"Literature is based on politics and eroticism"

Amir Hassan Cheheltan has not published a novel in Iran in 15 years. The 62-year-old author does intend to refrain from writing either about politics or eroticism, as censorship in Iran prescribes. In Europe, meanwhile, his works are enjoying increasing popularity. Eight books by Cheheltan have already been published in German. Interview by Nasrin Bassiri

By Nasrin Bassiri

Mr. Cheheltan, you write for German-language media and have published numerous novels in Germany. Why? Did you choose Germany or did Germany choose you?

Amir Hassan Cheheltan: Germany chose me. It all began when my articles started appearing in the German-speaking world – the first in the Suddeutsche Zeitung 20 years ago – in reaction to a series of murders of writers and opposition members being committed in Iran. The niche publishing house Kirchheim in Mainz subsequently approached my translator Susanne Baghestani and expressed an interest in publishing one of my novels in German translation.

You live in Iran, but travel a lot.

Cheheltan: I live with my wife in Tehran, but I often travel and have spent a lot of time in Germany. I like travelling. I really appreciate the cultural opportunities in other countries. Thanks to a scholarship from the International Parliament of Writers, I was able to live in Italy for two years. Then the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) made it possible for me to stay in Germany. I also spent a six-month stint as a guest at the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, at the invitation of the Heinrich Boll Foundation. And then there are the shorter periods of time devoted to reading tours in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

Numerous Iranian novels have been translated into other languages in recent decades. It seems, however, that you hold the record. Why is that?

Cheheltan: It's hard for me to say what distinguishes my work from other authors. My novels are set in urban environments. Perhaps they are easier to translate because of my narrative style. But maybe it's also because my journalistic articles have made me more visible than my fellow writers.

Cover of Cheheltanʹs "Calligrapher of Isfahan" (published in German by C. H. Beck)
"The Calligrapher of Isfahan", published in German in 2015 is Amir Hassan Cheheltan's most popular book in German. The novel is set during the siege of Isfahan by Afghan troops in the 18th century. Calligraphy becomes a metaphor for the freedom of the mind in times of tyranny

Iranians and citizens of the world

You write in Farsi and your stories are set in the Persian-speaking world. Nonetheless, you write with world citizens in mind – how do you manage this balancing act?

Cheheltan: Of course, I am primarily Iranian. My language is Persian; I couldn't write a story in any other language. I grew up and was socialised in Iran and understand the world in Persian.

But as an author I donʹt just have my compatriots in mind, even though we share the same language and many common anxieties. If you only think locally, you draw a dividing line between "us" and "the others".

Yet we all share worries and needs, no matter where we come from. Love, loneliness, emigration or separation are issues that affect everyone. This connects the citizens of a country with global citizens of the world. Today, the world has not only grown together economically; we can no longer isolate ourselves culturally and literarily either. I regard myself as a citizen of the world.

How do your readings work in Europe? After all, the audience does not understand Persian.

Cheheltan: Firstly, I read a few lines in Farsi to give the audience an idea of what the original text sounds like. Then an actor or presenter reads longer passages in German, and the subsequent discussion takes place in English.

Better quality translations

Interest in Iranian literature is growing in Europe. Do you think this is related to political developments?

Cover of Cheheltanʹs "The Steadfast Parrot. Memories of Iran 1979" (published in German by Matthes & Seitz)
Settling scores with the Islamic Revolution: in his 2018 novel "The Steadfast Parrot", Amir Hassan Cheheltan describes how after the fall of the Shah in 1979 the revolutionary forces radicalised themselves and finally established a repressive regime that replaced the corrupt tyranny of Reza Pahlavi with a despotic religious state

Cheheltan: There is no doubt that the world public is following Iran with interest. I suppose there are some who want to find answers to their questions in my novels. That's possibly one reason my books and articles are attracting more attention today.

Does the better quality of the translations also play a role? There are some outstanding literary translators out there, such as Susanne Baghestani, whom you have already mentioned.

Cheheltan: Yes, indeed. Translating literature is a difficult undertaking; to quote Don Quixote from Cervantes: translating is at best like looking at a carpet from the back.

