The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Kamran Talattof

As a specifically literary genre, the Persian novel may have had its roots in the Western tradition, especially if we consider the fact that the rise of the Persian novel followed a wave of translation of European and particularly French novels into Persian (Balay, Kamshad). And as far as early novelistic themes are concerned, they were devoted to historical events (Aryanpur, Kamshad, Yavari). However, one may also consider the long tradition of classical narrative poetry, fable writing, poetic romances, and prose fiction as indigenous sources of the Persian novel. In this vein, the narrative poetry of HakImagem Abu'l-QImagesim FirdawsImage TImagesImage (940—1020) and Nezami (ca. 1141—1209), the Indo-Iranian stories of “One Thousand and One Nights,” koranic/biblical stories, and the popular legend of Amir Asrsalan Namdar, which were circulated in society orally for many centuries before being written down, are prime examples. Christophe Balay believes that the latter work is the last story to be written in the old, traditional form of narrative. Like Mikhail BAKHTIN, Balay cautiously uses the term novel in association with old or long narrative stories. This relationship between the old and the new is present more strongly between classical Persian short stories and the European genre of short story, an analysis of which can help further understanding of the changes that Persian prose has experienced since the nineteenth century.

No matter how we define the genre of these older works, their influence has certainly lasted until today. For example, Nezami's Layli o Majnun (1192, Layli and Majnun) inspired many love stories set in the modern era. Nezami's characters in this work are very complex, a feature Bakhtin attributes to the modern novel. Even Golestan (The Rose Garden) by Sa'di (thirteenth century), which consists of stories and maxims, influenced the narratives of such contemporary novelists as Sayyed Mohammad, Ali Jamalzadeh and A. M. Afghani.

Perhaps the most important impact of the Western novels, which were translated into Persian in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in good numbers, was the simplicity and realistic style with which the authors of Persian novels learned to write their own work in a written language. The translations were done from French as well as English and occasionally from other languages. That is, as contact with Europe increased and ideas of modernity helped end the Qajar Dynasty (1795—1925), the number of translated novels also increased. These translations (often done freely, unfaithfully, and creatively) included some of the major works of Voltaire, Molière, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, and Daniel Defoe.

The intellectual and reform activities that gave rise to the constitutional movement and revolution of 1905—11 and a number of other ensuing events (including the introduction of the press and the advent of translation activities, which began along with the deployment of Iranian students to European countries) led political activists to embrace nationalism as the dominant discourse, reform as a course of action to improve the social condition of the country, and the novel as an effective tool. The culmination of these events was the rise of Reza Pahlavi (1878—1944) to the throne in 1925, ending the long reign of the Qajar Dynasty, during whose rule some reform projects were initiated, but the state suffered from mismanagement, extravagance, and incompetence. The presence of the European powers in Iran and the competition among them for increased control of Iran's politics and natural resources further strengthened feelings of nationalism, which included a nationalist (see NATIONAL) literary discourse that emphasized the importance of the Persian language and the necessity of maintaining, improving, and updating it for the sake of modernization of the country (Talattof).

The Persian Novel and Social Change

Yet, no matter how we perceive the nature and the process of the “development” of the Persian novel, the genre—especially in its European form—became popular with the rise of a national interest in modern life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Further, it was only after the 1979 Revolution that the novel rose to such prominence that it surpassed Persian poetic forms as the predominant literary medium for the expression of social concerns, cultural issues, problems of identity, class struggle, political dissent, and, eventually, gender relations and sexuality. There have been many changes in the way these issues have been addressed by literary critics. The Persian novel has developed from the literary movements of each successive age, or what may be called “literary episodes” (Talattof). In each of these episodes, the types of novel translated also related to the dominant themes, style, and social concerns of the time.

In the early period, Zayn al-'Abedin Maraghe-i published his Siahat-nama-ye Ebrahim Beg (The Travel Diary of Ebrahim Beg, 3 vols.) in and outside Iran during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Even though the book is a sort of travelogue, some believe that there are some novelistic qualities about it. The critical view of the author about Persia under the Qajar Dynasty is evident from the very first segment of the first volume. There, he appeals to Persian writers to take up the cause of social reform and consider the importance of the press as a vehicle for furthering such reforms.

