A Picture Out Of Frame : Mammad Aidani

Cover Of A Picture Out Of Frame


Book Sample

A note from the author

Book Reviews
Social Alternatives
Geelong Advertiser
Australian Book Review
Write On
The Canberra Times
The Sunday Age


In A Picture Out Of Frame our sympathy is wholly engaged. A boy grows up in poverty in Iran; he goes to the capital; he receives a letter from a friend; he is in exile. Nothing else happens. It will break your heart.

The prose is simple like that of Juan Ramón Jiminéz in Platero and I. (Yes there are donkeys here too.) But the village life so lovingly portrayed is on the brink of tragedy. That fate is precariously held in balance; its extent is only fully revealed in the letter received at the end. Aidani's deft ability to hold back in the face of overwhelming odds justifies his deliberate simplicity of style. The structure is invisibly subtle.

A meditation on the connections between reality, imagination, past and its present, this is a challenging book with revealing emotional richness. It tells the story of a young man who speaks in the third person in order to examine what he saw and suggests that this story could be anyone’s when invasion, war and terror dictates. The book invites the readers to be the real witness of its character’s narrative and observe how he shares his shattered world with us. The narrator invites us to think about the power of memory and its expression in our lives.

A Picture Out Of Frame is ultimately both hopeful and challenging, revealing how urgently the West and the East need to embark upon an understanding of each other.

ISBN 1876044233
Published 1997
86 pgs

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Book Sample

‘What kind of world are we living in?’ He asks himself looking into the distance of his memories. He feels the exhilaration of his strong desires and hopes for a better future. He murmurs to the walls around him, ‘We all wait. Yes the oppressed men and women always fight and wait for that bright future on the horizon.’

He gazes upon a piece of paper which sits on the table in front of him. He shifts his eyes to observe the environment around him. He looks at the dusty floor and contemplates the room’s shadows. His chair is hard and uncomfortable, so he shifts around until he is more comfortable. A strange pang of weakness disturbs him and reminds him that he is hungry.

In irritation, he stands up and tries to force himself to think of something else. He picks up a map of the world. With an unusual air, he looks at the strange, unfamiliar names of different places. He is unimpressed by them. So, he crumples the map up and throws it into a corner of the kitchen. He tries to breathe calmly and deeply and the rain slowly falls in a continuous curtain outside the hut.

The kitchen is bare. There is no food, but there are one or two pots and pans, a few plates, a kettle and not much else. He tries to concentrate on his thoughts. He raises his head upwards and looks at a picture which is hanging on the wall. It is a picture of a Kurdish woman. She is wearing the beautiful traditional costume of the Kurds and she is embracing her unique-looking child. Reflections from the beams of light, which are grey in this black and white photograph, illuminate her face to create an image of life which enchants him. He shuts his eyes as he sits down and continues on his voyage, as he pictures another spot in his memory.

Kurdestan. He is entranced by the picture of it in his mind’s eye. He thinks to himself, ‘What does it mean, Kurdestan?’ Then he answers writing, ‘The land of the Kurds, the land of freedom fighters, the land of harsh mountains and the land of soft, fertile earth. The land of valleys, and agriculture, the land of poverty...’ Again he is irritated and he drops his pen to the table. He gets up and goes over to the old primus stove. After filling the kettle with water, he struggles to turn the primus on. After a few minutes, he gets it alight. He mutters angrily, ‘No oil in the land of oil.’ In his frustration he clenches his fist and strikes out to smash the air before him. ‘In spite of the industrialisation, we don’t even have access to our own gas!’ He yells at himself angrily, as his frustration increases, ‘Shut up you and make your bloody glass of tea!’

With sharp movements he swiftly returns to the old chair. The noise of the primus disturbs his concentration. Tensely, he grabs the chair, to complement his annoyance. He sits there, and rests his head on his arm, as he waits for the water to boil. He looks outside through the window at the distance. On the street, cars race one after another, as if in a competition. The rain blurs them from his view and quickly they pass from his field of vision. The sound of their splashes resounds in his ears. ‘I wish I knew where they were going,’ he muses. He rubs his eyes and then looks over at the primus. ‘That bloody old thing.’

On this spring day, the weeping willows waltz and the rain and the trees show off as though to tell the willows ‘We can dance too!’

