The Prince, by Hushang Golshiri, trans. James Buchan

Where Persian 'roman-à-clef' meets Parisian 'nouveau roman'
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Hushang Golshiri once said that The Prince is about "a chap who had a cough and died", and its action could hardly be simpler. It unfolds over a single night in a dusty mansion in a provincial Persian town, during the first half of the 20th century. But as James Buchan's introduction makes clear, the author's artistic intentions - and his place in Persian/Iranian history - are crucial to understanding this deceptive little book.

Born in 1937, Golshiri grew up in the oil town of Abadan, became a teacher in Isfahan, and joined the ranks of Persian littérateurs who wanted to replicate the Parisian nouveau roman, and went on to defy the Shah's censors in the Sixties. The Prince, Golshiri's first novel, became a critical success and was made into a film.

His subsequent fiction fell foul of the revolutionary government's censors: in the early Eighties, he had to smuggle an anonymous novel, set in prison, out of the country. In the Nineties, his anti-censorship campaign took over from his writing. In 2000, broken in health, he died.

To understand this book, we also need to know about the Qajar dynasty that preceded the Pahlavis, and about the notorious Nassereddin Shah, who ruled Isfahan with cynical brutality. And about his son, who murdered his mother on the grounds of her improper behaviour, and negotiated a treaty with Lord Curzon in 1919...

Then comes the challenge of the plot: a multiple roman-à-clef. Golshiri's style is at once plain and obliquely allusive. His chief trick is to move from one voice to another in adjacent sentences, leaving the reader to guess who the "I" is at any moment. When he creates momentum, it's of a hallucinatory kind, with characters from the past stepping in and out of their photographs on the walls of his room.

No wonder they turned this book into a film. If the idiom is cinematic, so is the imagery, as glimpsed in lurid flashes through Golshiri's terse mesh. The drama between the Prince's wife and his mistress is strongly reminiscent of Genet's The Maids; the scenes of feudal cruelty suggest Goya.

One of the most haunting passages takes place in a political prison: here, the writing has the whiff of direct experience. Neither the Pahlavis nor their revolutionary successors make an explicit appearance, but one senses their presence, which seems more deeply felt than that of the book's frustratingly two-dimensional characters.