Books: A Good Place To Die

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The Independent Culture
A Good Place To Die by James Buchan, Harvill, pounds 16.99. As in Buchan's powerful 1991 novella Slide, the hero is a rootless young Englishman adrift in Isfahan, Iran. It is 1974, the Shah is still in power and 18-year-old John Pitt is a chancer from Hull, a graduate of "the University of Bedford", who forges work documents, speaks passable Farsi and manages to get himself employment teaching English. Tantalised by a mysterious veiled student, Shirin, he does his best to win her and soon becomes embroiled in a plot that over the next 25 years takes him through the hells of Teheran's Evin prison, the Iraqi front line, wartorn Kashmir and fundamentalist Afghanistan. Shirin is the daughter of the brutal General Farameh, he who was in charge of the Shah's helicopters that massacred thousands of innocents in Teheran in the 1978 uprising.

Buchan's depiction of opium-addicted and world-weary Ryazanov is of the highest order and he uses his considerable knowledge of classical Persian references to orchestrate a courtly, ornate dialogue between almost all protagonists. Pitt and Shirin address each other with flowery subjunctive benedictions, but as this is also an urgent political fairytale, the classical mode is forever being subverted by cold, contemporary realism.

A Good Place to Die puts one in mind of the achievements of Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Shame. The zestful fabulism, the use of real political figureheads as major characters, the "magical" transhistorical use of imperialist luminaries, the decorous gallows humour all seem to point to Rushdie as the original pioneer. But that Buchan can do things that Rushdie either cannot or does not wish to attempt and, unlike Rushdie, there is often a precise and lyrical tenderness in his writing.