Starting just after World War II and spanning over the course of twenty years, Parisa Reza’s The Gardens of Consolation (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter) ends with the military coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (as it is spelled in the book). However, the book is not just a history lesson; instead, it focuses on three members of a family in Tehran and the changes of their world as seen through their eyes.
The book begins with nine-year-old Talla being led away from the only home she knew, an isolated village in the mountains. Her husband Sardar had just returned from working in Tehran for three years. After his exposure to the world he became convinced that his town was cursed and he convinced her to travel with him back to the city (specifically, the district of Shemiran). Even though they move to a more modern setting than what they were used to, they still live simply through agricultural means. They also have a hard time adjusting to modern life. Both are illiterate, and Talla in particular doesn’t understand technology well. For example, in one flash forward we see that when she is an older woman a television set is introduced to the household, and she doesn’t understand that the small people in the set aren’t real, resulting in her wishing them good night at the end of the day.
By contrast, their son Bahram is the first in the family to go to school and learn of the outside world. The narrative of the book skips ahead through various phases if him growing up, settling on a period of his life when he finally becomes politically active, supporting Mossadegh and nationalizing Iranian oil. Yet, while he has a passion for learning he seems to only become involved in political parties through peer pressure (although he ultimately chooses a party opposing that of one of his best friends), preferring to let life pass him by while he sits under a tree on his family’s property. We also follow him as he chases women; however, he sees them more of a goal to attain as objects of desire than as other people deserving his affection.
His parents are supportive but disapprove of his extracurricular activities, which come to a head twice: once, he nearly got himself killed by getting embroiled in an affair with the “wrong” woman during holy celebration. The second time he joined a protest supporting Mossadegh and nearly got himself killed in the riot that erupted. Finally the coup happened, and just as he was pressured to get into politics he was pressured to burn any evidence that he joined any political party. He convinces his friends, even the one who joined an opposing party, to do the same.
Meanwhile, his parents move on with their existence. Sardar becomes transfixed to the radio but Talla has no interest in the country’s politics. Sardar doesn’t believe that there’s a sea beyond Iran but just endless mountains, while Talla seems only interested in the world around them. Bahram doesn’t contradict his parents worldview. Instead, despite the political system crumbling around him, he still obsesses with his own love life, or rather, the lack thereof.
The Gardens of Consolation freely shifts in tone depending on which character it follows but rarely feels jarring. It references points in Iranian history from the particular time period in which it takes place, but focuses it through the lens of a family trying to simply live their life in a world that is increasingly becoming less familiar. It reminds us that while the world can undergo major changes at large, even the most basic societal units can retain their own identity.