- Burying the Beloved: Marriage, Realism, and Reform in Modern Iran by Amy Motlagh
The field of Iranian gender studies has witnessed a sea change in the past decade. In the wake of the scholarship of Afsaneh Najmabadi, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, and Arzoo Osanloo, it is impossible to read Iranian civil and religious codes pertaining to marriage and domesticity as neutral tools for regulating social life. Until now, this florescence of scholarship dealing with the Iranian state's regulation of female and male sexuality has not been accompanied by a similar upsurge in the field of Persian [End Page 139] literary studies, which for the most part does not seriously consider the social or gendered construction of the Iranian self. Amy Motlagh's reading of Iranian modernist prose (both novels and short-stories) against the background of changes in normative gender roles aims to intervene in this impasse and for the most part succeeds.
One of the most innovative aspects of Motlagh's study is the way she intersperses her chapters on literary texts with brilliant insights concerning the intimate—and largely unexamined—relation between dominant canons of literary representation and civil codes. "Although the law may disguise itself as a standardization of existing norms," Motlagh observes, "laws are more frequently... instruments of social reform" (12). While on the surface this argument many seem self-evident, the introduction of literature represents an innovation in a field that has historically shied away from questions of rhetoric and figuration. The dialectic between legal norms and literary form unfolds throughout Motlagh's book with occasional flashes of brilliance, and is consistently stimulating and new.
Another of Motlagh's strengths is the author's fluency in multiple theoretical traditions and her ability to cross national boundaries, all too rare in scholarship oriented to single national traditions. From the Introduction, which opens by invoking Jean Franco's work on the persistence of dead bodies in Latin American cultural memory, to the ensuing chapters, which engage Benedict Anderson and Ian Watt on the rise of the novel, Kwame Anthony Appiah's postrealism, and Fredric Jameson's concept of postmodernity (14, 64), Motlagh shines as a literary critic conversant with the most exciting developments in social scientific inquiry. Her capacity to speak at once to two distinct areas of inquiry enriches her social and historical contextualization of the Iranian novel.
From the perspective of comparative literature, Burying the Beloved is arguably most provocative when it revises Jameson's conceptualization of postmodernism as the defining characteristic of contemporary literature. Paraphrasing Appiah and contesting Jameson, Motlagh argues that in postcolonial societies such as Iran and Africa, which are "imbricated and tainted in colonial discourses," we must be careful "not to subsume [contemporary literary productions] into metropolitan categorizations" (14). The discipline of comparative literature needs more work like this: fully conversant with regnant understandings of literary signification, [End Page 140] and yet sufficiently immersed in the local contexts that fall outside mainstream paradigms to show how postcolonial archives revise our normative understandings of literary form.
Motlagh's study ranges widely across the Persian literary canon. She is particularly effective at demonstrating parallels between classical and modern Persian texts, as when she argues that Iranian literary modernity transformed the female beloved (ma'shuq) of classical Persian poetry into a companionate wife, entrusted with the task of purifying the nation (51). This book's guiding metaphor—burial of the female beloved—similarly suggests an analogy between the female body and the nation-state. Through excavations of text after text, we are shown how the male lovers of Iranian literature who search for their female beloveds inevitably bring about these women's dismemberment.
When reviewing a book that is at once so provocative in its implications and so brief in its explications, the reader is inevitably left wishing for a fuller treatment of certain lines of inquiry. Motlagh focuses exclusively on the literature of modern Iran, leaving the Persianate literatures of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and other Persophone borderlands to other scholars. Her empirical focus generates a...