For a long time, Maryam Madjidi, the Franco-Iranian writer, didn’t know how she should narrate her Persian stories. Last autumn, the 37-year-old author turned them into a novel. Marx et la poupéeabout her childhood in Iran, her exile in Paris and life between two cultures received the accolade of the Prix Goncourt for her debut novel.
You were already a storyteller as a small girl. You always liked inventing lots of stories (…) and now do them justice. Tell them with no false modesty, nor hidden pride but from your deepest instinct, Maryam – give your pain a voice.
This was Maryam’s grandmother’s advice when she saw her granddaughter as a 23-year-old young woman in Tehran after ten years’ in exile in France. Madjidi had to leave Iran aged six during the Islamic Revolution of Ajatollah Khomeini. Her parents had opposed Khomeini as supporters of a Communist underground movement. Before Maryam was born, her uncle was put in prison and used a needle to engrave in stone the name of his future niece to stop going crazy.
At that time, her mother lived in constant fear. When she was heavily pregnant, she jumped from the second floor of Tehran University after a failed campaign distributing flyers. “There was once a mother’s belly”, Madjidi entitles this sad chapter, which could almost have cost her life as the unborn child.
In the fairy tale “once upon a time style”, the series of horror stories from her childhood string together. For instance, the story of Abbâs, a young Communist who was a friend of her parents: he was picked up during the early hours of the morning and didn’t even have time to put on both his shoes. Or stories about the “ghosts without mouths” from her father’s nightmares, who couldn’t erase the images of corpses at the “cemetery of the condemned”, where in the 1980s political prisoners were so hastily and clumsily buried that their limbs protruded again from the ground at the first rainfall.
Slowly, he walks through the desert, his gaze fixed on the horizon, when his feet suddenly trip over something. He looks down and sees a hand, which projects from the ground, the hand of a dead person. He continues walking and a little later almost falls over a foot, part of an arm, a skull. Finally, he stands, totally exhausted (…). Arms and legs everywhere, body parts, the macabre harvest, which this earth yields. Shouting in pain, he wakes up.
Marjam finds it especially painful to do as her parents ask and give away all her toys to the neighbours’ children before she goes into exile in France. The ardent Communists explained to their daughter that personal possessions are bad. But the six-year-old doesn’t want to sacrifice her doll to Marxist ideology and buries her in the garden. Marx et la poupée – over 30 years later, this episode becomes the title of her debut novel.
But many restless years were to elapse before she could write this. She starts in Paris where the family lived for a long while in a tiny servants’ room, and her father had to do all kinds of jobs to make ends meet while her mother never will settle for her entire life.
Once upon a time there was
a father, a mother and a daughter.
The father had the form of a shadow who weaved his way between the walls
The mother, with a hidden face, wore a long dress, which swept across the floor
The daughter with her light frame was suspended with both feet in the air,
and all three carried a secret in their hands,
a word was chiselled there onto the surface of their palms: exile.”
Life in exile leaves Maryam speechless. For months on end the girl doesn’t say a word, until suddenly everything erupts from her – in French. “La langue de Molière”, just as her parents, teachers and fellow pupils had longed for and expected from her. However, now she can no longer speak her mother tongue. For a long time, Persian and French cancel each other out. In 2003, when she returns to Tehran for the first time, she’d prefer never to return to France again but she no longer fits in back in her homeland. She is too confident, too independent and too free, and yet suddenly she no longer knows where she belongs.
Stopovers follow in Beijing and Istanbul. Madjidi needs five years before she finds the way back to Paris, aged 34, and her manuscript – started in Turkey – finally lands in the hands of a young publisher, Benoît Virot (Le nouvel Attila). He immediately sensed the potential of this story and personally proposed the novel to the Académie du Goncourt for the prize for the first novel. And he was to be proved correct.
Maryam Madjidi writes that she was previously born three times. The first time in 1980 in Tehran; the second time in 1986 as an exile in Paris. The third time was in 2002 when she rediscovered her mother tongue again while writing her Master’s at the Sorbonne about the Iranian poet, Omar Khayyâm and writer Sadegh Hedayat. And her life continues. She is already working on her second novel.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
Marx et la poupée Broché
Written by Maryam Madjidi
Published by Le Nouvel Attila