Set in the tumultuous, disorienting years of 1942 and 1943, Savushun weaves together disparate threads of Iranian consciousness during the World War II occupation of Iran by Great Britain and the USSR. Equal parts political novel, classical tragedy, and clarion call of an emergent feminist movement, Daneshvar’s magnum opus aptly captures the zeitgeist in a manner lending itself to lasting relevance.
Savushun was published in 1969—nearly a quarter-century after its fictional events—but would have been immediately relatable to Iranians coping with the increasingly autocratic tendencies of Shah Reza Pahlavi. Its plot swirls around the essential question of whether and/or how to react to foreign occupation, or, in the Shah’s case, foreign occupation with an Iranian face. Four main axes of response are offered by Daneshvar, each given voice through an individual character.
The author’s obvious hero is Yusof, a well-to-do landowner and freethinker who conspires against the British occupation by his refusal to accede to requests for food. His idealism and resistance, while constantly exhorted throughout the novel, are not given a free pass, as evidenced by the inclusion of a second protagonist–his wife Zari. Fearing for her husband’s safety, she painfully wavers somewhere between a desire to join her husband and the practical demands of raising three children during occupation. Quietly, Daneshvar voices the essential question of occupied life: does one resist, risking everything for a possibly futile cause? Or can one betray principle and lie low, subtly ignoring the constant humiliations of occupation in order to outlast it and lend one’s efforts to the aftermath.
Representing the collaborators, in different degrees, are Ezzatoddowleh and Khan Kaka. The former prostrates herself to the occupied government, taking pains to wait upon the Governor and his daughter whilst constantly sowing discord amongst Shirazi families. Khan Kaka, on the other hand, collaborates indirectly, weaving his personal ambition of a parliamentary seat with a concomitant defeatist attitude toward resistance. As Yusof’s brother, he is the only character able to openly criticize our hero within cultural limits; he does not necessarily disagree with Yusof’s general views on the occupation, but believes resistance is futile.
Interspersed within the main examination of Iranian consciousness are several poignant commentaries on familial dynamics. American scholar of Iranian literature Brian Spooner voices worries in the foreword that Savushun might be incomprehensible to Westerners, but any twentieth-first century American familiar with Jonathan Franzen’s family novels would find many similarities in Daneshvar’s character relations despite their having published three decades apart. The intricate webs of family alliance—Yusof, Khan Kaka, and Fatimeh as siblings, the childhood friendship of the latter with Ezzatoddowleh, and the rivalry between her sister-and-law and the same—militate against coherent responses to occupation. Cultural dynamics may different slightly between and within cultures, but the family as a bedrock of hope and refuge during hardship remains universal.
The two most parochial and therefore rewarding aspects of the novel revolve around the allegorical connection of Yusof’s resistance to Siavash and of the frequent contacts with themes of insanity. Siavash’s defiance of power costs him his life, as does that of Yusof. Yet in Ferdowsi’s epic, Siavash’s son—Kai Khasrow—goes on to implement his father’s dreams. Readers bothering to undertake even a cursory examination of Iranian literary history could not miss the symbolic importance of Daneshvar’s having given the name Khasrow to the eldest son of Yusof and Zari.
Though she could superficially be accused of espousing Shi’a fatalism by penning the death of Yusof and his schemes, the ineluctable conclusion runs quite opposite. Both Yusof, early on, and Zari, at the novel’s end, lecture Khosrow on manhood. It is clearly not to be found in Fotuhi’s flirting with Bolshevism nor in the behavior of the British occupiers. Khasrow’s route to actualization is steadily narrowed down throughout the plot—from his failed attempt to strike back at Sahar’s appropriators to his stoic rescue of the occupier when she cannot handle the very horse she stole from him. Nothing more undermines the stance of the invader than the occupied succeeding where he cannot.
Yet such moments of revolutionary clarity are not easily earned nor obvious, as Zari’s interplay with insanity shows the reader. What begins as a rather innocuous gesture—Zari volunteers at the insane asylum in return for particular medical services and the grace of God—later turns out to have been all along a large-scale metaphor for Iran under occupation. Even during her early visits, before this realization of metaphorical significance dawns on the reader, Zari’s interactions with the patients do not conform to typical asylum visits. She constantly questions their states of mind, probing whether they’re really insane or the simple product of a subjugated country.
By novel’s end, Zari has her own brush with insanity—one that sees Khan Kaka, paragon of the collaborator—attempting to exploit her muddied state. Thus Daneshvar subtly reveals the strategy of co-optation: while the decent people weigh their options, torn between possibly futile and definitely dangerous resistance, the collaborators take advantage of this indecision to further undermine the revolutionary spirit. Zari’s dive into trance brings with it a unique take on the continued relevance of religious interpretation in Iranian culture, as the Irishman MacMahon relays to her his story of the Chariot Keeper. The absolute meaning of these passages can be made to suit several narratives, but certainly the storyteller’s nationality implies a universality of occupation and resistance. Perhaps lurking under this connection is a suggestion that resistance movements cannot consider mutually exclusive nationalism and the willingness to learn from other independence movements.
Along similar lines of argument, Dr. Abdollah—a bit of a deus ex machina—emerges at the conclusion to bind several of these themes together by explaining the significance of Yusof’s actions. In his opinion, Yusof’s martyrdom had a singular purpose: to break the barrier of fear in his occupied countrymen. In this, Yusof is more foil than hero, and the real heroes are those still to come: Zari, Khasrow, the brothers Sohrab, and so on. The significant of the doctor’s interpretation being given specifically to Zari accomplishes two purposes: the aforementioned universal lesson of shedding fear, and a more specifically tailored appeal to Iranian women in particular.
Dr. Abdollah’s plaintive, honest appraisal, “I know you are a lady, a real lady,” lends credence to the idea that the responsibility for resistance does not lie solely with the guerrillas of the Qashqa’i nomads or of age-old landed patriarchs. Zari’s convictions of gender equality, intentionally repeated ad nauseam throughout the novel, support the idea that barriers to full expression are constructed to the detriment of the entire society, even without the conscious knowledge of all. It is enough for many of the men in the novel to appeal to tradition, leaving exasperated women caught between respect for “basic” Iranian culture and a desire to lend their hands to the cause. In sum total, Savushun, as its title suggests, is a claim of hope in the midst of apparent despair. Change, Daneshvar claims, cannot occur without a spark, and actions of resistance should be incumbent on every Iranian.