It is afternoon. He tries to calm down, but the noise of the primus won’t let him. Suddenly an image of the village appears. He tries to capture it but suddenly it vanishes as it had appeared before.

‘It is difficult to make a connection,’ he says.

‘The product of what?... He smiles when he thinks of the word, ‘...of nothingness.’ Finally, he is pleased to see steam rising from the kettle.

His mind now focuses on the kettle and he goes over to fill the teapot, the old, ancient teapot. He puts the tea in it and then pours in the boiling water. As he turns the primus off he yells at it, ‘You old bastard!’

He sits and waits for the tea. The rain pours down constantly creating new walls around him. He pours the tea into a glass.

He picks up the pen again and writes, This is illusion. ‘No.’ He changes his mind. It could be an illusion for me to believe that I would ever be able to introduce myself to you completely, in relation to what I write... because if I try to explain the sign first. He trails off. ‘The sign... that’s too technical. But I pretend to talk technically don’t I?’ He says, ‘Leave it there.’

‘The sign is a word I have in my mind. I am frustrated enough to change it though... but this is naturally me. Me - who seems to know what it means to say what I am producing.’

He stops and looks at the picture of the Kurdish woman. He becomes entranced again. ‘Ordinary language...’

The face of the woman frightens him. It is so strong, so painful, so clear. It is the vision of an ordinary human being who has an ordinary language.

‘Any person must be able, in the first place, to listen to his or her own voice,’ he muses. ‘I mean, before writing their ideas down on paper, they should be able to listen to themselves.... It is there, in relation to speaking, that I will meet myself. It is a completely different relationship to when I’m writing.’

As he thinks to himself he looks at the view out the window. He thinks of when his brother walked into the room. His face is drawn and tired. It reminds him of one of the local beggars.

It never occurred to him that his brother would be hanged many years later. There was no indication of it, just now. There was an image of death there, though. And of the excitation of language, the being of the family and the voyage.

His heart started beating faster and harder. He put his hand on the table and stood up to look outside once more. He could see the images of the outside pictures and he sees the unjust court. He walks away from the chair, taking two or three steps forward and then he turns back.

‘The blood responds to the mountains and the valleys and to that vast land. The land of no roads...’ He stops in frustration.

He begins to picture everything that happens around him as if he weren’t there. He tries to interpret the picture of the valleys. He comes from the desert, but that picture is green, fertile and alive There is a lone tree in the middle of this picture. It is as green as possible, with its picturesque shadow, and the rich desert obeys it. He cannot sort out why the tree is there.

He returns to the side of the chair, thinking, ‘What would it be like to be prosecuted and to be waiting for the following morning to be hanged or shot?’

A strange fatigue invades him and seems to take over his whole existence. He stands motionless, near the chair. His wide eyes shorten the distance, the blurred distance. He sits down and begins writing.

Before talking to others, I talk to myself. Before trying to impress others, I listen to myself. I have inherited this from you - prisoner of justice.

I am writing to you, so that I can listen to myself properly. I know you are going to be shot tomorrow morning. I am not agonising over this event. We have experienced the fact that when justice fights against injustice, death is always there. They will kill you because you have listened to your own language. The sounds of justice have been cemented in your voice and in your ears, so the power of language is unable to deceive you.

He puts the pen down. Again he is irritated. ‘I cannot write and I cannot connect.’ He stands up and imagines, ‘The firing squad grab him by the hair...’ Suddenly he asks himself, ‘What has that village done to us?’

He picks up the pen and drops it again, repeating, ‘I can’t write.’ He leaves it there. It is all too painful.

A note from the author

I had 1972-1975 in mind when I began to write this novella in the early ’80s when the army of Saddam Hussein invaded my city of birth. I wanted to create a book in which I was going to re-create the ‘story’ of how I witnessed when my city was turned into military base due to the menacing propaganda by the Bathist regime in Iraq. This was due to the conflict that was looming between two dictators with their violent ambitions both to their own and each other’s peoples. These were the Shah of Iran and young Saddam Hussein who was pushing himself to become absolute ruler of Iraq. The background of this book depicts and reflects the fear that I was still carrying within me as a result of that experience.

But the invasion of my town by Saddam’s army (1980-1988) moved me into a new emotional and physical space and forced me to focus on the absurd rather than a descriptive pattern of events, to create the views of my little town, which is on the border between Iran and Iraq.

