BY GARETH LANGDON
Art has the unique, seemingly contradictory ability of showing us the truth and transporting us away from reality. Books, especially, can serve as a window into a whole new world – a world as faraway as a different galaxy, or as inaccessible as the mind of another person long dead. In Ramita Navai’s collection of stories, City of Lies, we are given access to a world completely on its own, and one which very few take the time to see.
I call City of Lies a collection of stories, but that is a misnomer. The book traces the lives of several protagonists, each in their own chapter. These are all based on real people who lived, and in some cases died, in Tehran. We meet prostitutes, gangsters, meth addicts, porn stars, opressed women and transexuals. “Lying” begins the book’s Prologue, “is about survival”. The people documented in this book are doing nothing more than trying to survive and this involves a lot of lying – sometimes to themselves, and sometimes to others.
Navai’s background in journalism comes through strongly in her debut book. The stories are told in the detached, matter-of-fact way you may find in a newspaper article. But this doesn’t detract from the power of the stories she is telling. The facts speak for themselves. The fiction in this book serves only to protect the real people behind these stories – little lies to protect the big liars.
The book wrestles with truth throughout. Each narrative pivots around a significant lie, often tied to a deep religious conflict, a political belief or a romantic betrayal. The Tehran presented to us is one of contradictions where the lies serve to protect and maintain the status quo but end up revealing it as a farce. Navai is ruthless in her dissection of the city, searching every nook and cranny for the darkest secrets buried there. As a native Tehrani raised in England, Navai provides a unique perspective on the city and its inhabitants, at once participant and observer. She never holds back in her criticism and remains detached – you may say, journalistic – about her subjects. But the book is not without a hint of sadness. One gets the impression that Navai is not only criticising but also mourning her home. At times she is nostalgic and at others purely pessimistic. The Prologue and Epilogue allow the author’s voice to come through clearly, bookending the otherwise foreign and intimidating Tehrani underworld.
The prose is tight and punchy, but for those unfamiliar with Navai’s work, may come off as brief and harsh. She dispenses with the artful and graceful prose of a novel and lets the facts speak for themselves delivering them to us unobscured. Put simply, she tries to tell us the truth.
City of Lies is an eye-opening read and a challenging journey through the darkest corners of Tehran. It will transport you to another world, but be warned, this world is not a pretty one.
City of Lies is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.