The Portmanteau | Bozorg Alavi | Ali Salami

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Bozorg Alavi (1904-1997)

Born in Tehran on February 2, 1904, Bozorg Alavi received his early studies in his hometown. In 1923, he went to Berlin with his father where he learned German. In 1927, his father Seyyed Abolhassan Alavi committed suicide in Berlin. Upon returning to Iran in 1928, he started teaching German at the Industrial College of Shiraz.

In 1929, he returned to Tehran and embarked on a Persian rendition of Noldeke’s The National Epic of Persia. In 1931, he came in contact with Sadeq Hedayat, the prominent Iranian writer and became involved in a group known as The Four including Sadeq Hedayat, Mojataba Minovi and Masoud Farzad. His collected short stories The Portmanteau, deeply influenced by Hedayat and Freud, were published in 1934.

In 1937, he was detained and imprisoned together with 53 people on grounds of having Communist leanings. He remained in prison for seven years. While in jail he wrote Fifty-Three People, describing the members of the socialist group and their ordeal in prison, and the short-story collection Notes from Prison which detailed the plight of the intellectuals under Reza Shah. He was also one of the founders of the Tudeh Party of Iran. With the fall of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1954, Alavi left Iran and took a teaching post at the Humboldt University of Berlin in East Germany.

Alavi is best known for his novel Her Eyes (1952) in which he details the love between a painter and a woman of the upper class. Maestro Makan is an intellectual who is opposed to the tyrannical rule of Reza Shah. Farangis, an upper class girl, gets painting lessons from the maestro. She is coldly treated by him; therefore, she leaves for Europe. She believes that she has caused the death of the maestro. She also believes that she has sacrificed her life for him.

While in Paris, she enrolls in the painting classes where she becomes acquainted with Khodadad who draws her attention to the social problems. Khodadad asks her to return to Iran and live with Maestro Makan. Farangis returns to Iran to either express her passionate live to him and take revenge on him. Upon her return to Iran, she becomes involved in political activities. All she does is meant to win the love of Maestro Makan. To achieve this end, she takes on the most precarious tasks. An introverted type, Maestro Makan does not express his secret love to her nor does he take her seriously. Finally, love triumphs over social commitment and he finally embarks on a passionate love affair with Farangis. One day he invites her over to his house. Farangis accepts the invitation with doubts in her heart. Due to this feeling of suspicion, the maestro jilts her. Farangis claims that the maestro has then begun painting her eyes.

The maestro is arrested and Farangis marries Colonel Aram in order to have the maestro liberated. The maestro is exiled and Farangis returns to Europe. Many years afterwards she learns about the death of the maestro and sees his last painting “Her Eyes”. The picture shows a pair of lustful and unfeeling eyes.

Farangis is deeply saddened for the maestro has never managed to realize what a supreme sacrifice she has made for him.

In this novel, Alavi deals with the struggles of the Iranian intellectuals and artists against the despotic rule of Reza Shah. However, the love between the maestro and Farangis overshadows the struggles. In analyzing this love affair, the writer reinforces the repressed desires and aspirations of the intellectuals who rarely find an outlet for their psychological needs. Farangis is among the early female characters in Persian literature who have been depicted as having sublime feelings and great devotion to an ideal.

The Portmanteau is the first collection of short stories by Alavi in which he shows the spiritual and psychological attitudes of the characters. This book, which exhibits the influence of Sadeq Hedayat and Sigmund Freud, represents a panorama of characters who often fail in their love either for impotence or for psychological problems such as the Oedipus complex. In some stories in this collection he explores the gap between two generations, the fathers and their sons.

Alavi is also credited with writing some works in German, among them, Kämpfendes Iran (1955; “The Struggle of Iran”) and Geschichte und Entwicklung der modernen Persischen Literatur (1964; “The History and Development of Modern Persian Literature”). Alavi died on February 18, 1997, in Berlin, Germany.

