cold comforts of the snug and plastic safety of the Miami International Airport. She got it right in every detail down to the utter contradictions of these terrified people waiting to get on the plane they think may save their lives, yet fighting in a line to use up their remaining Iranian money on buys of caviar. I've been there in the same lines to buy Babancourt rum at the Haitian airport!

This is not a philosophically or psychologically sophisticated study of the human person; it is not an astute analysis of the politics of the revolution in Iran. It's a much simpler tale, more focused on the personal lives of the half dozen main characters. The brilliant writing of the end of the book, while accurately rooted in the experience of the outbreak of the revolution and the fleeing of foreigners, is again much more concerned to reveal to us the depths of the characters and their lives. Iran sort of figures into the story as a setting, like a novel of Boston that could just as well have been set in San Francisco. So to, Persian Nights might just as well have been Haitian Days or Moscow Winters.

The novel is not deep. It is alternatively very funny and poignant, and deeply sad and foreboding. Diane Johnson writes well and it is a marvelous and relatively quick read.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu