The House That War Minister Built
- Andrew Imbrie Dayton and Elahe Talieh Dayton
- 291 pp.
- Reviewed by Tom Glenn
- October 20, 2011
Three generations of an Iranian family struggle to survive and prosper in the midst of their country’s bloody history.
Reviewed by Tom Glenn
In 1794, the Persian ruler Aga Mohammed Khan ordered that twenty thousand human eye balls be poured at his feet while he sold their owners’ wives and children into slavery. That event, described by the Daytons in the Authors’ Note at the beginning of The House that War Minister Built, sets the tone for all that follows.
The Daytons’ novel superficially resembles the John Galsworthy classic, The Forsyte Saga, inasmuch as it traces the fortunes of a family through a century of change. The setting here is not Britain but polygamous Iran torn by strife — from the toppling of the Qajar dynasty (Aga Mohammed Khan’s family), through the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty, to the rule of the fell theocracy of the Islamic Republic under the ayatollahs. The one character who lives through the entire chronicle is Nargess, scion of the Qajar dynasty. She is the second wife of the all-powerful War Minister, Nahdeer e’Sepahsalar, at the beginning of the story; a 108-year-old ailing grandmother at the end. Along the way, we meet three generations of Nargess’ extended family, more than a dozen major characters. First comes Zahra, Nargess’ cousin’s wife and close confidante who, as we learn at the end, betrays Nargess. Then comes Vali, the War Minster’s son by his first wife, who loves Rakshandeh, a beautiful Russian blonde who has been his father’s mistress. Next is Javad, Nargess’ nephew by marriage who manages to get through law school but never has a client, and the wealthy commoner Abrahim, Nargess’ second husband, and his other wives and children. The end of the book is taken up with the stories of Shoreh, Nargess’ granddaughter, raped and blinded by the Pahlavis and stoned to death by Khomeini minions, and Nargess’ two daughters, half sisters who, throughout their lives, love the same man.
The book’s strengths lie in the tension between the public and the private, between the bloody history of Iran and the struggles of Nargess’ family to survive and prosper. The suicide of the War Minister after the Shah has turned against him forces Nargess into a marriage she doesn’t want. The escape to the United States of Saeed, husband of the first of Nargess’ daughters and lover of the other, leads to the arrest and execution of Shoreh. The lascivious desires of Nargess’ son for his niece prevents her flight from the country and causes her suicide. The stories are played out against a background of unbridled cruelty that rings with authenticity — the authors clearly know the milieu from firsthand experience.
In fact, the greatest value of the book, for this reader, is the personal insight into the history of Iran as the Daytons’ characters experience the terrors of the SAVAK (the Iranian Gestapo under the Pahlavis) and the calm brutality of the Islamic Republic under Khomeini and his successors. Always, as the Daytons make clear, it is the rulers who benefit and the people who suffer.
In the midst of the butchery are stories of lust and love, punctuated by frequent and occasionally lengthy quotes of Persian poetry. They charm less because they add to the story than because they are lovely in themselves. Though unattributed, lines so redolent with erotic love must come from the Sufi poets, probably Hafez or Rumi. My favorite: “My love for you is a thousand hearts, each to a tendril of your hair.”
The characters are, on the whole, well-drawn and persuasive. The men, without exception, are disagreeable — shiftless, insensitive, arrogant, self-centered or cowardly, and invariably sexually hungry. The women, who are valued for nothing but sexual gratification and procreation, vary in virtue; some are self-serving, others generous. Admirable or unseemly, they share a single trait: resourcefulness.
On the debit side, historical detail, especially in the form of description, sometimes overwhelms the fiction. In the first chapter, whole paragraphs are devoted to detailing the great hall — gold leaf chrysanthemums carved in bas-relief on the walnut-paneled doors, the sapphire blue French urns decorated with gilt fleur-de-lis, and thousands of finger-sized tiled mirrors set at angles to create sparkles. Later we learn the intricate decoration of Nargess’ tea set and the ornate décor of Javad’s useless office. And the action occasionally comes to a halt as the authors offer us their interpretation of real events, interrupting, for example, the narrative of illicit romance with three paragraphs about the Iranian land reform supported by President Kennedy.
Finally, several imperfections prevented a sense of satisfaction at the book’s end. First, the text begins with Nargess, and throughout the narration, Nargess is present, at least in the background. But the end is about her daughter, leaving me wondering who the protagonist was. Second, how Nargess dies is unclear. We are led to believe she hanged herself, but in the last chapter, it turns out she was hit by a motorbike.
Third and most important, I find no moral or message or underlying theme in the novel. It almost reads like neutral journalism in the sense that the random fictional events depicted in the narrative felt totally true but seemed unconnected and without meaning. News reporting tells the facts. Fiction tells an untrue tale with the purpose of illuminating meaning, that is, illustrating a universal truth about life — the moral or message or theme. Not in this book.
Ultimately, for all these reasons, The House that War Minister Built as a work of fiction left me unmoved, but the inside view of Iranian history evoked a visceral response in a way non-fiction never could.
Writer Tom Glenn, a student of Sufism, is both a novelist and the author of prize-winning stories, some of which are reprinted on his web site, http://tom-tells-tales.org.