The story, which follows in English translation, is one of the most famous ones by Alavi. In this story, purely Freudian, Alavi explores the relationship between father and son in a patriarchic society: the father is the master of the house who tells others what to do and what not to do. He is the one who decides as how his children should act and think. The deep gap between two generations makes it impossible for the son to establish a reasonable relationship with the father whom he sees as the personification of a world which is rotten to the core. Both awed and horrified by the father figure, the protagonist tries to find solace in the arms of a woman of foreign origins who merely epitomizes his repressed sexual desires and in whom he has the chance to vocalize his innermost passions. The girl who is the mother figure finds little chance with the protagonist. They basically engage in secret trysts as though their relationship is of a forbidden nature. The characters in the story are without any names with the exception of the girl. It seems that they have no identities of their own and they are only referred in the story as the father and the son. The tragic sense of the story becomes apparent and more forceful when the protagonist realizes that the girl is going to marry the man whom he detests. In other words, this is the point where he painfully realizes that his father is the rival in his love for the mother figure and he finds himself utterly helpless in the face of this sour truth. Therefore, he prefers to leave as he is but a frustrated man in love.

The Portmanteau

I

It was August-a dull Sunday morning in Berlin. The intense heat made me toss and turn in bed, sweat oozing at every pore. However, I was not in the least inclined to get up. The smoke souring up from the factory chimneys mingled with the mist of the jungle the particles of which poured in through the window as if they wanted to intensify the pressure they exerted upon my soul and body. I was then a student in Berlin. It was about half an hour that my landlady had laid my breakfast upon the table. But I had no intention of getting up.

Once or twice, she had shouted from behind the door: “Sir, you are wanted on the phone from your father’s residence.”

But I had given no reply. At nine o’clock, someone hastily knocked on the door and slipped in. At first, I presumed that it was my landlady so I paid no heed. All of a sudden, I was startled by my father’s voice, springing up on my feet. He took the liberty of ensconcing himself on a chair, taking out his golden cigarette case from his pocket and lit a cigarette.

“Why is your room so topsy-turvy? Why don’t you pick up your books? Look! Soap, pen, comb, tie, cigarette holder, and photo all jumbled up!”

His clean-shaven face emanated a whiff of perfume which was distasteful to me. He was right. His scrupulous care, his self-esteem which had descended to him from his forefathers and his camel-like poise had nothing to do with my wounded delicacy. In his house, he had a special shelf for soaps, a special shelf for cigarettes and a special room for books.

Today more than ever before, my noble father had demeanored himself by gracing my house. Was I not the same prodigal son who after a long strife had left his house on grounds that I no longer wished to eat lunch at one, go to bed at eleven and be ready at the breakfast table at seven in the morning? As he was smoking, I splashed water over my face and settled down beside him.

“Don’t you fancy the idea of traveling?” he asked.

I didn’t understand what he meant. Did he mean to say “travel or travel with me?”

“I am stone-broke. Give me some more money this month.” I said, by way of parrying the question.

“It’s a good thing I came here.”

“Had I not seen you I would have borrowed some.”

Knowing that he abhorred the idea of my borrowing money, I deliberately said it to his face so that he might not taunt me with his wealth. He fell silent a moment. His silence-this pernicious habit of his-was a torture to me. His large red eyes in which the brutality of a barbaric father was clearly discernible wore a peculiar look which would set fire to me if they could.

To me, it was both repulsive and fatal. After a moment’s silence, my father produced his bankbook from his pocket, writing me a check for five marks.

“I am traveling to Sitto, a country bordering Czechoslovakia (I have forgotten its name). The train is due at 11:00. Go to my house and wait there until the inn keeper’s son takes my portmanteau to the railway station. You can be there so we may travel together.’

Without looking at him, I said: “All right.”

“What do you mean all right? Will you come or will you have my portmanteau taken there?”

“Can’t you take your portmanteau to the station yourself?”

“I am already busy. It’s 9:00 and I am about to be somewhere at nine thirty.” he said with complete indifference as was his custom.

“All right. I’ll drink a cup of tea. Then I’ll go to bank from where I’ll go to your residence. I’ll stay there until the inn keeper’s son takes your portmanteau to the station and comes back.”

“It’ll be too late if you go to bank.”

“Unfortunately I don’t have any money.”