Another long (two-volume) fictional work of the same period is Safinah Talebi (1893-94, Talebi Anthology), also known as Ketab-e Ahmad (The Book of Ahmad). It is written in the same style as Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Émile (1762) by 'Abd-al-Rahim Talebof (Taleb, before he moved to Caucasia), a reformist, social critic, and writer, born in Tabriz, Iran, into a carpenter family. He died in 1911 (Adamiyat, 1—2). Like the works of Maraghe-i, this influenced the Constitutional movement (Balay, 40). In this work too, one can see a strong tradition of classical Persian advice books.

After the Constitutional Revolution (1906—11) which gave rise to national aspirations and a quest for modernization, a number of leading Persian writers consciously began to write in a language that was less formal and closer to the language and idioms of ordinary people. For example, Morteza Moshfeq-e Kazemi surprised readers by publishing his novel Tehran-e Makhuf (1922, The Terrible Tehran) in this new parlance. As in the earlier works, he too presented strong social criticism of the current situation in the country and the lack of modernity in his society. Some of his contemporaries, such as Mohammad-e Hejazi, Mohammad Mas'ud, and Jahangir Jalili then wrote in a similar style about similar topics. Works by Hejazi such as Ziba (1931) and Homa (1927) were in particular quite popular.

M. A. Jamalzadeh was a satirist who often created humorous situations with diverse characters representing ordinary people and using all manner of diction and dialects (see PARODY). As a result, and by adding a large number of Persian colloquial idioms, he blazed a new path in Persian fiction writing and expanded its vocabulary. Thematically, he dealt with issues as diverse as the attitudes espoused by Western-educated Iranians, the injustices of the justice system, and the corruption that plagued the practice of Islam in his time. His Dar al-Majanin (1941, Insane Asylum), for example, portrays a number of characters' psyches in some existential and social contexts.

Sadiq Hidayat wrote several collections of short stories before his most famous novella, Buf-i Kur (1936, The Blind Owl). Displaying complicated formal and stylistic innovation, Buf-i Kur has become Iran's most controversial and celebrated work of fiction. It is a two-part story about the life of an anti-religious pen-and-ink artist who, as an outcast of society, struggles to come to terms with his own identity and a life of opium addiction and impotence. The first part depicts his destitute situation as a man unfulfilled in life or love. In the second part of the novel, after falling down a well and going back in time, the man wakes up to find that he is an Indian dancer and the impotent husband to a prostitute wife.

In the period between the 1950s and the 1979 Revolution, a myriad of fiction writers such as Hushang Gulshiri, J. Mir Sadiqi, Sadiq Chubak, and Mahmud Dawlat'abadi were part of a leftist literary discourse that criticized Iranian society under the monarchist state and aspired to a revolution. At times, they were directly involved in revolutionary activities organized by underground organizations. In Klidar (1983), Dawlat'abadi's ten-volume novel, which depicts life and class struggles in northeast Iran, the peasants, urban petite bourgeoisie, and intellectuals—Muslim as well as non-Muslim—unite in the fight against landlords, capitalists and the oppressive forces who support them. Dawlat'abadi portrays all these characters according to their position vis-à-vis sociopolitical issues regarding the mode of production and according to the characteristics of their social class.

Simin Danishvar established her reputation as one of the best-known female fiction writers of modern Persian literature with the publication of a number of short stories and the bestselling novel, Savushun (1969). Set in the province of Fars after WWII, Savushun depicts the life of a woman named Zari who is married to Yusuf, a political activist involved in a resistance movement against the Allied forces.

Post-revolutionary Novels

The status, style, and thematic contents of the Persian novels in Iran changed after the 1979 Revolution which replaced a secular authoritarian regime with a religious state. The new state immediately began to suppress Marxist and other leftist activities that had increased during the course of the revolution (1976—79), causing literary communities to decentralize. Without the hegemony of committed literature, other social and literary discourses such as Islamic, liberal, as well as feminist movements and writings emerged. Also, for the first time in more than a millennium, Persian poetry lost its hegemonic status among the literary genres. The revolution, its aftermath, and the ensuing Iran—Iraq war were too immense and too tragic for the genre that had long departed from the classical forms of masnavi (poem in rhyming couplets) or its narrative expressions. In this atmosphere, the novel gained an unprecedented significance.

