Man of My Time

Dalia Sofer

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux 14 April 2020

384pp, hardback, $27

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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‘How does the stone stand being a stone?’ The question is asked and hauntingly answered in Sofer’s darkly gripping new novel which enters the being of a social pariah, an all-too-self-aware interrogator in Iran’s revolutionary government, a man whose intelligence is no shield against the compromises of his place and time.

Child of ‘a neglectful father, a selfish mother, a drunken uncle’, Hamid Mozaffarian grows up a privileged child in the era of the Shah. His father’s intellectualism is indulged, as is a taste for Western culture and style. Yet the family is chilly, Hamid’s father sceptical and derisive towards the boy, when not absorbed in his Sisyphean task of researching and compiling an art encyclopedia. Hamid has artistic abilities, but these bring him little paternal credit, setting up a pattern of domestic withdrawal and alienation that will deepen and widen over the years, distancing Hamid later from his own wife and child.

Attracted to revolutionary politics, later to a Jewish girl, given to expressing his isolation through long explorations of the country by motorbike, Hamid grows into a detached young adult, his attitude clouded by the knowledge of his father’s earlier political betrayals, which the son will eventually match and outbid. When the country finally tips over into social upheaval, Hamid acts, delivering his father’s destruction in a seismic breach of faith.

Sofer largely brackets this past in lengthy flashbacks from a ‘present’ in which Hamid, now a middle-aged man, is visiting New York City, member of a diplomatic mission to the UN. But the city is also home to his émigré family, at least his mother and brother. His father has died a short while earlier.

The gift of Hamid’s father’s ashes in a peppermint tin, which the son must carry around in his pocket – Hamid has been tasked with taking them back to Iran for burial – is but one of the bitter notes of humour and lingering symbols to be found in this melancholy but fully-fleshed portrait of inescapable taint. Hamid’s account of becoming the man he is offers no exculpation. Instead his ashy vision wraps all the characters in a cloak of greater or lesser complicity, misfortune and corruption.

Deserted by his wife and daughter, partly at his own encouragement, Hamid is a living breathing ghost or even ghoul, as is glimpsed by his erudite father in a late dream, a vision of a sculpture scarred, blinded and encrusted. It’s to Sofer’s considerable credit that she nevertheless renders Hamid’s voice and his narration so compelling. Perhaps the political box in which he finds himself is locked a little too neatly, perhaps his tone becomes too oppressive in the novel’s later pages, perhaps the novel’s middle section overstates. Nevertheless this is an ambitious, elegant story of metamorphosis, of a slow descent to ‘a constellation of heartbreak…for the betrayal, the love, the destruction.’

Restrained, precise, ineluctable, this is a fable for our anguished era.

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