THE title, I Hid My Voice, has the ring of a true-life confession, but this compelling and skillfully constructed novel delivers much more than that.
Flawlessly translated by Sanam Kalantari, this is the second novel by Iranian psychologist, Parinoush Saniee. Her first novel was translated into 25 languages and won several awards, and this one is likely to follow suit.
It tells the heart-rending story of a boy called Shahaab who chooses not to speak until the age of seven. It is remarkable for the psychological realism of its depiction of a bright young boy who is so badly damaged by the tensions within his family, that he chooses to be judged an idiot rather than show his intelligence.
In Iran, the story of Shahaab’s decision to stay silent has been read as a commentary on life under a cruelly repressive regime, but it is equally fascinating as an unusual and thoroughly realistic growing-up story.
Shahaab is looking back on his short life from the vantage point of his 20h birthday. His middleclass family lives in Tehran, a few doors away from their uncle’s house. The two brothers, Hossein and Nasser, have children around the same age, but there are tensions between their wives, Shahaab’s university-educated mother, Maryam, and Hossein’s wife, Fataneh.
Shahaab is the youngest of the cousins until the birth of his sister, and is teased and even tortured by his unpleasant older cousin. Because he is silent, Shahaab is assumed to be stupid and “retarded”, so both adults and children speak freely in front of him, giving him a privileged insight into what is really going on in his world. He debates matters and shares jokes with two imaginary friends, Ali and Babi.
Some chapters are narrated by Maryam, Shahaab’s mother, giving a wider perspective on his predicament.
Maryam and Nasser met as students, and were once a happy young couple, madly in love. A dozen or so years into their marriage Nasser is tired and sad, worn out by holding down three jobs, while Maryam is a resentful stay-at-home mother, self-described as “an ordinary housewife”.
Nasser pays for extra tuition for his eldest son, Arash, expecting him to be a “straight A” student in return, and worries about the future of Shahaab, whom he refers to as “retarded”. Arash hates being seen with Shahaab, and is taunted by his schoolmates about his “idiot brother”.
Only his mother Maryam remains convinced of the child’s intelligence, and he clings to her silently. Shahaab decides that good boys like Arash belong to their fathers, while awkward ones like him are their mothers’, and he refers to his cold and distant father as “Arash’s father”.
Not surprisingly, Shahaab’s behaviour becomes unpredictable and often violent. However, because the reader is privy to Shahaab’s thought processes, his skewed logic, it is perfectly understandable why he should throw a brick at his grandmother’s head, or knock a pot of ink over his brother’s homework.
We are given glimpses of life under the repressive regime in present-day Iran with the story of Shahaab’s cousin Fereshteh’s unsanctioned love affair with a teenage boy, dodging the Morality Police who raid the park for couples to imprison and beat up.
Shahaab’s resolve to remain silent is eventually broken by the warmth and kindness of his maternal grandmother.
She berates Maryam and Nasser for the coldness and lack of joy in their household, and for their failure to realise why Shahaab is not thriving. True to the realism that has characterized the telling of Shahaab’s story, the ending is not entirely happy. Some wrongs cannot be righted, as is clearly shown in this touching and beautifully crafted story.
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