One of the first post-revolutionary novels that was highly praised soon after its publication was Sanfuni-ye Mordegan (1987, Symphony of the Dead) by Abbas Marufi. It follows the fate of the Urkhani family in the northern town of Ardabil between WWII and the 1979 Revolution. Members of the family recall eerie memories of their dysfunctional family life, which eventually ends in a dire collective calamity. Marufi masterfully depicts the effect of national and international sociopolitical changes on the fabric of that provincial town while using multiple points of view, a symphonic form, and a stream-of-consciousness narrative. In all of this, he offers up some prophetic insight into the fate of Iranian society. The sequence of events and plot twists regarding this family together construct an allegory about the transformative, and sometimes destructive, cultural elements and forces acting in society. The novel and its metaphors navigate through a range of intense and sensitive topics including literary ambition, poetic dreams, tyranny, marginalization, ethnic tension, book burning, brutality, murderous tendencies, unfulfilled love, and gender oppression. Later, Marufi, also the editor of the literary journal Gardun, was prosecuted for conspiracy against the state and left the country in 1996. The author's exile makes the novel's allegory more potent, more exasperating, and even more real. Together, the author and his allegory embody in many ways the story of post-revolutionary Persian literature.

The Novel and Feminist Literary Discourse

The novels inspired by official discourse or Islamic thought did not receive much attention in the literary communities. The only exception might be some of the works of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who is better known as a filmmaker. However, and ironically, the Islamization of the country caused the emergence of an unprecedented range and number of literary works by women. That is, since the late 1980s, literature has become a particularly important medium for women's self-expression because public space for discussion and debate was extremely limited. Shahrnush Parsipur and Muniru Ravanipur were among the pioneers in this regard. Although Shahrnush Parsipur started publishing before the Revolution, she became a well-known writer in the 1980s. Two of her works, Tuba va Mana-yi Shab (1989, Touba and the Meaning of the Night), and Zanan Bedun-e Mardan (1990, Women without Men), were both popular and controversial and brought her fame. Ravanipur's Del-e Fulad (1990, Heart of Steel) tells the story of a young woman writer, Afsanah, a victim of an abusive relationship in which her husband even uses her as a gambling pawn. She leaves this patriarchal marriage in search of a new life and an opportunity to write an historical story, her own version of history.

Since the rise of the feminist literary movement, many women have written bestselling novels. The novel Bamdad-e Khomar (The Morning After) was written in 1995 by Fataneh Haj Sayed Javadi, a novice female writer, and it soon broke the bestseller record of any novel ever published in Iran. Within two years, it was reprinted nine times and sold 150,000 copies, and by 2005, it had been reprinted more than thirty times and by some estimates, nearly a million people had read it. This movement was reflected in more than one novel. Bamdad-e Khomar shares its status as bestseller with other women's works, such as Zoya Pirzad's Chraghha ra Man Khamush Mikonam (200, I Can Only Turn the Lights Off) and Aadat Mikonim (2004, We Will Get Used to It); Parinush Sani's Sahm-e Man (2002, My Share); Shohreh Vakili's Shab-e Arusi-e Man (2003, My Wedding Night); and Nahid Tabatabai's Abi va Surati (2004, Blue and Pink). In all these novels, the issue of the use of language plays an important role in constructing the struggle of women with one or another aspect of life in a situation that is directly or metaphorically contemporary.

In brief, since the inception of its modern form in the late nineteenth century, the Persian novel has gone through a number of significant thematic and stylistic changes. The changes have always been connected with the broader intellectual and ideological movements within society. In the process, the Persian novel has contributed to the formation of history, has influenced events, and has been influenced by societal changes. During all this time, writers have often faced CENSORSHIP, danger, and various limitations but have also continued to inspire people, convey hope, and criticize social ills. In the process, numerous prominent and long-lasting works have also been produced which may not have gained the same international acclaim of classical narrative poetry but have certainly enjoyed a positive international reception. Generally, the genre enjoys increasing popularity as it continues to be animated by new content and forms. In recent decades, a good number of women's novels (including the works of Parsipur and Pirzad) have been translated into European languages and, like Buf-i Kur, have found an interested readership abroad.


1. Abedini, H. (1990), Sad Sal Dastan Nevesi.

2. Bakhtin, M.M. (1981), “The Epic and the Novel,” in Dialogic Imagination, ed. M. Holquist.

3. Balay, C. (2007), Paydayesh-e Roman-e Farsi.

4. Kamshad, H. (1966), Modern Persian Prose Literature.

5. Talattof, K. (1999), Politics of Writing in Iran.

6. Talattof, K. “Zayn al-'Abedin Maraghe-i (1838—1911),” in Encyclopaedia Iranica,

7. Talattof, K. “Abd-al-Rahim Talebof (1834 -1911),” in Encyclopaedia Iranica,

8. Yavari, H. (1995), Psychoanalysis and Literature in Iran.

9. Yavari, H. (2002), “The Persian Novel,” Iran Chamber Society.