At this he gave a metallic laugh and so did I. He gave me ten marks. I thanked him. My father departed. I felt sort of chagrinned. My father was an excellent personification of the past. But his face? His perfume and tie belonged to the present age but his thoughts?! He had to eat at 11:00 sharp or life would come to standstill. Honor would be marred and the holy pillars of family would crumble. It would be nice if sons and daughters gathered together and chatted while father, the head of the family, would sit above all, everybody at his beck and call. Father is the god of the house. He is the reflection of religion in the family or the other way round, just like the old times. I dressed and walked out.

The gray color of Berlin streets and the peculiar look of this city in August especially on a suffocating summer’s day almost killed me. Shall I go to the country with my father? Will he be going to the frontier to Czechoslovakia? I shall be going with him. But no, a few days ago, that Russian girl … What was her name? Katushka … Katushka … when we bade farewell, she put her slender white hand with her bony long fingers in mine, she said: “I hope to see you again. I am going to Sitto. Why don’t you join me there?”

The previous night when she had rested her white gaunt face upon my lap, when she had clung her prominent cheekbones to mine, she was murmuring something. Was she flattering me? No, in that state she was incapable of untruth. What was she doing then? Clutching at my hair, she said: “You are different from others.” All of a sudden, I burst into a peal of laughter in the middle of the street. When I was jolted into realities, I perceived that I had walked aimlessly for more than half an hour. I had passed my father’s residence. A car was coming. I got in. The soft rocking of the car lulled me to slumber like a baby in a cot. It was a slumber of different happenings. Katushka Oslovovna! Where is she going? To Sitto? I heard this name today. That’s where my father is going to. I will be going to Sitto with my father to see Katushka Oslovovna. This name has a peculiar music. Katushka … Oslovovna. At all events, it is worth spending time with these Russian emigrants. She related to me stories about the prince, the duke, the court, Rasputin, Tsar, Tolstoy and Siberia. She knew well that I was opposed to her remarks. I only loved her lips, not the shining jewelries in her bosom. Every time I disagreed with her, she pressed her lips upon mine to silence me. She knew that I had put aside all those words and that I regarded her words as lies and that I knew the truth of her words. However, she loved me and still does.

Sure, she does.

“Where are you headed?”

“What time is it?”

“Ten-thirty.”

“To 28 Oland Strasse.”

I was determined to go to Sitto, but in that case I would not have time to go to, my father’s residence. First, I went to his residence, put the portmanteau in the car, drew money from my account and set out for where my father had gone at 1:0 in the afternoon.

II

As our car had a stop for nearly an hour in Gorlitz, I arrived in Sitto in the evening from where I went to the country by train. I left the portmanteau in the railway station and inquired after Katushka in the country inns. (There were only two.) She was staying at the Green House Inn. There I rented a room. Katushka, her mother and another woman had two rooms at the Green House. After a time, I wrote a few words on my card: “My dear Katushka, I have just arrived. I wish to see you. Fix the time and place. F.”

I rang the bell. A nineteen year old maid opened the door. She had blonde hair and greenish eyes. She smiled as I gave her the card.

“Are you Mr. F? It’s four days since the Lady has been inquiring after you.”

“From you?”

“You know. I like her. They were here last year. They gave me a book. You know?”

“What?”

“Mistress confides her secrets to me.”

“What’s your name?”

“Friedel.”

“Well, Friedel. Will you tell me her secrets?”

“Please don’t insist.”

“All right. Don’t tell me if you don’t wish to.” The girl reflected.

“No, I’ll tell you because I know Miss Katushka loves you. She’s been inquiring after you since the day she came here. Today, a certain gentleman came to mistress. He was with them when they came here to rent the rooms. Mistress doesn’t like him, you know. I think she is obliged to be with him. This evening she was wondering when you would come.”

Fishing out a two-mark bill from my pocket, I furtively thrust it in her hand and asked: “Well Friedel. Tell me what kind of man is he?”

“I simply don’t know. I didn’t see him distinctly.”

“All right Friedel, have this card to mistress and take care nobody notice.”

