Mon. Jul 15th, 2024
A Review of the Book "The Crow's Friend" by Shahabeddin TabatabaeiA Review of the Book "The Crow's Friend" by Shahabeddin Tabatabaei

Shahabeddin Tabatabaei is not a household name in the field of fiction writing, and only a few of his friends and acquaintances know of his interest in writing stories. He is better known as a political figure who is a pragmatist in the field of politics. Pragmatism in politics and, consequently, realism in politics is based on the idea that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. Shahabeddin Tabatabaei believes in politics that all conflicts and contradictions can be resolved through dialogue.

This interpretation of politics, given the social climate, especially during periods of conservative government, may seem unrealistic. However, the problem with Shahabeddin Tabatabaei is not his political views. Shahabeddin Tabatabaei is a complex individual, with a passion for writing on the one hand and a commitment to political debate on the other. By understanding these two facets of his personality, one can gain a better appreciation of his short story collection “The Crow’s Friend” and connect with it on a deeper level.

"The Crow's Friend" by Shahabeddin Tabatabaei
“The Crow’s Friend” by Shahabeddin Tabatabaei

There is a long-standing debate in fiction writing about how much of an impact people’s lived experiences can have on their writing. Some people believe that a writer’s lived experience does not necessarily help them and that even a writer with a tumultuous lived experience may not be able to turn their life experiences into stories. This group believes that writing skills, imagination, and creativity can replace experience.

Others believe that those with rich and varied lived experiences are one step ahead of other writers, especially if they can convey their feelings about their lived experiences to the reader, that is if they can depict the stories of these experiences with precise sensory imagery. However, another problem arises here, as some writers exaggerate in conveying their feelings, and the story becomes sentimental and overwrought with emotion, and a kind of self-indulgent monologue emerges. This weakness is more pronounced in novice writers.

“The Crow’s Friend, “Shahabeddin Tabatabaei’s first collection of short stories, is the result of the author’s direct lived experience, which vividly depicts the emotions and moments experienced, and does not fall prey to clumsy exaggerations. Therefore, it can be said that “The Crow’s Friend” is inspired by the author’s lived experience, and the author is one of those who has succeeded in recreating the feeling of his experienced moments.

Before we continue, it is important to remember that this style of criticism, or approach to a book, is workshop criticism. Workshop criticism is based on the objective elements of fiction writing, and the critic is like a mechanic with a toolbox to use the tools inside it and the lessons he has learned from masters to criticize the work. In this type of criticism, the stories must be standard, that is, they must have an acceptable level of form, language, subject matter, and development. Otherwise, workshop criticism cannot be used to criticize the work, as the necessary tools are not available. Most of the stories in “The Crow’s Friend” have this ability and can be approached with workshop criticism and toolbox, their nuts and bolts can be opened and closed, and the desired result can be achieved. However, in non-workshop criticism, the stories do not necessarily have to meet a standard. It may be that a work cannot meet the technical expectations of the critic, but the idea of the work fits with the critic’s desired theory, and the critic can deal with the essence of the work in an embodied way, and even produce a new and creative criticism from a not-so-strong story. Many believe that creative criticism is not very dependent on the work and does not have a posterior position to the work. The critic himself is in a position to create another work from the heart of the story. Of course, this type of criticism is criticized by saying that the critic has imposed his idea on the story, otherwise such an idea does not exist in the story. The collection of stories “The Crow’s Friend” also has the potential for this kind of criticism. New ideas are presented in the story that can be explained and interpreted outside the text. It is not for nothing that I also started my criticism of these stories by going beyond the text, that is, by analyzing the author’s personality and his lived experience. Many people can criticize that the reader has nothing to do with the author of the work and his lived experiences, the audience is facing the work and the story that can be effective. A successful story is one that can depict its own world, regardless of whether the author is alive or dead, poor or rich; whether he has status or not, it is the text that speaks first and last. Although this is true, there are exceptions.

It is undeniable that in some cases, the personality of the author and our awareness of his or her personality and life experiences can influence our perception, even if we have only come to know this author through his or her biography. For example, Ernest Hemingway’s life is very compelling, even apart from his stories. The way he lived his life in order to find the subjects of his stories is inherently interesting and engaging. Even if you have never read a story by Hemingway, reading about his fate will make you feel a kind of empathy for him. Or, it is enough to know the life and times of Fyodor Dostoevsky in order for our view of his stories to change completely. We can no longer take a toolbox and go after his novels and analyze them in the traditional workshop style. Among the well-known authors, Mohammadreza Kateb and Shahab Tabatabaei are also of this type. In some of his stories, Tabatabai is also like this. If we know that he has paid a high price for his political experiences and has had different experiences, sometimes pleasant and defensible, and sometimes unpleasant and indefensible, we will be able to empathize more with his stories.