The book tries to depict how the invading army killed or took away thousands of civilians including some of my friends, many of whom became prisoners of war who have never been found. They either died in prison camps in Iraq or were simply buried in unknown mass graves inside that country or dumped in the river Karun. The reason that I used the third person singular pronoun in this book was that I imagined the character in the book as a nameless person who could represent any of those who witnessed these horrifying events.

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Exiles in heart and mind

Andrew McCue
Ulitarra, No. 14, December 1998

If you take your hat off to Sant [Album of Domestic Exiles] for giving you the exile’s natural, if cool-heeled intelligence, you eat it for what Mammad Aidani can do with banishment’s blistering heart. Neatly, for the conceit of this review, Sant’s finale is this: ‘Write! And make exile / unite with the reach of a table.’ Mammad Aidani’s short novel starts out with a man at a table doing this. ‘What kind of world are we living in?’, he asks himself looking into the distance of his memories. He feels the exhilaration of his strong desires and hopes for a better future.

Aidani’s ‘he’ is not so much a man who writes his exile at arm’s length, as feels it written upon him. He asks, ‘What kind of world?’ and reads himself for the answer. The marks run deep, but he also finds hope in the remarkable plasticity of his own substance.

The passions and excitations of exile are never allowed to wallow in self-pity or nostalgia. Aidani’s man may be banished from his homeland, but the tall canopy of his exile also enables a critical overview of his nurturing roots. ‘What has that village done to us?’ he asks of his childhood haunts (in what I take to be Iran), but the voice that replies is that of the older and exiled man:

Suspicion is always there in the village. One can see it and almost taste it in the air. There is no language there. People speak only on rare occasions. Men speak to each other and women speak only to other women. One may ask, when seeing them, what planet are they living on? It brings me to believe that natural human interaction has been suppressed for centuries. This is called intimidation. In the marketplace, silence is the symbol of discussion... The ground is the only medium to which one can talk freely.

Clear-sighted, hawk-eyed the vision may be, but as it is rendered in this humble but far-reaching book, it is in constant and dramatic conflict with the blind longing to belong. These are, after all, the memories which constitute his own sense of being. And if in exile he ‘wishes he could hear someone or write, ...he knows, as they would all know by now, that memories are private possessions’ - not to be spoken aloud, painfully kept to yourself, yet ironically, the only attachments that cannot be ‘stolen or destroyed’.

It is a cruel exile, whose heart confesses its longing for a past in which the heart cannot speak, but Mammad Aidani lends it voices of passion, compassion, drama and even hope. The exile, at least, and unleashed, can speak for itself.

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The Australianity of this Literature

Dan O’Neill
Overland, No. 152, Spring 1998

A hundred years ago some of the best energies of Australian literature were devoted to defining and registering what was typical of the nation. It was always possible for discerning spirits to see that enterprise as somewhat foolish. Christopher Brennan, in the Sydney University magazine Hermes in 1902, for example, saw ‘the Australianity of this literature, which largely dealt with and was mainly addressed to mythical individuals called Bill and Jim’ as ‘painted on, not too laboriously, from the outside’. What was wanted was something cooler and less chauvinistic. But neither the writers he mocked nor Brennan could have predicted the present state of affairs in which the national writing scene is full of the most ‘untypical’ characters, being Australian in the many ways that their various pasts in various parts of the globe have made congenial, natural or necessary to them. Among those ways is that in the tradition of Conrad, writing as someone who has embraced the English language with a passion born of a love of its literary potential, writing about places that are ‘over there’, writing with the complicated feelings of the migrant, the refugee, or the exile, writing with the conviction, wrested from widespread forms of modern suffering, that all countries, all cities, are capable of showing the same terrible things about the plight of being human that have driven some people to this country, where they are still at least free to write. This, for some people nowadays, and for those who read them, is ‘the Australianity of this literature’ as well.