It was as if cold water had been poured on me … I thought of leaving the inn and going to where my father was staying. After all girls are girls. Their tears and smiles are false. If Katushka is a liar, all the girls are liars. But how can these glittering eyes lie? Have not these eyes and cheeks ensnared me? That man must also be in love with beauty. In what ways am I superior to him? In fact she may love me but his bank account is surely bigger than mine. Yes, money is the first pillar of the holy foundation of family. I wish I had not sent her the card. Why should I have cheapened myself by sending the card? But as the girl was aware of everything, I could not do otherwise. Friedel came back. On a card, Katushka Oslovovna had written: “My mother wishes to make your acquaintance and invites you to have dinner with us in the veranda.”… Now I must change my clothes, observe etiquette and kiss her mother’s hand… I’ve come for the sole purpose of kissing Katushka’s cheeks and looking into her eyes. Excuse me tonight. I should call on my father as I’ve already planned to. Katushka Oslovovna. I uttered the name aloud. It actually escaped my tongue. The door opened. Katushka entered and stepped up to me.

“You came at last! I had no hope of your coming,” she observed.

The soft music of her voice made me forget all I thought of her. Kissing her hand, I seated her on the coach.

“Yes, I came at last,” I answered.

Perching on the edge of the coach, I put my hands round her neck. She gazed at me.

“I’d forsaken all hopes of your coming.”

“Why?”

“Why?! Do I not know you? You are fundamentally a daydreamer. You are never awake. Now that I am talking to you, you are not listening to me.”

She was right. At that moment, I was watching the rosy flowers on her white gown. I had feasted my eyes on her voluptuously white breasts which were visible through her transparent batiste. Her shapely neck, now wrapped in a black muffler, gave me enormous delight. I gazed at her black eyelashes which had almost curtained her eyes. I was not listening to her remarks simply because they were so commonplace. My eyes were fixed into hers.

“I came in person so as to ask you not to refuse my mother’s invitation,” she said.

“What made you think that I wouldn’t turn up?”

“I know you hate such formalities,” she said.

For answer, I pressed my lips upon hers, sucking them awhile. She knew me so well. (How did she know me so well?) This question would be an insult to her. This girl was oversentimental. Still, she was incapable of false feelings. Was such a thing possible? “It’s a month since we have known each other. But it seems I have known you ever since I knew myself. Where did I first see you? In a dream? Yes, in a dream. Maybe I was then fifteen years old. I was always in love with greenish eyes like yours. I’ve always loved blond hair like yours. Do you remember what I told you the first night we met? I have always cherished an illusion. Now I see it manifested in you, in your lugubrious thoughts, in your life and in your troubled soul. You know my life well. You are an odd people. I know well that your love is not for ever. It’s a wave that comes and goes. A wave goes but water remains for all the time to come. You will forget me, won’t you? But I won’t forget you. My dream has eventually come true. My life is not wasted away. So far I’ve been fostering this illusion. From this onwards, the reminiscence of those days will keep me alive. You can’t marry me. So how can you live with me your entire life? But as long as I am with you I ….”

She burst into an agony of tears.

“I’ll have to get married sooner or later,” she sobbed.

Now her mystery broke upon my understanding. The man with whom she had newly become acquainted was to become her husband. Katushka might love me without being my legal wife if she wished so and other factors didn’t compel her. But now she was compelled by nobody neither by father nor by mother but by an accursed ghastly demon, money, society and environment to sell herself for an entire life so as she may sustain life. All the girls sell themselves either for an hour or a day at a low price or for an entire life to keep soul and body together.

“Stop crying Katushka. Now you see why I detest the world so intensely.”

She did not understand what I said but kissed me a kiss which could have been given by none but a Russian black haired girl.

“When shall we meet again?” she asked.

“Can we go for a little turn after dinner?”

“All right. After dinner.”

III

On the whole, I had a dull time having dinner with Katushka her mother and the other woman. After dinner, Katushka and I went for a turn. We walked for more than half an hour. The sky was being mildly enveloped in darkness.

