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From the Devil Learned and Burned, by Farkhondeh Aghaie

15 June 2018

Pat Ashworth finds a fictional Tehran diary difficult to fathom

THERE is tantalisingly little information to be had about this book, described by the publishers as a “work of fiction based on an incredible true story”. In diary form, it tells the story of Volga, an Iranian-Armenian Christian made homeless when her Muslim husband throws her out.

She survives on a meagre allowance from an aunt and sleeps anywhere she can find, most often in the library of the Reflection Culture House in Tehran and at times on the streets, where she is raped by a church caretaker. Cultured, hard-working, and independent, she is always hungry and frequently ill. Her privations expose the inadequacy of the social-welfare system as evidenced in the Centre for Intervention in Social Crises and the optimistically named Hopeful Centre.

The writing is terse and unsentimental, a meticulous account of food eaten, costs incurred, money borrowed, debts repaid. Her church, dismissed at one point as “fake cross-bearers and hypocrite bible-worshippers”, turns away — “Shame on your conscience all the church people who learned what had happened to me but did nothing about it!” she expostulates.

It is the Iranian writer’s second novel and the genre that she has chosen here is a curious one in some respects. The diary form gives Volga’s story the ring of truth, and yet it is fiction. So we are left pondering whether this is the true story of one woman or an amalgam of the stories of many. How much of the experience is real, and how much embellished for the sake of the drama?

It doesn’t matter for the appreciation of the work — there is a lovely wryness about the writing — and it doesn’t reduce the importance of the issues around women and welfare which it raises. But when you are holding a society up for examination, it seems a legitimate question to ask.

From the Devil Learned and Burned
Farkhondeh Aghaie
Mehran Taghvaipour, translator
Satrap Publishing £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

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