The Stationery Shop: Things as They Could Have Been

The Stationery Shop (2019)
By Marjan Kamali
Simon and Schuster, 307 pages.

Americans consistently ignore the lesson that they waste time fearing leftists when it’s those on the right who are the real danger. The Stationery Shop is set in Iran, mostly in 1953. That year Mohammad Mossadegh was elected prime minister in the hope he would bring democracy to Iran. He never got the chance; the CIA, British intelligence, royalists, and oil interests overthrew his government. This allowed the autocratic Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to launch brutal reprisals and cozy up to Western powers sucking the oil out of desert sands. In 1979, the Shah was overthrown, but by conservative mullahs led by the Ayatollah Khomeini who installed a theocracy that today makes Iran the fifth most-oppressive government on the planet.

You need to know this to appreciate Marjan Kamali’s novel. On the surface it’s Romeo and Juliet in which its principals succumb to fate rather than suicide, but it’s also a tantalizing look at what should have been on other levels. At its heart is Roya Joon Khanom, who grows up in comfort but not wealth, in a family headed by a father who works for the Shah but supports Mossadegh, a stay-at-home mother, one servant, and a younger sister named Zari. Paterfamilias Mehdi embodies Iran’s struggle between modernism and traditionalism. He wants his daughters to be educated and take command of their lives.

Roya is a curious girl who spends time in the novel’s namesake stationery shop, which also sells books, including those of Rumi, her favorite poet. She spends so much time there that she befriends its owner, Mr. Fahkri. It’s also where she meets and falls in love with Bahman Aslan. Roya’s family is thrilled by their romance, though Zari is skeptical because Bahman seems to love politics as much as he does Roya. She’s also more attuned to rumors Mossadegh will be overthrown. Bahman and Roya are hailed as the boy and girl who will change the world. That’s a heavy burden for anyone to carry.

A bigger obstacle still is Bahman’s widowed mother, who sees Roya as unworthy of her son. She’s also crazier than a cow chewing ergot, but insists that Bahman should marry Shahla, whose family is rich. (A flashback chapter set in 1916 reveals surprising things about Mrs. Aslan.) Opposition leads to an elopement plan, which is aided by Mr. Fahkri. When Roya shows up at Sephah Square where they are to meet, Bahman isn’t there. Even worse, she finds herself in a pro-Mossadegh rally violently broken up pro-Shah forces. Letters go back and forth and Roya is left feeling duped.

As Roya mopes, her father reads the political winds correctly and decides to send both of his daughters out of Iran to study in the United States at Mills College. Roya describes California as looking “like a toy that’s just been opened.” Both sisters unwrap new lives. Zari meets Jack Bishop, who dreams of being a poet, and Roya weds Walter Archer, who looks like comic book character Tintin but is steady and kind.

The Stationery Shop is, thus, stories of paths taken and not taken. It arcs from 1916 into 2013, when both Zari and Roya are old women. Roya knows what happened to Iran, but she has always wondered why Bahman never showed up. That mystery forms the basis for the last part of the novel. Betrayal, it seems, follows a twisted path.

The Stationery Shop is also about social class and the immigrant experience. The latter is often refracted through food and how spices and smells link to culture and memory. That’s not a device; we’ve long known that smell triggers memories. (Warning: American cuisine is lampooned.) It is, of course, an old narrative; immigrants everywhere–including American expatriates–tend to have one foot striding into the future and the other dragging behind in the past. 

I leave it to readers to determine whether The Stationery Shop is an exemplary work of literature, or merely a romance dressed in exotic clothing. I will say, though, that it goes down quickly and easily. Whatever else it might be, it's a good summer read. Once you’ve finished, imagine how the world would have been a better place had Mossadegh remained in power.

Rob Weir


Schultze Gets the Blues Full of Jarmusch-like Quirkiness

Schultze Gets the Blues (2003)
Directed by Michael Schorr
Paramount Classics, 114 minutes, PG
In German (subtitles) and English

I am fond of offbeat films and have sought them during quarantine. Schultze Gets the Blues won’t be everybody’s slice of schnitzel, but it is certainly quirky. I watched it mostly because its description evoked James Kelman’s Dirt Road, a novel in which a lad becomes obsessed with Cajun music. Schultze is like that, but with a Brobdingnagian German man instead of a willowy Scottish boy.  

