There is something strange and wonderful about a first published novel; a special uncertain moment when, like a fledgling bird, the author hops to the edge of the precipice, spreads his literary wings and steps off into the unknown. Will he fall? Will he flutter uncertainly this way and that as he learns to fly? With his first effort, author Mahbod Seraji soars with the ease and grace of one born to ride the wind.
"Rooftops of Tehran" is a coming-of-age novel about Pasha Shahed, a 17-year-old boy growing up in 1973 Iran during the reign of the Shah. One part "Kite Runner," one part "Casablanca," with a sprinkle of "The English Patient," the book is a subtle and nuanced narrative of the angst of adolescence framed by a restrictive religious culture, silhouetted against the backdrop of an insecure, repressive government.
The book's title is drawn from the common summertime practice in Iran's capital city of sleeping on the flat rooftops at night. More than merely a mundane activity that Pasha shares with his friends, the time spent on the roof becomes the literary glue that binds the story together. The mystery of twinkling stars, the freedom of the open sky, even the potential danger from falling, all become symbols of the things Pasha strives to comprehend as he struggles with the day-to-day task of growing to manhood. "Our summer nights on the roof are spent basking in the wide-open safety of our bird's-eye view. There are no walls around what we say, or fear shaping what we think."
Seraji writes with an effortless narrative style. The scenes are full of sights, sounds and smells. His dialogue is natural and unforced. The plot is expertly paced, each chapter revealing just enough to draw you along. As good as the storyline and imagery and dialogue are, it is the people in the story that really make the book come alive. Seraji has a way of creating characters that are so familiar, you feel as though you've known them all your life. "My mother never finished high school, yet she speaks about health issues with the authority of a Harvard graduate. She has a remedy for every ailment: herbal tea to cure depression, liquidated camel thorns to smash kidney stones, powdered flowers to annihilate sinus infections, dried leaves that destroy acne, and pills for growing as tall as a tree -- despite the fact that she stands an impressive five feet tall in stocking feet."
The other remarkable thing about Seraji's writing is the ease with which he is able to create characters we care about. Ten pages into the book and I was already cheering their triumphs and sharing their pain. Most of the lighter moments in the book are supplied by Pasha's best friend and comic foil, Ahmed. "Ahmed is a tall skinny kid with dark features and a brilliant smile ... He's well liked in the neighborhood, and funny. I tell him he could become a great comedian if he took his God-given talent more seriously. 'Yes, more seriously,' he replies. 'I can become the most serious clown in the country.'"
There are moments of laughter and moments of physical pain. However, it is the moments when Pasha must struggle within himself that prove the most poignant. For Pasha does not just seek to discover what it means to be a man; he wants to know what it means to be a good man. All of the truly heroic characters in the book are imbued with a mysterious almost mystical quality referred to only as: "that." "It's all about honor, friendship, love, giving it all you have, living an alert life and not pretending ignorance because it's the easier way out." It is this quality, the instinct to determine the right thing to do combined with the courage to actually do it, regardless of the personal cost, that becomes Pasha's Holy Grail.
If I have one criticism of the book -- and it is a tiny one -- it is that there are a few too many heroes in the book. Pasha's dad is a strong supportive parent who never abuses him. All of his friends, Ahmed, Zari, Faheemeh, and Iraj are loyal and passionate, with quick wits and strong senses of justice -- the sort of best friends everyone wishes they had. The intellectual known as "Doctor," is the embodiment of that. There is even a character known only as "the masked angel," a burqa clad Florence Nightingale who flits in and out of the story caring for the sick and traumatized. In short, Pasha's support system is almost too good to be believed. Still, given the emotional traumas he has to overcome, without this safety net of family and friends, Seraji's protagonist would probably not have been able to survive to the end of the tale.
"Rooftops of Tehran" is without doubt the most impressive first novel I've read in years. It is an emotional triumph of the human spirit and a timeless love story. After such a successful maiden flight, I can hardly wait to see how high Seraji will soar with his next tale.