October 19, 2018

Home is where ‘The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.’ is

Gina B. Nahai’s new novel, “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.” (Akashic Books) is a wildly inventive story of the Soleyman family that travels back and forth in time between 1950s Tehran and present-day Los Angeles. This Iranian Jewish clan was thriving in Iran before Ayatollah Khomeini decimated their world. Los Angeles has offered some of them safe haven, but it is still not home, and Nahai shows us their struggle with a continued disorientation. Her story focuses on a man she calls “Raphael’s Son,” who believes himself to be the rightful heir to the Soleyman name and fortune; although the family have all negated his claim. We learn of his mysterious and brutal murder in the opening pages of the book. Raphael’s Son had been living in Los Angeles for many years by now, partaking in one criminal exploit after another, and was generally feared and hated. When the police begin to investigate his murder, all kinds of secret alliances and past transgressions among the entire Soleyman family are revealed. Nahai shows us how often what we believe to be true isn’t.  

Her novel has an intoxicating and driving rhythm that pulls you right in, but sometimes her third-person narrative voice can seem distant. One senses she is holding back from revealing darker truths about some of her characters’ lives, almost as if she fears shaming them. The Soleyman family seems a sad lot, yet they are bound together by their desire to uphold their family name and reputation. They bear their grief and guilt stoically and privately, calling upon only their inner resilience for comfort.  

Nahai, 54, a Jewish Journal columnist, author, professor and mother of three, left Iran at 13 for boarding school and never returned. Her father’s foresight prompted the family to move to California several years before the Iranian revolution. She has written of her family as an outspoken bunch who often felt uncomfortable among their fellow Jews in Iran. Yet, Nahai seems to feel her abrupt departure from Iran traumatized her in ways she still hasn’t fully sorted out. Los Angeles has been a good home for her and her family, but it doesn’t offer her something she needs that she seems to believe she left back there. And home, even with its cruel misogyny and violence and palpable anti-Semitism, still seems, at least in part in her mind, to be Iran.  Some of her most moving descriptions in this novel show us characters who are still plagued by an intense sense of having been dislodged prematurely. They walk the broad and sunny streets of Los Angeles like ghosts — unseen by others, but, more scarily, also invisible to themselves.  

[Read an excerpt from 'The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.']

For example, the Iranian cop, Leon, who has been assigned to investigate Raphael’s Son’s murder, came to this country as a 14-year-old with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was trying to save him from being used as a minesweeper on the battlefront with Iraq. He was placed with a host family of Ashkenazi Jews who attempted to help him assimilate. They were surprised when he chose a career in law enforcement — unusual for an Iranian Jew. The pressures on Leon already were mounting. He needed to help his sister and mother and father, who had followed him to America in 1997, 13 years after Leon left Iran. Leon had once briefly harbored secret fantasies of becoming a crime writer, but the reality of his life had become engulfed by the pressure to take care of his family, who were completely dependent upon him.

Nahai describes for us in memorable prose the feelings of uselessness that are destroying Leon’s father, and in effect destroying Leon, too, as he was forced to be a daily witness to it. She writes, wistfully, “His father was one of the many thousands of Iranian men who had to choose between living in fear at home or running to safe obsolescence, between being alone in Iran because all their family had moved away, or moving to America to be with his son and, without a job, having to depend on him entirely. He woke up every day and dressed in a suit and tie even though he had nowhere to go. In the afternoon, he took the bus to the Orthodox Iranian shul that was held in a room on the second floor of a strip mall. Then he strolled down to the Persian grocery store on the ground level and spent half an hour selecting the slimmest, crispiest Persian cucumbers. … On his way home, Leon’s father sat in the rear of the bus and cried quietly for his wasted life and ravaged pride.”

We can feel this sense of psychological disintegration and muted yearnings in much of Nahai’s prose. The author herself has confessed in this newspaper that she, too, feels she “lost the country of [my] birth, the places of my childhood, the handprints of my ancestors on the landscape. … I lost the beauty of the land where history began, the glow of a sunlight that was older, more seasoned, more forgiving than what I’ve seen anywhere else. … I lost the colors of the costumes little girls wore to perform the ethnic dances, the faces of young boys who sat on rotting rowboats along the Caspian shore, the sound of the water crashing against smooth black rocks in the Karaj River, the rosewater scent of the first harvest of apples. I lost the ability to go back and see with my own eyes what I can only now revisit in memory.”

But Nahai does go back in her imagination and sometimes reaches transcendent heights, particularly in some of the passages that describe Jewish life in Tehran in the 1950s, when doors had just swung open that had been shut tight for centuries. We hear her restrained elegance and sorrow in her exquisite rendering of Aaron Soleyman, who has just been summoned back to Iran from studying abroad to take over the family business after his father’s sudden death: 

“The truth about Aaron Soleyman is that he was at once blessed and cursed by a birthright he would never be able to escape. You could see it in his eyes — this awareness of the heft of the responsibility he had to bear. He was the offspring of a wealthy Jew who had, thanks to the kindness of the shah and his own outsize abilities, risen overnight from the hardships and deprivations of the ghetto into a world of privilege and excess, who remembered the past too well and was determined never to go back, or even to pause long enough to catch a glimpse of where they came from and how far he had traveled. His father had given Aaron every financial advantage a young person could reasonably aspire to, but he had also charged him with the backbreaking task of fulfilling, in his own life, every lofty ideal and impossible expectation, every foolhardy dream and failed ambition of all the generations of Jews who had lived and died in all the ghettos and back alleys over three thousand years of history in Iran.”

Like her character Aaron Soleyman, Nahai feels this burden, too, and tries to explain to us what it really feels like to be forced to leave the land in which you were raised and then go and try to create something magical somewhere else. Yet she has done so by producing this beautiful book.