Those who are already familiar with the poetry of Mammad Aidani will know that he is such an Australian writer resident here after three years in Europe, principally in Italy. I am sure they will welcome this prose work, as will readers who here encounter him for the first time. The genre lies somewhere between novella and prose poem. It was a good idea to precede it by a foreword consisting of an excerpt from a letter that the writer sent to his family from Brisbane in early 1983. For its preoccupations give the best clue to the real content and the real method of the work that follows. He speaks of ‘the war’ (it remains that undefined and thus potentially historico-mythic throughout) that continues, of his isolation (‘People here do not talk about the war and us at all, as if that part of the world that I come from is irrelevant’) and of his desperate attempt to maintain some kind of human continuity, some link with them and with what he must keep on valuing to survive - ‘I’m seeking goodness and love, for beauty and knowledge, as you have taught me with your simplicity and poverty.’ He speaks also of the necessity he feels to keep on writing: ‘I feel now that I’m alone I have to create my world in my mind’s imagination... I have this strange feeling that if I don’t write I will die unnoticed ...’ Writing helps him in ‘forgetting the pain’.

The work has two parts. Its overall effort is to keep alive the images that remain in the mind of the exiled anonymous central figure who is first presented to us as someone looking back with his fading memories to an otherwise irrecoverable past, to a land that is, for him, a village and then a city slum of his childhood and adolescence. He is in a barely furnished kitchen in a new land, and the reader joins him in a painful effort of recall, of going inward to glimpse, fan alive, and warm the mind and heart at, whatever ashes of the old life remain there for his imagination to cherish and extend into a renewed attempt to live. Aidani has very evidently given a lot of thought to the travail involved for a writer in working, not with fantasy elements, but with what is genuinely there, and in building on the remembered fragments of the precious past to recover the world that one once lived inside. In fact, for the reader, a great part of the subtle but firm structure of the work is the well-communicated process of gradual emotional breakthrough to a solid connection with the threatened past of the central figure. In the first chapter we see and feel this effort begin, as the narrator shows us the exile, under the pressure of his great need, trying to get too far:

He returns to the side of the chair, thinking, ‘What would it be like to be prosecuted and to be waiting for the following morning to be hanged or shot?’

This thought, which will not be explained until near the end of the second part, and which is centrally important to the effect of the whole work, exacerbates the frustration and despair of exile. And, in the mind that has been cruelly torn from its native context, it is a thought that can only stay alive after that mind has gone back to the beginning. Hence, for the rest of part one, we see in quickly evoked flashes a retrospect, from childhood on, of images, fragments, residues that are deftly interpreted with the later knowledge of the character-narrator so as to go beyond the boy’s then world. For the boy has ‘a vast array of images’ but, ‘like the others, he has no language other than a vocabulary of three hundred words’.

The true pathos of the work lies in the sort of healing that the central figure is trying to bring about by this attempt to go back from the world he now lives in, to re-connect that old world that has made him to this new world that is so big, so cruel and merciless, and that was already there in the occupation of the city by the soldiers. This, which he begins to remember, and, as it were, re-make in part one, is the obsessive theme of part two. Years of living in cities of strangers seem to lie behind Aidani’s skill in evoking the imprint of massive events on the collective psyche, as gleaned by the lonely and sensitive individual from the look and feel of public spaces, crowds on streets, queues, bare trees and other indices of gloom, anxiety and suppressed anger.

He is good at the poetic evocation of the symbolic and allegorical dimension of events - a conversation between friends as the troops begin their seizure of the city, the return and then death of the family’s long-lost adopted stray dog, a train’s crossing of a stretch of desert to get from village to city, the gathering of migrant Kurds on a particular street in town. In fact, as a true poet, he shows facility in managing the lyric and the epic tasks of writing, guiding the reader to the individual’s and the people’s feelings. He has yet to become master of the dramatic. The dialogue, except where it can be read as the externalization of archetypal thoughts of quasi-mythic figures, reads a little stiffly, set-pieces designed to expound thoughts of the author, rather than the utterances of living beings. The conversation of the mother and father of the central character seems mainly devoted to demonstrating the poverty and oppression that afflicts their whole class. It contrasts unfavourably with the power and tenderness of the more direct evocation of the character-narrator’s feeling for the love between his parents. It is true of the work in general that its life resides in the saturation of memories of a treasured past in the powerful feeling that the act of writing both calls up and embodies in words. Its true unity lies not in the concatenation of its episodes or the interaction of its characters, but in the sure growth and flowering of its emotional world towards a climax of sensibility, after which we return to the central character sitting at his desk in the new country. There he is trying to deal with the question of how he has survived while his friend is dead at the hands of their common enemy. We are back with the isolation and alienation of the foreword, but the confusion has abated.