Schultze (Horst Krause) is a bachelor salt miner in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. To call his life routine is an understatement. Each day he pedals his bicycle–no easy feat for a man as rotund as he–across the flat marshy landscape and always manages to arrive at the rail crossing in time for the gate to come down and a train to pass. He and other workers then sit at the crossing and ring their bike bells impatiently when the crossing gate tender is slow to raise it. (None would dare simply ride around the barrier. That would be too disorderly.) Each day Schultze dons slip-on shoes to go outside and then carefully exchanges them for scuff style slippers when he comes into the house to cook, watch TV, listen to the radio, or pick up his button box to squeeze out a tune. As Kurt Vonnegut would have said, an so it goes.

We come in on Horst as he works his last shift and his two friends, Jurgen and Manfred, are being laid off. Each is given a parting gift: a large plug-in lamp in the shape of a salt nugget! What next? What indeed. Schultze’s certainly not ready to hang out in the spartan community hall where old guys argue over chess moves but on the other hand, changes such as the sassy new waitress as the local café unnerve him. Schultze is your basic pear-shaped silent type. He’s a respected local accordionist famed for a particular polka that he plays at the annual musikverein (music society) gala–just as his father had done.

One day, though, Schultze hears a snatch of Zydeco accordion from a radio show about Louisiana. It becomes his earworm and, courtesy of the waitress who feels sorry for him and gives him a book on Louisiana, bayou culture becomes an obsession. He even gets a cookbook and prepares jambalaya for Jurgen and Manfred. They’re reluctant converts but are well ahead of the curve; most locals are shocked when he plays what he knows of the Zydeco tune at the gala. If you like droll humor, the concert hall scenes are a hoot. Although the event couldn’t be more stereotypically German, attendees are inexplicably dressed in costumes. Schultze looks like a toreador crossed with a mutant ant.

Still, thanks to the kindness of the wives of Jurgen and Manfred, Schultze is chosen to travel to his town’s sister city in America: New Braunfels, Texas. It’s a real place that was largely settled by German immigrants in the 1840s. Schultze is not exactly the jetsetter type, but he makes his way to New Braunfels’ annual German festival. As he sits in the wings awaiting his turn to entertain Texans in lederhosen, he just shakes his head, picks up his accordion, and walks away. Texas is just as dull as his hometown, except he doesn’t understand what anyone is saying! We next see him in an unseaworthy small boat cruising down rivers and through bayous on his way to Nowhere in Particular,  Louisiana. Though he speaks almost no English, Schultze is on a voyage of discovery and fate.  

Schultze gets the Blues is billed as musical comedy and I guess that will do for a label. It has the pacing of Jim Jarmusch films such as Stranger Than Paradise and Mystery Train. Like those films, the humor is layered with irony and absurdity and you must be patient. In order to get inside the head of an inexpressive man who has grown bored, one must show boredom. The best way is to shoot a film that’s as languid as its main character. At its best, Schultze Gets the Blues is unhurried in a painterly way. The bayou only comes in two flavors: lush, dripping with Spanish moss, and creepy; or a flat and featureless landscape in which there’s a whole lot of horizon.

Krause is well cast as a passive foil drifting to whatever lies around the next bend–an observer who isn’t on any sort of mission. This was director Michael Schorr’s first film and he lets his landscapes etch themselves upon the characters. No one does much; they simply exist within those environments until the day in which they are gobbled up by them. Schorr won a best director award at a Stockholm film festival in 2004, and that also makes me laugh, as Schultze has all of the earmarks of a first film, including some fairly major obvious continuity errors. It is a classic blows hot-blows-cold movie, but because it’s so out of the ordinary, I liked it. It’s not great cinema, but if you’ve seen Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, picture his shots of frozen Lake Erie, bake them in a Louisiana sun, and you’ve got Schorr’s bayou. The final scene also has a splash of Bergman-like absurdity á la The Seventh Seal.  

Rob Weir


The Night Watchman Offers Insight into Chippewa Struggle for Justice

The Night Watchman (2020)
By Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins, 397 pages

We can add Native Americans to the list of people Donald Trump doesn’t care about. He’s trying to end tribal recognition (on a technicality) for the Wampanoag tribe—the same folks who helped the Pilgrims and are part of the First Thanksgiving story. It seems their 381 acres of Massachusetts land stands too close to Trumpian Rhode Island allies who want to build a casino and halt one being built by the Wampanoags. The only way to do that is to remove their tribal status.

