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Reza Ghassemi. Harmonie nocturne.

Jean-Charles Flores with Robert Sctrick, tr. Paris. Phebus. 2001. 203 pages. 19.50 [euro]. ISBN 2-85940-756-1

FIRST PUBLISHED in Persian in Los Angeles in 1996 under the title Hamnava'i-e shaban a-ye orkestar-e chub-ha (Nocturnal Harmony for Wood Orchestra), Harmonie nocturne is the first novel of Reza Ghassemi's career, which already includes several plays. The main character of Harmonie nocturne is an anonymous Persian man who lives in Paris but on Tehran time, meaning that he works all night and sleeps most of the day. This sense of there being two parallel times, opposite sides of the day during which people lead their lives normally and simultaneously, pervades the book as a structuring image. The narrator himself, a timid, withdrawn individual, lives much within himself and within the small world of his apartment house. He lives partly in 1943, when he was younger and had a family, and partly in a time close to the present when most of the action takes place. In addition to the narrator and his neighbors in an old apartment house, there are invisible presences, partly visible ones, characters such as a dog who goes by different names, and the narrator's shadow. These characters derive from books or movies and affect him powerfully. He suffers from a psychological condition he calls "lapses in continuity," periods when he is in yet a third time-frame, interacting with characters seen only by him. Consistent with this, for example, is the fact that his mirror shows only inanimate objects but not his own reflection, so he must shave entirely by touch. To understand people who are a puzzle to him he paints portraits of them. While the narrator lives in two time sequences, the landlady, forgetful in her old age, lives only in the present moment.

The narrative is fragmented, broken up not only by changing time-frames but also by the author's technique of writing in short sections of only a few pages and then jumping abruptly to another time, locale, or situation, a technique that reflects the fragmented state of mind of the narrator. We are told almost nothing about the world outside the apartments and a local cafe, so it is difficult to judge just when any particular action is taking place. At the end of the novel the narrator seems to have turned into the landlady's dog.

The cinemalike interplay of realistic narration, dream fantasy, and surrealism is artfully handled. A central act of violence helps focus the various strands of narrative, and a remarkable resolution at the end helps keep Harmonie nocturne within the realm of experimental fiction. As a playwright, the author's sense of the theater may have contributed to the form of this novel. The translation is accurate and colloquial and represents well what the Persian text says. When the two versions are read side by side, however, the story somehow seems to be more comfortable in its Persian dress than in French.
William L. Hanaway
University of Pennsylvania
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Author:Hanaway, William L.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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