It is interesting to note that Shahabeddin Tabatabaei’s experiences are reflected in his storytelling, and “The Crow’s Friend” is the first step in conveying these experiences. Therefore, if someone knows the author, they will undoubtedly have a more emotional understanding of the stories, a different understanding from that of a reader who does not know the author:

“Everything was going incredibly well. In a strange way, I have come to this terrifying conclusion that here when everything goes too well, people get worried, and then, of course, what they are worried about happens.”

The author clarifies our task with the stories from the very beginning in the introduction. That is, not only in Iran but also in Iranian stories, life does not go according to your wishes. This feeling of anxiety, fear, and the collapse of happy moments shows that everything is unstable in Iran. This is a strange feeling that, without exaggeration, we can say that most of our people experience it every day. Perhaps this feeling of instability is in the situation that has brought us all down. Shahab Tabatabai wants to be the narrator of this instability in his stories:

“I looked at them. I didn’t want to seem like a creator who was ashamed or hesitant, but I was. Parto hit the side of his gaze towards the table next to the room; as if he was reading the papers on the table: No one is willing to continue our story. We have been to many people. We have been marked. Either you have to continue and bring our story to a place or write that you no longer have the right to create us. We will go to the person who is still hopeful and does not back down soon.”

The voice of the heroes of the story is standing in front of their creator and demanding their rights. They want to be released if the author, who is hopeless, cannot imagine a future for them. Although the right to create belongs to him, he cannot keep them under the control of this right of creation forever. They seek a way to escape, from the depths of darkness and instability. Even if the hero of these stories is a black crow. The crow is a symbol of doom in our history and with its unceasing cawing, we should expect a disaster, something like an earthquake. This ominous symbol also wants to turn away from its historical destiny and choose a different role. He does not want to be a prisoner of his ancestors’ history. A history that is created and perpetuated by the narratives of others, which is not necessarily synonymous with reality. The same narratives that Shahabeddin Tabatabaei
is afraid of. The same cultures of unfair judgments prevent us from the path of liberation and from being different:

“I always think to myself that I never die completely; as much of my existence remains as I see people talking about myself. I wish that even when I die, the part of my existence that remains can defend itself against people’s words. With the same cheerful demeanor, I was quietly preparing to die, when my eyes fell on the window bars, through which the plane tree with its leaves was swaying slowly. So I could still see. My mind was working. My eyes locked on the crow on the tree, staring at the face of the crow, like when my mind wasn’t working and I was staring at a point, in a quiet trance. Now I didn’t see the tree, leaves, or their movements anymore. I have always insisted on knowing the leaves from the tree.”

Spinoza believes that death is nothing but the loss of proportions. The ratio of hand to body. The ratio of the eye to face. Ratios that decompose at death and establish other relationships with nature. This expectation and this loss of proportions are evident in stories. Is the instability of the age we live in something similar to the instability of proportions? Do we have people in an unstable mental geography? If we are prisoners of our own geographical location, there is no reason why we should not be under the control of our own mental geography. A geography that is unstable and this instability fuels our anxiety:

“It’s true that I loved to read, but the reason I read all the pages, even before printing, was not because I loved to read; it was, but mostly to survive. I read and saw all the words, sentences, and even photos with obsession. This was not for more success; it was for less confiscation. Once I calculated that I had deleted written works of others about a hundred times more than I had written myself. It took several months to develop the skills to moderate and soften sharp notes or interviews. Before that, I knew the sensitivities, red lines, and even oranges, and I knew them well. It took a little longer to find equivalents for some words with low desensitization. There came a time when I was already a specialist in defusing mines hidden in notes, reports, and conversations. In my mind, I was a moderator that others saw as a censor. When I started reading the text, I became someone else; an investigator or judge or expert who sits down to find fault with the text and doesn’t stop until he finds something. I adjusted the text. I asked Shahabeddin Tabatabaei questions. While asking questions, I stared at his eye movements and body language to make sure he wasn’t lying. I doubted and asked more questions. I discovered, advised, interrogated, was kind, and was harsh. When it came time to write, I became myself again. The longer it took, the longer it took to transform from that other one to myself. Sometimes I still feel like I’m not myself; it’s the other one who even tampers with my own writings and deletes, moderates, and softens, without permission: a great and painful experience that I had spent years with my beloved writers. They understood me; in return, I also got energy from being with them.”

The work of a text editor is to kill the text. To break the proportions. The editor, with finesse and artistry like surgery, destroys the proportions and takes the existing entity, removing them from each other. The author had already begun the abstraction of the tree. What can be done in conditions of instability? In conditions of instability, disconnection from history, from beliefs is the secret of survival. The secret of survival at a great cost. This “disconnection” becomes painful when you want to treat yourself like someone else. To do the same thing to your own writings as you have done to others. A creator who wants to bring his creature to life-dead by his own hand. If you were someone else’s interrogator yesterday, today you are your own interrogator. It seems that this disconnection is the inevitable history of us.

