Chamber by Houshang Golshiri, translated by Daniel Rafinejad
by Houshang Golshiri, translated by Daniel Rafinejad
“Yadollah couldn’t speak. In the five years all his pain had turned into caresses for his children; all his sorrow had melted into water for the tulips and the petunias.”
by Houshang Golshiri
Translated by Daniel Rafinejad
I began translating this story, “Dehliz” in the Persian (literally, a vestibule, or an auricle of the heart) in 2005, because it had never been translated, and because I had yet to find a satisfactory translation of Houshang Golshiri’s short fiction. Golshiri’s longer work—namely, The Prince (trans. James Buchan) and King of the Benighted (trans. Abbas Milani)—have been well-rendered into the English, but his short stories have not been given their due justice. The stories are admittedly tougher than his novels: most are dramatic monologues written in dialect. “Chamber,” only his second published piece, is not a first-person narration, however. I thought that would make my job easier, but Golshiri is a sly, recalcitrant writer; nothing comes easily in his fiction.
The story makes an abrupt shift halfway through—a backwards jolt from the theme of grief to that of betrayal. I have marked it here for clarity’s sake, but the author puts nothing in the source to indicate the change of time and subject. The story is able to support this break, I believe, because Golshiri presupposes his readers are all too familiar with the political environment in which the story was written, as well as with the pervasiveness of mourning and memorial rites in Iranian culture. “Chamber” is a story in which the anguish and horror of oppression (in this case, the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his notorious secret police, the SAVAK) shadow and blur the lines between public and private, male and female, adult and child, sacred and profane.
This is also a story by a young writer testing out techniques—an incantatory stream-of-consciousness; a notably “masculine” Iranian voice, at once stilted and emotional; a looping temporality—that he would use to arguably greater effect in his later work.
N.B. I have tried to preserve Golshiri’s unusual use of punctuation.
T he crisis began when the children’s mother returned home from the public bath, set foot on the path to the front door and saw her three children floating face-up in the little pool. After that the neighborhood women heard and saw what had happened, and many of them started sobbing.
At dusk, when the neighbors were still loose in the house with the two policemen and the coroner, and the children’s mother stood in the garden breaking the thin stems of the tulips and the petunias and throwing dirt on her head, the children’s father came home as he did each night. He could scarcely pass the women standing in the garden with their infants on their backs. He crossed through the first room, where the children were laid out side by side, went into the second room and shut the door behind him.
Everyone saw his face had become as angular and bloodless as a slab of stone and that nothing, neither grief nor oblivion, could be read from his eyes. And no one had any idea how he could have found out.
Night fell, the corpses of the three children remained in the house, and when two men and some women came to pay their respects to the father, they couldn’t get him to open the door. However much they shouted “Mr. Yadollah! Mr. Yadollah!” it was as if no one were in the room. Even his breathing couldn’t be heard. The room was a block of stone, and only from above the curtains could the light of his cigarette be seen in the black, like a flickering, far-off star.
And the next day, when the neighbors came together and collected money for the interments, and the children were buried near the Babarak tekke in separate plots, the children’s father went to work early as always and didn’t show up again until the very cusp of dusk, with the same few loaves of flat bread he brought every evening and the same face like a slab of stone, hard and angular.
When he knocked on the door his sister-in-law answered. She said hello and pulled the corner of her black headscarf over her pink eyes. The man stared at the draped wall of the vestibule.
He went into the first room, handed the loaves of bread to his wife, who was dressed head to toe in black and hunched over against the wall, and began to change his clothes. A black shirt hung from a hook, but he put on his usual short-sleeved white one, went to the far end of the room and sat down.
His sister-in-law, first bringing in the samovar and tea glasses and then the lit hookah, turned on the lights and found the man staring at two dolls on a high shelf— at their tiny pink hands and arms which seemed to have strips of veins running beneath their plastic skins.
There was a knock at the door. His sister-in-law grabbed the dolls and put them in the closet. The neighbors had come again: two men and two women. As soon as they sat down the women stared at the faded floral pattern on the rug and the steam rising from the filled tea glasses. The men muttered a few sentences that dropped into the stifling air of the room like veins of ice, and then they too began to stare at the floral pattern.
