I am about to stuff The Enchantress of Florence into my bag; my officemate walks in. I hand the book to him.
“What do people in your country think of THIS guy?” I ask.
He looks intently at the cover before noticing the author. “Oh, they hate him,” he says, laughing. We spend the next hour discussing Iranian politics: Ahmadinejad, Khatami, Mousavi, Mossadeq, and, of course, Aref. I ask him if he thinks that conditions between America and Iran can improve. History gets rehashed.
Before leaving, he asks me, “Is this THAT book?” No, but I tell him I’ve read THAT book. He asks me about it. I tell him. He’s confused, but then I give him a few more details. He understands.
One of the themes THAT book explores is forgiveness. Multiple protagonists are concerned that they’ve done the Unforgivable Thing. The concept is illustrated in the following passage:
Alone, he all at once remembered that he and Pamela had once disagreed, as they disagreed on everything, on a short-story they’d both read, whose theme was precisely the nature of the unforgivable. Title and author eluded him, but the story came back vividly. A man and a woman had been intimate friends (never lovers) for all their adult lives. On his twenty-first birthday (they were both poor at the time) she had given him, as a joke, the most horrible, cheap glass vase she could find, its colours a garish parody of Venetian gaiety. Twenty years later, when they were both successful and greying, she visited his home and quarreled with him over his treatment of a mutual friend. In the course of the quarrel her eye fell upon the old vase, which he still kept in pride of place on his sitting-room mantelpiece, and, without pausing in her tirade, she swept it to the floor, smashing it beyond hope of repair. He never spoke to her again; when she died, half a century later, he refused to visit her deathbed or attend her funeral, even though messengers were sent to tell him that these were her dearest wishes. “Tell her,” he said to the emissaries, “that she never knew how much I valued what she broke.” The emissaries argued, pleaded, raged. If she had not known how much meaning he had invested in the trifle, how could she in all fairness be blamed? And had she not made countless attempts, over the years, to apologize and atone? And she was dying, for heaven’s sake; could not this ancient, childish rift be healed at the last? They had lost a lifetime’s friendship; could they not even say goodbye? “No,” said the unforgiving man. — “Really because of the vase? Or are you concealing some other, darker matter?” — “It was the vase,” he answered, “the vase, and nothing but.” Pamela thought the man petty and cruel, but Chamcha had even then appreciated the curious privacy, the inexplicable inwardness of the issue. “Nobody can judge an internal injury,” he had said, “by the size of the superficial wound, of the hole.”
Can there be forgiveness and reconciliation between countries? Happy Nowruz!