**In the short novel “Malakut” by Bahram Sadeqi, there is also a man who separates a part of his being (tension) from his body every day and keeps it in a bottle of alcohol. A terrifying image of cutting-off proportions. Spinoza believes that it is the harmony of proportions that creates power and that every political and social change requires power. Therefore, destroying proportions is destroying powers. This is where the lived experience of Shahabeddin Tabatabaei comes into play and comes to fruition in the story “The Crow’s Friend”. It is a struggle between survival and better living so that the future generations who come after us know that we want to be better people. It didn’t happen, they didn’t let us or we couldn’t. It doesn’t matter much. The result is the same. We have lost our relationship with the future that will be the past of others:

“A crow had become my pet. To be honest, I think more and more that I had become the man of a crow, a crow that I had written about its good qualities years ago and had not believed that it was a liar, a gossip, and a thief.”**

Rejecting judgments and false words, historical distortions, and disbelief in this fake history. Liars, informants, and thieves do not always appear in the form of a crow. The black crow has been created and fashioned to hide itself in its shelter. In another dress, perhaps even with a white shirt on. This is a feature of our history that the crow is not a crow, and the parrot is not always a good talker, and the Blind Owl of Sadegh Hedayat is not and has not been a sinister owl; an owl that sits on the ruins left by history. Hedayat’s Blind Owl is our destiny of ignorance, and the owl is the awareness that has escaped from our hands. Shahabeddin Tabatabaei
wants to save the crow from its historical destiny, which is doom and gloom. His crow is a crow that was a good-sounding bird and wants to save the earth from cold and darkness, it first embraces the fireball and then hides it in its mouth to prevent it from extinguishing, its wings burn and its color turns black and its voice is taken and becomes bad-sounding.

**The story “My Son, Crows Are Lovable Too” is a story for future generations. It defends a generation that has inevitably given in to error. A generation of idealists who were supposed to save the earth from the cold with a small fire in their mouths. Isn’t that the function of an ideal? To make a word theological and passionate, promising us an ideal vision for the future of life. A generation of idealists who have not only not achieved their ideals, but have also made others despair of enjoying a utopian future:

“He was always thinking about the judgments of people who might not let him go even after death. He could handle God’s judgment, but not the constant words and judgments of people. God judged once and gave a verdict; it was better than being judged every day without a verdict.”**

In the story “On the Way to the Restaurant,” everyday life with a romantic motif is supposed to free us from our historical destiny, however briefly. In the midst of chaos, ignoring the instabilities and savoring the moment, and tasting life and love again. This is with the sanctification of everyday life, not just to praise the mundane, but to save love from repetition:

As they set off, she asked the same old question: “What should we do?” And the answer was the same as always: “Whatever you like, darling.” As always, she frowned. She fixed her eyes on an unspecified point, the only characteristic of which was not seeing the man; something the man called his “ninety-degree angle.” “So you don’t have any opinion of your own?” And she heard the usual answer: “I do. I want to do whatever you’re more comfortable with.” “I wish for once you wouldn’t be indifferent. Does it make no difference to you what we do or where we go? Does the ball always have to be in my court?” “Let’s go have dinner somewhere together. Do you agree?”

These simple and unpretentious sentences, sentences that are exchanged in everyday life, are supposed to reveal a romantic relationship that has long been buried in the dust of everyday life. In this story, Shahabeddin Tabatabaei
tries to save everyday life with the everyday matter. This everyday matter is supposed to change the calendar history of the woman and the man, and it does. The story “On the Way to the Restaurant” is a beautiful and complete short story that, if we want to go after it with the workshop criticism toolbox, we cannot find an important flaw in it, but the most important feature of the collection of stories “My Friend Crow” is the payment of details. Details give meaning to a whole, but when the whole is formed, it is no longer simply a whole that represents the details, but something more than the juxtaposition of details: visualization of details with anxiety. The anxiety of the destruction of the moments we are in now is the focal point of the stories of “My Friend Crow”. Especially if the geography of the story is solitary confinement. This is where this attention to detail and anxiety fit well together and serve Shahabeddin Tabatabaei‘s overall idea. The story “Dates”, which takes place in a solitary cell, is the fulfillment of a small wish that will lose its meaning in the space outside the prison, but these places are the ones that impose their necessity on us, especially places where our presence in them is not of our own choosing.

The short story collection “The Crow’s Friend” is a respectable debut for Shahabeddin Tabatabaei, and more importantly, some of the stories have brilliant moments that will linger in the reader’s mind. Shahabeddin Tabatabaei is not indifferent to form, and he strives to experiment with a new form in each of his stories.

He is not even afraid to document and deal with political and social news, and this technique works well in his stories. For example, we can refer to the ending of the story “All My Father’s Lies”. When the story ends, Shahabeddin Tabatabaei adds a few lines of reminder to the story. This reminder not only helps to make the story more effective but also creates a new dimension in the narrative: “Reminder: My father died of cancer in July 2013. From the days when he could not eat or move, and he had no strength to speak, he told my sister to think about preparing a gift for my mother for August, on the occasion of their wedding anniversary. When August came, he was gone …”. The father knows that he will lose his connection with life with death, so he tries this time to establish his relationship with the one he loves in his absence through objects.

Review By Ahmad Qolami, Shargh newspaper