The children’s father sat there and stared straight ahead. His face was scrunched, his eyebrows knit low over his eyes. It was plain to see that blood was no longer running beneath his skin, that though his eyes were open, he wasn’t really seeing. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t say a word at the factory either. In fact, he hadn’t said a word at the factory for some time. Only the monotonous and deafening sounds of the weaving mill and the motion of the cams and of his own hands would fill the space around him. And now he was in a long endless chamber, and from behind its draped walls he heard the maddening sound of the mill and felt the warm gibber-jabber of conversation and the heavy smell of bread and the dark, which moment by moment grew thicker and thicker. And he was so tired. In the distance, at the very end of the draped chamber, there were three round windows, and through their iridescent panes, clear and pure air from beyond, like three veins of light, trickled into the thick of the chamber. And he was leaving, the sounds were in his ear and in his skin, his fatigue was settling in his blood, and he wanted to shake these sounds and the fatigue and the heavy smell of the bread off of his skin and reach those three windows with their colored iridescent panes. On the other side it was quiet; the smell of the bread and the thick dark wouldn’t oppress him there, but now he was in the chamber and did not see the men and the women. Whenever the men muttered something, the sound of the mill magnified, and the thick dark and the smell of the bread stuck to his skin.
After the neighbors left, his sister-in-law brought out food, which they picked at, though the children’s mother was incessantly sniveling and still couldn’t keep anything down.
They cleared the table, and his sister-in-law said, “Why don’t we go to the mosque tomorrow and say the memorial prayers?”
The man was in the chamber, and his face was hard and angular like stone:
“But why didn’t you bring the children in?”
The children’s mother cried louder, and the man looked at her and saw how worn and unfamiliar the lines of her face had become and how the strands of hair pushing out from under her black headscarf were starting to turn gray.
Now the smell of the bread was choking him, and the gibber-jabber of conversation and the persistent hammering of the cams in the mill beat like a thousand drums in his ears and he wanted to leave, because he couldn’t stay anymore and stare at his wife’s hair, remember her, lose his heart to the lines of her face on which no gaze could settle; he knew that if he were to stop, the black of the chamber and the three little stars that were burning like candles would be swallowed up and that he wouldn’t be able to find himself in the chaos of all those sounds and in the heavy smell of the bread and in the thick dark.
When he returned, everyone saw that he had given up the fight and didn’t care.
“A man can stand anything,” he said. “They can whip him, they can chain him up, they can burn cigarettes onto his skin, they can do a thousand other fucked-up things. But a man can’t take it when someone he’s known forever, his comrade, comes and looks those people straight in the eye and tells them everything. Why would I stay in that shithole? What for? For nothing?”
They put him to work. Everyone kept their distance from him, and he kept his distance from everyone, exchanging hellos with only a few of them. Then he married and got himself a little place, and there he was with his three kids.
He worked six full days a week from morning till night, with all those cutting looks that wanted to tear the flesh off his bones and the persistent murmurings of conversation and the smell of the bread he carried home in his hands so that his children would have some food to pick at.
By the end of the week it had all piled up inside him: all the looks and hints and whispers burned his mouth and throat like fire and started to get him riled up, so he would go and lose himself completely in one of those empty pubs, sitting all alone, tossing back a couple of shots of arrack and stumbling home completely drunk.
He’d get up around nine or ten on Friday mornings. He’d go to his little pool in the garden, wash his face, sit next to the children and their mother and play with them as he drank his tea. Then there were the tulips and the petunias to tend to, and the pool, which he would drain and refill himself. And in the evening he’d go out with them, strolling through the streets and then coming back home.
But now only the production room in the factory remained with the noisy mill that resembled some powerful, living being possessing a soul and breathing in air and draining the blood from his hands while knotting the threads from under his live fingers and turning the thread into cloth. Now there was only the persistent movement of the cams that filled the vacant space around him and only the sounds of the mill to entertain him.
But that day wasn’t a workday; that is, from the expressions on the workers’ faces he realized something must have been going on. They stopped working one by one and started leaving the production room but he was able to grab one of them by the hand and ask:
“Why’ve you all stopped working?”
He got no answer; then everyone was gone. He remained with the weaving mill, which was still alive, still wanting blood. He felt that the electric current running through the mill was stronger and faster than his blood, that by himself he simply couldn’t spill enough blood into the veins of the mill to turn the thread into cloth. His eyes couldn’t keep up with the fast movement of the cams anymore, and he imagined his hands slipping between the wheels and cogs of the machine and getting stuck.