Coincidentally, Louise Erdrich’s new novel showed up in my library queue as Trump’s latest outrage was unfolding. The link? The Night Watchman is Erdrich’s semi-biographical novel about the federal government’s attempt to dismember the Turtle Band of Chippewas back in 1953. Erdrich, an enrolled Chippewa* tribal member, has produced a work of historical fiction rooted in fact. The character of Thomas Wazhashk (“muskrat”) is based upon her grandfather (Patrick Gourneau), who spearheaded the struggle to stave off “termination” of the Chippewas’ tribal status in North Dakota. It was then, as now, a blatant attempt to seize Indian land–all under the paternalistic rubric of making Indians more “American” and allowing them to fend for themselves because they were allegedly self-sufficient.

Thomas is the book’s namesake character. He guards the jewel factory that makes precision parts for watches and is one of the few employers of the reservation. The jewel factory is real, as was Arthur V. Watkins, a U.S. Senator from Utah known for being racist toward Indians. He sponsored the Congressional bill that eventually terminated 113 tribes. Watkins was also a Mormon, a sect which comes off badly in The Night Watchman.  

Erdrich, a leading voice in Native American literature, paints a rich culture that co-exists with crushing poverty and lack of opportunity. This is a land of outhouses, substandard housing, rampant alcoholism, hunting-gathering, horses, no electricity, and patched up automobiles. Boxing brings status to some of the young men, but lard on bread is sometimes a meal. For all of this, it is also a close-knit community in which people look out for each other and help in any way they can.

Edrich populates her novel with memorable characters. Thomas and his wife Rose are blood kin to the Paranteau family held together by Zhaanat and her daughter Patrice, as Zhaanat’s husband is a violent drunk and another daughter, Vera, has gone to missing in Minneapolis. Patrice is serious, smart, innocent, and beautiful. Men desire her, including Lloyd Barnes, a Caucasian boxing coach, and Wood Mountain, one of Barnes’ most promising boxers. The reservation is filled with colorful individuals, including Wood Mountain and his mother, Juggie Blue; tribal judge Moses Montrose; Thomas’ father Bibbon; the Pipestone family, and more.
Women are powerful figures in The Night Watchman–few more so than Patrice. She might not know about the birds and the bees, but she is determined and is nobody’s patsy. Another character, Millie Cloud, is equally determined. She’s an introverted Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, but she has the data to refute the nonsense that the Chippewa were prosperous enough to survive without government largesse. One might accuse Erdrich of trying a bit too hard to impose feminism into her tale as the Chippewa are not matriarchal and the report attributed to Millie in the story was, in real life, mostly authored by a man (Dr. David Delorme). I shan’t nitpick, though, as I found Erdrich’s focus on women refreshing. I also reveled in how those you least expect have proverbial hearts of gold.

The Night Watchman is a sprawling tale with numerous dark turns. Not much good happens to Indians who end up in cities, be it Fargo or Minneapolis. Erdrich also explores exoticism, an often-veiled aspect of racism, which she explores through the various ways in which whites simultaneously revile natives yet find them alluring. One plot device involves the criminal sex trade, another a barely legal underwater act. At heart, though, The Night Watchman is an inspirational David versus Goliath tale of plucky survival. The reservation is also populated by ghosts. Native cosmology is sometimes described as “thin,” meaning that the barriers between the natural and the supernatural worlds are porous.** This has the potential to reinforce community, a factor Senator Watkins hadn’t anticipated.

The Night Watchman is an engrossing read filled with memorable characters, humanity, and determiation. This will probably be shortlisted for numerous literary awards and, no matter what it wins or doesn’t, it is surely a highlight of the 2020 fiction season. It is also a wakeup call. Indians are too often marginalized in discussions of American racism. Perhaps it’s time for a Red Lives Matter movement.

Rob Weir

 * The Chippewa are Anishinaabe peoples and are sometimes referenced that way. They are also called Ojibwe or Saulteaux, depending upon where they live.
** This often remains the case even when Natives are nominally Christian. Through a process known as syncretism, Christian theology is sometimes grafted onto indigenous beliefs.