The ending of the book is both calm and dark. For a political radical it presents both a realistic presentation of a common experience of defeat in our time and a real problem about where to go from here:

He wishes he could hear from someone or write. But, he knows, as they would all know by now, that memories are private possessions. And although many things can be stolen or destroyed, the people’s private memories cannot be. So, although they may not be able to speak out as they wish and as they need to, they still have their memories.

As a prose-writer, Mammad Aidani still has a lot to learn, principally I think about the rational and craft-based elements that distinguish this kind of writing from poetry. But on the really indispensable thing, the intuitive grasp of the way feeling holds material together and makes it alive all the way through, he is already totally sound. His capacity for the undefended and honest expression of positive and valuable emotion marks him off from the more common Australian mode of ironic and laconic understatement, in a way that makes him an unusually interesting new voice in the cacophonous national choir.

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A Picture Out of Frame
Michelle Maree Ehrich
Social Alternatives, Vol. 17, No. 4, October 1998

Born in 1955 at Khorramshahr, Iran, Mammad Aidani migrated to Australia in 1982, after three years in Europe. He has published a collection of poetry, edited a collection of stories by victims of torture, and written a play. A Picture Out Of Frame is Mammad Aidani’s first novel. The novel comprises a foreword and two parts. The foreword contains an insightful excerpt from a letter (dated 23/2/1983) that Aidani sent to his family in Iran from Brisbane, Australia. Here Mammad states,

I’m seeking goodness and love, for beauty and knowledge, as you have taught me with your simplicity and poverty. You know I’m 27 now, and I started to write this book to keep myself sane. I’m not sure what will happen to it but I have to write it. I know you might laugh but I mean it - I have this strange feeling that if I don’t write I will die unnoticed. You see... When I write, I only think of writing and what’s in me to write, and then I think I’m forgetting the pain


A Picture Out Of Frame is a touching account of a young man’s memories of his former life in Iran. It spans his childhood through to adulthood and his ultimate exile. The story begins with the young man sitting at a table, much like the young man in the photograph on the book’s cover who is depicted in shadow and ‘out of frame’. The young man is reminiscing. This book is an evocation of private memories which represent for Aidani his most precious possessions. He conjures up images of his past - his family, his homeland, his friends and his experiences. Aidani presents us with such a loving portrayal of his life in the village with his family and friends despite terrible hardships. Apart from the natural hardship caused by the desert climate and the tragic circumstances caused by the oppression of poverty, there was also military oppression from an occupying army, and the turbulence of living under extreme fundamentalism. The reader shares in the fearful and repressive atmosphere and a culture of silence because (pg. 57) ‘...the holes in the walls have mice... the mice have ears’. We also eavesdrop on recalled conversations between his mother and father, the young man and his friends. We hear stories that his Grandmother told him which provide much needed comfort for him in later years. These are such stirring and tender moments. The reader also gains an understanding and appreciation of what it’s like to be dispossessed and separated from one’s family and homeland. It is a moving tale of loneliness, sorrow and despair interspersed with moments of happiness derived from love for family and homeland.

Mammad Aidani’s subtle narrative skill and deliberate simplicity of style make for an emotional and very worthwhile reading experience.

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Tale of Iran poses questions for our times

Edward Reilly
Geelong Advertiser, 30 May 1998

What kind of world are we living in? It took me a long time to get around to finishing this sad tale.

There is only so much I could bear from time to time, my sympathies going out to all those bruised by poverty, ignorance and wickedness, knowing that I am privileged in this world, and yet quite powerless to ameliorate the suffering of Aidani’s people.

This book is set in Iran, a potentially rich country that had been wasted by its irresponsible Shah, and now ground into dour fanaticism by the Mullahs, where ordinary people, farmers, tradesmen, wives and students are increasingly preyed upon, driven out of their houses, sent to beg for one rial, murdered or exiled. for what? ‘What kind of world are we living in?’ Aidani asked. Nothing, not even memories of his beloved mother and grandmother can relieve the tension and fear of seeing armed men in khaki standing about his town - the gulf between the ordinary people and their would-be saviours is too great for sympathy: he becomes a prisoner in his own country.