But I am lucky; my translators Susanne Baghestani and Jutta Himmelreich are very good, as editors and critics alike assure me. I am also very satisfied with Kurt Scharf, who has translated some of my novels. He is an outstanding linguist who translates texts from seven or eight languages.

Do you check the translations?

Cheheltan: I don't speak German, but one should check things occasionally. Once the name Torabi was translated as Terabi because Persian words are written without vowels. I only noticed it when the book had already gone to print.

In the case of name descriptors such as Hassan Chaghoo (Hassan the knife) or Hossein Ferfereh (the nimble Hossein), it is obviously better to translate the attributes rather than leaving them in the original language.

Censorship destroys the literary imagination

The plots of some of your books are set several centuries in the past. Nevertheless, they have been well received in Europe. Why is that?

Cheheltan: My novel "The Calligrapher of Isfahan" is set in 1722, 300 years ago, yet this novel is my most successful book in Germany. People in Iran also like reading books that belong to world literature, but play out in a different cultural setting. For example, the works of Haruki Murakami, which are regularly translated into Persian immediately after publication, are very popular.

Iranians see themselves reflected in these narratives and that is important for a novel. Some of our authors don't pay enough attention to this. Many novels written in Iran are of no interest to an international audience. They may be read and enjoyed by Iranians, but they do not appeal to the global reader.

he metaphors the authors use to circumvent censorship are often difficult for readers to understand. You avoid censorship by publishing your books abroad.

Cheheltan: I do send my manuscripts to Iranian publishers first. They send them to the Ministry of Culture and ask for permission to publish. My first novel was published 42 years ago in Iran. Since then I have been in constant conflict with the censors.

Censorship has ruined Iranian literature. I have not been able to publish a single novel in Iran in the past 15 years because the Ministry has always refused to give me the necessary permission.Politics and eroticism

A lot of your fellow writers adapt to the circumstances and write their texts in such a way that they can be published in Iran.

Cheheltan: Literature has always been based on two pillars: politics and eroticism. If we ban both of them from a story, there is virtually nothing left. But these two elements are the focus of current censorship. I'm surprised, because eroticism has been at the centre of Persian literature for a thousand years, especially poetry.

Leader of the Islamic revolution: Ayatollah Khomeini returns from exile in France (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/AFP/G. Duval)
Leader of the Islamic Revolution: Ayatollah Khomeiniʹs rise to the top of the religious leadership shattered all hopes of a democratic awakening in Iran. Instead, a new tyranny arose that systematically persecuted intellectuals and dissenters

Indeed, we have an almost pornographic canon of poetry, which does not originate from the pen of some anonymous writer, but from glorious poets such as Rumi, Hafiz and Saadi. Since I have had the opportunity to publish my works abroad, I no longer see any reason why I should do without eroticism in my novels. That is why my works fall victim to censorship.

How can you interact with other Iranian authors if they cannot read your work? Or do you give them manuscripts to read?

Cheheltan: No. Nobody but my wife, my son, the European publishers and translators get to read my manuscripts. In Iran, many people used to ask me for the manuscripts, but I have asked them to stop doing so. Nevertheless, I am in close contact with my Iranian colleagues, especially younger writers. I teach creative writing in various workshops and give interviews in the Iranian media several times a year.

Are your novels like children whom you love equally, or do you have a particular favourite?

Cheheltan: I love them all, but I'm not entirely satisfied with a couple of my novels. I would really like to get around to re-working them. Experience helps you move forward and as a result your work gets better and better.

Is your book "The Steadfast Parrot" of particular significance because you used it to write about the Iranian revolution?

Cheheltan: No, I had wanted to write this book for a long time, but I kept postponing it. I have always preferred fictional novels. In 2015, I happened to meet Andreas Rotzer at the Frankfurt Book Fair, who would later publish "The Steadfast Parrot" at Matthes & Seitz. He asked me what I was working on at the time. I said I was thinking about writing down my observations of the Islamic Revolution. Rotzer said, "Write them for us."

It took ten months for the novel to be finished. But it's just a work like any other.

Interview conducted by Nasrin Bassiri

© Iran Journal / Qantara.de 2019