A quick look at the best-regarded, most enduring war novels of the past one hundred years reveals a drive towards originality and specificity. These stories either narrow the “war” theme into something more idiosyncratic, employ a formally unusual narrative structure, or both. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, for instance, doesn’t emphasize violence and bloodshed so much as the brain-bending logic that produces both, eschewing the traditional values of valor and brotherhood in favor of the bluntly rational virtues of self-preservation and common sense. Heller’s anachronistic style furthers the novel’s aura of byzantine bureaucracy, creating a marriage of form and content.
So, when reading Sara Khalili’s English translation of Shahriar Mandanipour’s Moon Brow, I approached the novel with many unreasonable assumptions and expectations, most of which come from the modern Western tradition of war stories. These prejudices create a sort of minefield, which Mandanipour’s novel paces deftly through—at worst, losing one limb, just like its (anti-)hero. An enjoyable and thought-provoking read, Moon Brow trades on its striking and unusual formal features to allude to the complexities and consequences of war.
It’s worth mentioning that Mandanipour is acquainted with these complexities and consequences firsthand. The sixty-one-year-old writer witnessed 1979’s Iranian Revolution, in which traditionalist Muslim revolutionaries deposed the Western-influenced monarch Reza Shah Pahlavi, establishing an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. Mandanipour then served in Iran’s subsequent eight-year war with Iraq—then under Saddam Hussein’s rule.
Mandanipour wrote his early work during the Iran-Iraq War; following the fighting, he went on to a successful (and international) writing career, holding fellowships at several prestigious universities in the United States and at the Wissenschaftkolleg in Germany. His first novel to be translated into English, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, was published in 2009 and warmly received, with the New Yorker naming it one of its reviewers’ favorite reads of the year.
Echoes of Mandanipour’s experiences may be found in Moon Brow. The novel follows Amir Yamini, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War who lost an arm and the better part of his memory to the violence. He spends the novel picking through the detritus of his addled mind, absolutely convinced he met the love of his life—then lost her in the fog of his amnesia. A figment of this mysterious woman haunts his dreams, an ethereal shade with the imprint of the crescent moon on her forehead. Amir embarks on a contemporary yet strangely mythic quest for this “Moon Brow,” aided (or perhaps enabled) by his loving younger sister, Reyhaneh. He’s opposed by his father, a stern fundamentalist concerned his son’s madness will bring shame upon the family.
Looking only at the germ of the conflict, you might think this is a straightforward novel. But Moon Brow goes to great lengths to situate the reader in the disordered mind of its main character. It’s narrated by two celestial scribes: the angel of virtue and the angel of vice, one on each of Amir’s shoulders. They take turns telling the story, sometimes bickering, accusing the other of misrepresentation. The division between these two angels isn’t always clear, but in broad strokes, “vice” handles the war and the sex, forging a thematic link between Amir’s libido and his death drive. “Virtue” writes the quieter, more tender moments, but can’t keep the darkness underpinning the story at bay. Between these two angels, Moon Brow never lets you forget Amir isn’t sure what’s befallen him, and that we’re rooting for a highly flawed individual who spends more time talking to himself than he does righting the various wrongs in his life.
To further muddy the waters, the story spans three closely related timelines: First is the narrative’s present day, in which Amir enlists Reyhaneh to help him track down Moon Brow. Then, the Iran-Iraq War, which ends—for Amir anyway—with the loss of his arm. And finally, the more distant past: Amir’s hedonistic exploits in the Shah’s Iran, his troubled relationship with his then-girlfriend, and the onset of the Iranian Revolution.
In other words, we’re looking at Iran in the late 70s through the 80s, but rendered anachronistically, and usually without timestamps. Mandanipour avoids signposting movement between his three timelines too clearly; he gives us a chapter break, then trusts the story’s established context to take care of the rest. I found myself questioning this decision early in the book, but after adjusting to Mandanipour’s style, I could see its merits. Adolescence, the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War—none of these have really ended for Amir, to the point where he’s virtually unglued from time. In the end, he’s not looking for his arm, or even Moon Brow, but a way back into his own life.
Perhaps the most disorienting feature of Moon Brow is its embrace of both Persian folklore and recent Iranian history—hazy and dreamlike myths, juxtaposed with a grim and violent reality. It’s a bit jarring to read about Amir’s folkloric figments and actual historical figures like Ayatollah Khomeini in the same novel. It lends the book, and the experience of reading it, a certain feverish quality.
These disparate threads ultimately spool into a novel committed to contemporizing old themes and supplying a fresh perspective on recent history. Moon Brow avoids oversimplification, politically and otherwise: I put down the novel with the impression that the decadent excesses of Pahlavi-era plutocrats laid the foundation for a strict, moralistic, and ultimately repressive Iranian Revolution. Sexual indulgence, embodied by the pre-war Amir, isn’t held up as an antidote to religious fundamentalism, but another manifestation of patriarchy—a form of subjugation we might initially mistake for freedom. But, of course, that’s just my take; a reader more familiar with Iran’s history could come away with a different interpretation. Crucially, the ending advances Amir’s arc without forcing undue closure, allowing readers to reflect on the novel’s nuances even after setting aside the book.
As a young reader from the United States, I found Moon Brow an engaging point of contact with a corner of history I ought to know more about; the novel’s many challenges inspired more curiosity in me than frustration. And while Moon Brow is more devoted to universal themes than the specifics of the Iranian Revolution or the Iran-Iraq War, I suspect a more politically literate reader will uncover layers of meaning I haven’t unpacked in this review.
Moon Brow is a novel of twos: male and female, vice and virtue, humor and fear, Iran and Iraq, excess and austerity, myth and reality. The novel’s last scenes in particular had me wondering if we aren’t all, in some sense, like Amir—vacillating between contraries, a preponderance of one thing inevitably and violently leading to its opposite.