Leisurely we perambulated through the cypress trees in the woods. A thin mass of cloud had rendered the sky blue. The routes were silent and solemn. The barking of dogs fell upon our ears from afar. Katushka was murmuring a Russian song and I was listening. Half an hour rolled away. On a hill in the woods was mounted a scaffolding. Katushka was tired.

“Would you like to rest awhile?”

“Good idea!”

“Let’s go up the scaffolding.”

“I dread I may fall.”

“Don’t fear. I’ll help you up. The air here is rather unbeatable. Up there, the air is far better.”

The scaffolding had five steps. The instant she put her foot on the first step, the scaffolding made a jerk. Katushka flung herself into my arms. It was a propitious moment for us to exchange passionate kisses once more. Then, I helped her up. We were surrounded by black trees whose tops quavered like ripples. Softly and soulfully, Katushka resumed murmuring the same Russian song. I held her hand in mine and called her name. For answer she reclined her head upon my shoulder. If only this silence would elongate itself into eternity! An instant afterwards, she asked: “What brought you here?”

“First, I had promised you so.”

“And second … .”

“Second, I came here because my father is here.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

“It was hardly worth mentioning. You respect your parents so much. My attitude, however, is the exact opposite, in everything, I mean.”

“Acquaint me with him or are you ashamed of doing that?”

“Why should I be? I simply don’t like it. But if you wish, tomorrow, I … .”

She buried her face in my arms.

“Not tomorrow.”

“Why not tomorrow?” She put her hands round my neck, covering me with frantic kisses and wept excoriating tears. I unclasped her hands from my neck, taking her cheeks between my two hands and cast a glance into her eyes in the dark.

“Stop crying Katushka. I understand you. Such is your world. I love you, Katushka. I love you so much that I can’t buy you. We had better continue to cherish this illusion. Besides, it’s not a bad one. It consoles us, and inspires hope and courage. You intend to go for a turn with that new-comer tomorrow, don’t you? Well, we shall meet each other tomorrow night.”

“Don’t fancy that I’ll be alone with him. Mom will accompany us. We’ll be his guests at the White Horse Inn tomorrow night. Come without fail. I want to introduce him to you. I wish to know your opinion about him.”

“All right, Katushka. I should call on my father first. After which I’ll join you at White Horse Inn tomorrow night.”

We said no more. Then ardent kisses and caresses spoke for us. Gradually, the moon emerged into sight. It was late. We climbed down the scaffolding. The doves, intoxicated by the moonlight, were billing and cooing. We took great pleasure in giving ear to those warbling birds. It was already 11:00 when I arrived home. I called Friedel. She brought me wine. After some time, the sound of music came to my ears from my neighbor’s room. For a while, I indulged in wine and cigarettes.

IV

At 9:00 in the morning, I came out of my bedroom. At first, I paced up and down the corridor for some time. Friedel, with a white kerchief round her head, was cleaning the rooms. She told me that Katushka and her mother had gone for a turn. I made for the railway station from where I got on a coach while I had my father’s portmanteau with me and set out for the White Horse Inn where my father staying. I got there at 2:30 but my father wasn’t there. I was told that he had left early in the morning. I left the portmanteau with the inn keeper and set out. I reached Green House Inn in the evening but Katushka wasn’t there. Again, Friedel made her appearance. Unlike usual, she was attired in a gorgeous dress.

“Sir, the ladies came and went.”

“You look good tonight, Friedel.”

“I am going to a dance with my fiancée.”

Upon having dinner, I set out for White Horse Inn on foot. I arrived there at 9:00. I was told that my father was in the hall downstairs. I dismounted the stairs and opened the door.

Astonishment seized me when my glance fell on Katushka sitting beside my father. The waiter was removing the used goblets, replacing them with new ones. My father was clean shaven. Katushka was wearing her blue gown and looked prettier than ever before. Immediately, I stormed out. On my card, I scribbled a few words and gave it to the waiter to hand it to Katushka.

“My dear Katushka, you had asked me to introduce my father to you. He is the same man sitting beside you. You had asked me to give my opinion about your would be husband. He’ll make a good husband. You’ll be happy with him. F.”

I turned to the inn keeper and said: “The portmanteau belongs to the man sitting beside that lady.”

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