The only way out in such a situation is to retreat inwards. Friends such as Scheherezade, Sharif and Fereshteh become lifelines to sanity. He dreams about Kurdestan, a land of hills and valleys while living in the impossible dust of a big city. But even such a retreat cannot shield him or Sharif from army reinforcements and the horrors of his times.

In 1983, while the Persian Gulf War was still burning, Aidani sent a letter to his family in Khorramshahr, crying out ‘I have not heard from you for so long’. How many victims of this century have echoed that cry? In a bleak letter which eventually reaches the narrator, Sharif details how he was picked up by military agents, tortured with nails driven into his feet and under his skin and placed on trial (we are not told what for). Signed ‘Your school friend’, Sharif cannot write his own name lest he implicate others. Such fears pervade this novel that I think it must have taken a great toll upon the writer to recount even the better times with his friends and family. Aidani, now in his early 40s, eventually went into exile and migrated to Australia.

Carrying with him a love of Persian literature, he is our gain. He has proceeded to publish a collection of his own poetry, Better Not To Explain, and also has edited an anthology of stories of the victims of torture, Voices from the Deep Close Distance.

I strongly recommend this novel to teachers and readers who value the truth and who are able and willing to impart that to their friends and families.

These days in our own society, we teeter so close to intolerance and social distrust that we have need of corrective tales, reminders of what could happen to ourselves if we let our freedoms be sold cheaply to prophets, religious or political. We must keep on asking ourselves, as does Aidani, ‘What kind of world are we living in?’ and find the answers for ourselves.

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Thuy On
Australian Book Review, No. 199, April 1998

Reading the biographical note on Mammaid Aidani, you discover that he once edited a collection of stories by people who were victims of torture. This piece of information prepares you for his first novel, A Picture Out Of Frame. You know, for a start, that it will not be light and fluffy. Yet although the book deals with wartime oppression in Aidani’s motherland, Iran, the narrative is not as heavy as expected. A third-person account provides a subtle distancing ploy, enabling a more objective eye to be cast over intense personal tragedies.

In a style close to prose-poetry, Aidani presents a critical but loving panorama of his homeland. We are duly surrounded by the dust and humidity, the mud wall houses and the boys picking for copper wire in dumps. At one point, there is the wry observation that ‘The confrontation of life and death does not leave one room’ to romanticise. And yet, the poverty and political fracas in Iran are elegantly commented upon. The narrator, after having trouble with his old primus stove, mutters angrily about there being ‘no oil in the land of oil’.

Owing to its slimness, its novella length, what is significant about A Picture Out Of Frame are the things that Aidani does not comment on - the things that remain out of frame. The book is testament to the power of the unspoken, and is all the more harrowing for what it leaves out.

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New Books
- A Picture Out Of Frame
Write On, December 1997-January 1998

Mammad Aidani’s book deals with memory and exile, focusing on a poverty-stricken village in Iran and the formative influence of place and family. Heat and desolation form the backdrop - then the army arrives. The cover shows a man silhouetted in a window: the book itself is a window on a life we know in Australia only through the exiled who live among us.

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Compassion outweighs desire to impress

Veronica Sen
The Canberra Times, 21 December 1997

A Picture Out Of Frame is not quite so successful [as Pham Thi Hoai Nam, The Crystal Messenger] in its portrayal of a war-haunted country. Mammad Aidani has written with sensitivity, but in a rather plain and repetitive style, about a rural and urban poverty that permeates every aspect of life down to ‘clothes, gestures, posture’. In the process he condemns recent political turmoil in modern Iran.

What he has to say about these situations, and their effect on ordinary men and women, is worth hearing. His low-key writing creates a real sense of the injustice and fear that stalked the land that he has now left for Australia.

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Top Shelf
- Fiction

Michelle Griffin
The Sunday Age, 23 November 1997

Iranian-Australian writer Mammad Aidani is a wonderful poet, but his novel about poverty and exile in Iran is not really successful. The book shakes with half-choked rage about the oppressive regime and its contempt for the poor. However, the highly formal English in which it is written suffers from a stilted tone and extremely wobbly syntax. The story itself is certainly strong enough, following one of the sons of a desperately poor village family into the city and out into exile. And the mother, illiterate, exhausted and proud, is warmly and powerfully captured. Those who pick their way to the ending will find it unbearably sad.

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