Review: The Siege Of Isfahan By Jean-Christophe Rufin Essay, Research Paper
The supermarket of historyThe Siege of Isfahanby Jean-Christophe Rufin, trans Willard Wood373pp, PicadorIn Letter 72 of Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes, which was published in 1721, a Persian nobleman who has travelled from Isfahan to Paris meets a Frenchman “who was extremely satisfied with himself. In a quarter of an hour he had decided three questions of ethics, four problems of history, and five scientific matters. I mentioned Persia to him, but I had hardly uttered four words when he contradicted me twice over, on the authority of books by Messrs Tavernier and Chardin”.Reading The Siege of Isfahan, by the French novelist Jean-Christophe Rufin, I kept thinking of the poor Persian in Paris. Like Montesquieu’s Parisian bore, Rufin has much scientific and historical knowledge, and has read the accounts of Safavid Isfahan by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier and Sir John Chardin. A founding member of Médecins sans Frontières, a veteran of humanitarian campaigns in Bosnia and Rwanda, Rufin appears to be a good man wholly untroubled by fear. There is surely no better character for the writer of historical fiction.Rufin’s Isfahan, portrayed over hundreds of pages with tremendous panache and 18th-century charm, bears no relation whatever to that beautiful and famous city at any time in its long history. Entering into the geographical spirit, Rufin’s American publisher, WW Norton, selected for the front cover a painting of Cairo. Picador at least has an Iranian view, though not of Isfahan.The Safavid dynasty, which established itself at Isfahan in the 16th century, inaugurated the most brilliant epoch of modern Iranian history. Under Shah Abbas and his successors, they restored the ancient Persian empire within its old limits, which are more or less the frontiers of modern Iran. Their capital became a great centre of Muslim learning, miniature painting, textiles, architecture and handicrafts.Because of the liberal attitude of Shah Abbas to Christians, we know from travellers’ accounts as much about 17th-century Isfahan as about, say, Edinburgh of the same period. In 1722, after a long period of decadence, the gentle and alcoholic Shah Hussein capitulated to an Afghan raiding party from Kandahar under Mir Mahmud.This siege and surrender of Isfahan, chronicled in appalling detail by the Polish Jesuit Father Krusinski’s History of the Revolution of Persia, was almost as great a disaster for Muslim culture as the fall of Baghdad for the Mongols in 1258. The Afghans soon drifted away – like Rumsfeld, Mahmud was not big on nation-building – but there followed nearly a century of anarchy from which Iran has never recovered.But, as Adam Smith put it, there is “a great deal of ruin in a nation”. Isfahan survived even the last Pahlavi Shah, Mohammed Reza, who had the bizarre notion of converting the place into a military-industrial powerhouse operated by battle-shocked American veterans of Indochina. Even after three years of desperate drought from 1999-2001, which dried up the river and ruined many of the gardens and orchards, Isfahan still vaut le voyage.Rufin’s novel opens with the Afghans approaching the city from the east. After a series of wild and romantic adventures, retailed in the prize-winning novel The Abyssinian, the apothecary Jean-Baptiste Poncet and his beautiful wife, Alix, are settled happily in Isfahan. Their dear friend, Juremi, has been imprisoned somewhere or other and Poncet sets out to rescue him.With his adopted son, he travels through Georgia to the Caucasus, meets Peter the Great, crosses the Caspian, where the friends are reunited but are kidnapped by Kirghiz nomads, sold as slaves in Khiva, bought by an Afghan who sells them to another Afghan, who carries them as elephant mahouts to… Isfahan, where Alix and her daughter, after their own adventures, are inside the walls besieged by Mahmud’s army.This circuit, as satisfying as a figure drawn freehand, has its pleasures. Here are the travellers arriving at Peter the Great’s camp in, I guess, Daghestan: “It was early afternoon, not the time when the army appeared at its most pitiful – for that you had to come at dawn. At that hour the most heartrending cries arose from the plain on which the army camped, for it was then that the soldiers performed the one order of Peter the Great’s that was universally detested: in twos (one seated and the other bending over his victim), they shaved, some with the edge of their sword, others with a fragment of glass, still others with a sliver of malachite or obsidian, but very rarely with a true blade, their facial skin chapped and red from the daily removal of all traces of the beard their emperor had prohibited. To its bravery and anarchy, this army of martyrs thus added the ridicule of being the only in the world to start on the offensive already covered with self-inflicted gashes.”In other scenes on this wide circuit, we seem to be transported to the French of the 18th century, with its love of military affairs and comparative ethnography, its preference for conjecture over fact, its gallantry and sentimentality. There is a complex ecclesiastical intrigue of no importance whatever. The book ends not with the historical brutalities visited by Mahmud on Isfahan but in that classic 18th-century resolution, the Double Wedding.So much for the book’s virtue. Its faults are two and not serious enough to inconvenience the habitual reader of historical fiction. First, The Siege of Isfahan is staffed with characters who were devised for another story and are not tooled, in the industrial sense, for the job in hand. For all their thrilling adventures in The Abyssinian, Jean-Baptiste and Alix are a dull old pair, delighted with themselves and their own happiness, a sort of French Berry & Co. The characters that derive directly from the historical sources – especially Hussein and Mahmud – are immeasurably more interesting.Second, Rufin adores the exotic, and I mean the exotic. The famous gardens of Isfahan are here planted with wisteria, lilacs, fuchsias, yews and other suburban vegetation that either is not grown in Iran or had not, in 1722, been domesticated. Poncet, surely the most unconvincing herbalist in fiction, weighs out in kilograms and picks berries in early spring. The Afghans speak Afghan, not a language much known to philology. The chief mosque of Rufin’s Isfahan is named after Khomeini. And so on.Georg Lukács, in his essay on the pioneering historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, concluded that bourgeois society simply could not understand its own history. In that, the Hungarian certainly had a point. We should add that it can no longer understand its geography. Literature has become a sort of giant Waitrose, or, at a pinch, a Fauchon, where every character has what he wants, whenever and wherever he wants it, in or out of period and season, so help me.It makes, as you would expect, for undistinguished fiction.