A statue of Persian poet Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi .
A statue of Persian poet Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi .

Kaveh Akbar's 'Martyr': A mosaic of art, grief, and identity

A tale of a death-obsessed writer told in prose that nudgess readers to feel inexplicable emotions

Since its release, Iranian American poet Kaveh Akbar’s debut novel Martyr has been creating waves, and for all the right reasons. The story of Cyrus Shams—the logophile (lover of words), and orphan protagonist, who strives, albeit exhaustively, to salvage or heal his world through art—is told in a prose that helps the reader feel things that are otherwise rendered ineffable.

Kaveh attempts to write about martyrdom but ultimately rejects its possibility. As the novel progresses, we see Cyrus experience exhaustion and ennui with art and writing. But he stays at it. Even if art can’t reprieve—it can’t bring back his parents—it offers him something like “palliative care”. It serves as an elegy that gives him room to lament, grieve, and eventually, feel better.

Cyrus was brought up in America by his father, Ali Shams, after the death of his mother. He was a baby when they moved to the US from Iran. His father tried to hide his Iranian identity since he believed that “announcing his Iranianness was to invite violence, harm”. He worked as a labourer in a chicken farm, and made sure his son got a good education, until he died of a sudden stroke when Cyrus was in college.

The novel grows on a reader. Cyrus’s quest, and struggle with art, feels personal as he delves into his family history, almost remaining oblivious to his personal life. We realise that he is obsessed with death. When he finds out that his mother’s Iran Air flight 655 was accidentally shot down by USS Vincennes (a US Navy missile cruiser), and he wanted to define what her death should be called, he questions, “......so was she a martyr? There has to be a definition of the word that can accommodate her. That’s what I am after.”

'Martyr' by Kaveh Akbar
'Martyr' by Kaveh Akbar

The novel’s structure is mosaic, with each chapter containing something contemplative, expressed in a meditative language, that is not always capable of putting the exact words to the emotions. Look at how Cyrus’s mother Roya Shams describes her friend Leila: “A horse is beautiful, a mountain or an ocean is beautiful. Leila, in those sunglasses, was something else. Something beyond language.” In another instance, on discovering the word ‘sonder’, which means the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own, Cyrus thinks, “Incredibly, how naming something took nothing away from its stagger. Language could be totally impotent like that.”

Akbar’s narrator changes in each chapter, which somehow makes them incandescent. Cyrus’s meeting with a cancer-stricken artist Orkideh, who is spending the last days of her life in the Brooklyn Museum, helps him face his questions about martyrdom, life and death. Akbar beautifully captures their meeting. The tenderness and affection between them remind Cyrus of his days with grief. Never would a reader imagine that this meeting hid behind it a mystery, an interesting twist to the tale. And, here lies Akbar’s dexterity as a writer.

Until this point, the novel was beautifully meandering into the uncertain, without feeling like an atypical novel. But, Akbar had more in store. As he delves into history to tell the story of Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi, the author informs his readers that the the great Persian poet’s epic poem—The Shahnameh: The Book of Kings—serves as an interlude to the tale. The author also includes anecdotes and ironic tales of misery from Iran, such as the story of a boy named Alireza, who adopted his brother’s name after his death in order to advance in studies.

As a result, he served both his and his brother’s two-year conscription and was killed during the latter.Interestingly, majority of Akbar’s characters are queer, although whether the decision was deliberate or it was simply the demand of the narrative is unclear. There’s Cyrus’s unhappily married mother, who was in love with his husband’s best friend’s wife. Then, there’s Cyrus’s love affair with his best friend and roommate Zee Novak, which exists at a subconscious level.

Martyr is by far among the best novels to have come out this year. The sincerity of the prose can perhaps be attributed to the evident parallels between Akbar and his protagonist. Only one decision separates the

two. While Cyrus drops the idea of writing due to an inability of language, Akbar takes to it to write dazzling poetry and prose. That Martyr has been shortlisted for this year’s Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize, is therefore, no surprise.

The New Indian Express