Out of Mesopotamia

Akashic. Sept. 2020. 240p. ISBN 9781617758607. $26.95. F
Saleh is a middle-aged art critic for a Tehran newspaper whose life has grown meaningless. Approaching the world with a cynicism verging on despair and looking for renewed purpose, he joins up with a Shia militia fighting ISIS, chronicling the lives of “martyred” soldiers and sometimes engaging in the action. He discovers something he needs in the bravery of his comrades (however foolish it may sometimes be), the idealism of the soon-to-be martyrs, and even the boredom and utter absurdity of his ragtag military life. While on the front, he finds a volume of Proust—subversive literature in Iran—and buries it where he is stationed. When it’s discovered, word gets back to his government handler H., arousing more suspicion about his loyalty even as H. demands that he write a patriotic drama for state TV. If that’s not enough, Atia, the woman he loves, breaks his heart by marrying their boss.
VERDICT Abdoh (Tehran at Twilight) explores the lives behind the war-torn headlines in a way that captures the full humanity of the participants. Channeling a bit of Tim O’Brien and a good deal of Joseph Heller, he has written the best novel to date on the Middle East’s ceaseless wars.
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