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A Novel That Invokes History — But Can't Quite Define It

Mariner Books

Doris Lessing once said that "passionate polemics about art or anything else are always a sign of health." As Lessing's readers will know, the polemics she wrote were often stringently political. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, the Pen/Faulkner Award-winning writer of the new novel Savage Tongues, makes for an interesting parallel with Lessing. What they share is a certain matter-of-fact style of talking about politics. But what Savage Tongues lacks is the kind of historical specificity Lessing's stories were anchored in — it's the sort of book that uses the word "history" almost every other page, but the histories in question feel overly-broad, and the polemic is more a string of slogans.

The Iranian American protagonist of Savage Tongues, Arezu, has come to Marbella, Spain, two decades after she stayed there as a 17-year-old and became involved in an abusive relationship with her father's step-nephew Omar, who was 40 years old at the time. As an adult, ready to face her past, Arezu goes back to Marbella with her friend Ellie, an Israeli American staunchly opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

"Ellie and I were both born," Arezu notes at the beginning of the novel, "into such deranged whirlpools of geopolitical conflict, with so many contradictory voices swirling through our minds, that locating our own could be a laborious, exhausting task." Once in Marbella, the two women stay at the apartment where Arezu once met Omar. Returning to the place that caused her so much pain, Arezu notes: "I was interested in how desire is shaped by the destructive logic of empire, how at times sex facilitates the transmission of historical violence from one body to another." But how the "whirlpools of geopolitical conflict" and "destructive logic of empire" connect to Arezu's specific circumstances, the reader will have to guess.

Savage Tongues — as a novel that explores Arezu's adult psyche two decades after her abuse and rape at the hands of Omar — doesn't end up as a polemic, but it tries. Mostly, when Oloomi refers to history, she seems just to mean bad things: Arezu's husband does not understand "the historical and political terrain" that informed her past relationship with Omar. Arezu herself realizes that she and Omar were subjected to violence "by the gears of history." It's a strange, hand-waving approach to history. On the one hand it's clear that Oloomi is referring to the history of colonialism and the West's imperial warfare in the lands her characters hail from. On the other hand, it's so general that the word "history" feels interchangeable with politics, identity or oppression.

The setting for the novel in Arezu's past and present is a city in Spain. This is also important to Arezu for, well, historical reasons. Through his abuse, Omar turned Spain "into a cautionary tale," she thinks. "And no wonder. My Muslim ancestors had been purged from medieval Spain centuries earlier, as had Omar's, as had Ellie's Jewish ones. They'd all been eradicated in waves." Confusingly, this idea of history extends back to the early modern period, but Arezu continually invokes East-West dichotomies that are dangerously anachronistic, at one point commenting that Omar's "compulsion to assault my body, however unforgivable, was minute compared to the disfigurement that had been engineered by the West against us both."

Oloomi's premise itself is fascinating ... And every so often, the book makes a lot out of a little. But mostly it makes a little out of a lot.

In that sense, Savage Tongues' undercuts its exploration of Arezu's wrenching past by blunting her understanding of the world. There is little consonance in how Oloomi deals with "history" and Arezu's assault together; the details of her relationship with Omar are complicated and continually questioned, but always with a juxtaposition to histories too oversimplified to support the weight of the comparison.

The novel is top-heavy with the outlines of a plot to which few new things are added. In Marbella, Arezu hallucinates, sees and feels Omar even in his absence, moves languorously through the city with a pace mimicking her struggle with her past. It can be moving, and the prose sometimes of a piece with Leila Slimani's Adele or Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen, but it suffers from a sense of repetition and a lack of intrigue that was pivotal to the other two books' triumphs. Oloomi's premise itself is fascinating, and her task certainly made difficult by dint of the novel broadly outlining itself so early on. And every so often — like in a riveting polemic about Arezu's relation to whiteness — the book makes a lot out of a little. But mostly it makes a little out of a lot. Such that whenever the rare polemic arrives, one wishes it would stay.

Kamil Ahsan is a biologist, historian and writer based in New Haven. He is an editor at Barrelhouse and his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The American Prospect, Salon and Chicago Review.

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Kamil Ahsan