When they shut off the electricity, he stopped working, changed out of his uniform and left the factory. He saw they had queued up — the women and children in front and the others behind, all in their uniforms, covered in cotton fuzz — and were starting to walk out of the gates. He stayed behind in the empty space, with no clue as to what to do with his hands.
Everyone treated him the same as they did the other one, who stood before them pleased as punch and told them everything they wanted to hear. But the other one got a cushy government desk job, while he had to face everyone’s cutting looks and the strong electric current of the mill and those three children and the wife who had become such a stranger to him.
And it was in one of those arrack bars that he saw Hassan, dressed-up and vivacious, with rosy cheeks and hands that seemed to be bursting with blood. They sat face-to-face, drinking one shot after another.
Then Hassan started to speak. After five years, five whole years, everything he had to say had piled up in his heart:
“I know you’re angry with me, but I was just like all the rest of them, like the others. And no matter how much I tried to talk to you in that cell, in that shithole, you wouldn’t answer. Did you think you’d be released and they’d throw you a parade? It wasn’t anything like that, was it. Everyone had forgotten. You know it wasn’t your fault, and it wasn’t mine. The two of us, we were just pawns, you know, two dolls.”
Yadollah drank one arrack after another and stared at his aging friend, at the familiar lines of his face that were starting to disappear under layers of flesh and at his eyes that had lost their luster. Now only tears made them shine.
“All right, enough. I know it wasn’t your fault. It’s not like people like being whipped. A man feels pain…”
Hassan hit his fist against the table.
“Enough of that talk! Weren’t five years enough for you to beat yourself up over it? You know they weren’t worth it. To spend the rest of our lives rotting in that cell?”
“You’re right. They weren’t worth it.” Yadollah drank one more shot to extinguish the flame in his throat and then put his knotted fist down on the cold damp table. “Then why do you turn the other way when you see me on the street? It’s all in the past now. Only you and I are left. Why shouldn’t we be friends?”
Yadollah couldn’t speak. In the five years all his pain had turned into caresses for his children; all his sorrow had melted into water for the tulips and the petunias. And now that Hassan had gone highbrow, the words no longer came easy to him.
“We messed up, you know. A person shouldn’t be alone; it’s awful, feeling lonely…I mean, some men want to be alone, but we’re not that type, you know, we should’ve been together. But it’s too late now for you and me. The only thing to now do is to get a wife and have a couple of kids running around us…” Hassan started to cry.
Yadollah never saw Hassan again after that night. And even now as he stood in one of the alcoves of the bridge, looking at the gentle flow of the water and at the children swimming in the inlets below, he wished to see Hassan again. To drink arrack with him and talk to him and see him cry and to stare again at the familiar lines in his face that were starting to disappear under layers of flesh.
from Golshiri, Houshang. “Dehliz.” In Nime-ye tārik-e māh: dāstānhā-ye kutāh. Tehran: Enteshārāt-e nilufar, 1380/2001, pp. 40–46.
FEATURED IMAGE BY Mehdi Sepehri
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Houshang Golshiri (1936–2000) is one of the most important Iranian writers of the second half of the twentieth century. A teacher of Persian literature for most of his life, Golshiri published his first short story in 1961. In 1962, he was arrested because of his affiliation with the Communist tude party and spent five months in prison; he wrote and published “Chamber” three years later. While he was adamant that he was not a “committed” writer seeking to effect political change through his writings, Golshiri nonetheless engaged political themes throughout his prolific career as fiction writer, poet, and critic, and he became one of Iran’s most outspoken advocates for free speech, during both the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic. A recipient of many international awards, Golshiri died suddenly, apparently of meningitis, at age 64. The Golshiri Prize, established in 2001, is now among the most prestigious awards given to fiction writers in Iran.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Reza Nourbakhtyar
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Daniel Rafinejad taught Persian language and literature at Harvard University before devoting himself to full-time writing and translating. His work has appeared in Longreads, The Huffington Post, Encyclopaedia Iranica, The International Encyclopaedia for the Middle Ages, as well as in the anthologies Pearls of Persia: The Philosophical Poetry of Nasir Khusraw and My Shadow is My Skin: Writings from the Iranian Diaspora. In early 2020, Danny was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. A San Francisco native, Danny now lives in Manhattan, where he is at work on a collection of essays/memoir. Find him on Twitter @dannoway.