Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz follows the Amin family as they navigate their lives post Iranian revolution. Isaac, the father, is arrested and imprisoned, accused of being a spy. His innocence is clear to everyone involved and equally irrelevant. More interesting than the scenes of torture, solitude, desperation and panic (and these are interesting) is the moment when he negotiates for his life with his captor. In this moment we learn that his captor, too, has been wrongly imprisoned and tortured, that he, too, has feared for his life. That the lines of ‘good’ and ‘wicked’ are arbitrary, shifting and dependent on self-survival. Whatever you can do for yourself and your family you will do, the novel suggests, and history, heritage, ‘common humanity’ are elusive ideals held only by those safe and privileged enough to exercise them.
What allows Isaac and his family escape from Iran is wealth. I initially wrote ‘What saves Isaac and his family is wealth’ but they aren’t saved by that at all. ‘Saved’ with all its connotations of safety, purpose, comfort are not what they find at the novel’s conclusion. And saved from what? The novel does well to expose the ways those taking power are doing so out of long felt experiences of powerlessness, that these are not fixed states, but arbitrary divisions easily reversed. The son, studying in America, is not ‘saved’ by wealth, nor the daughter, lonely, isolated and incredibly afraid. Farnaz, the wife-mother, too, believes wealth a bulwark against any danger, discovers that while money can buy an exit it does not buy love or home.
It’s a profoundly sad novel in its consideration of the privilege so many occupy, and the abuses of this privileged power so routinely and callously delivered. Perhaps hopeful for the exploration of what genuinely offers meaning and value in life (family, poetry, community, love). Perhaps.