SEPTEMBER 27, 2014
AT THE HEART of Gina Nahai’s sweeping, multigenerational novel The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. — which chronicles a longstanding feud in the Soleyman family that begins in Tehran in the 1950s and is carried over to present-day Los Angeles — lies the importance of names. “A name, after all,” we are told, “defined not only the person, but dozens of generations of his grandchildren as well. It determined a family’s status, occupation, and the limits of their aspirations.” So it is no wonder that a name is claimed, coveted, revered, envied, and, when contested, reason enough for bloodshed.
The harbinger of this bloodshed is a man known only as “Raphael’s Son,” born in Tehran to a woman alternately called “Raphael’s Wife” and the “Black Bitch of Bushehr.” Raphael’s Son is regarded by everyone, except his mother, as anything but Raphael’s son.
Raphael Soleyman was himself the older son of Izikiel the Red, who raised himself out of Tehran’s Jewish ghetto and amassed a fortune trading wool and fine fabrics. When Reza Shah, in the middle of the last century, issued an edict that all men and women choose a surname, Izikiel the Red dubbed himself “Izikiel Soleyman.” But if Raphael inherited from his father the two assets most desired in Iranian society — a good name and wealth — he also inherited a third, less enviable condition: an illness peculiar to the Soleyman bloodline, which, for a “lack of medical designation,” was known as “incandescence.” This condition caused his heart to glow “a pulsating blue-white color” as if “his chest were made of glass and his skin were transparent.” A sleepwalker afflicted with intestinal worms, Raphael strolled through the streets at night, his glowing heart attracting moths, fireflies, nocturnal birds, and “insomniac ghosts.”
It’s during one of his nocturnal walks that Raphael is spotted by the Black Bitch, who has made her way to Tehran after escaping from her family of “palm readers and sorcerers and harem maids” from Bushehr, a port city on the Persian Gulf. The two, though Jewish, commit to a temporary marriage, in accordance with Shiite Islamic law, which allows a man to have an unlimited number of temporary wives (temporary being as brief or as sustained as the man wishes).
Shunned by Raphael’s family, the Black Bitch is nonetheless tolerated until Raphael’s early death, when Aaron, the younger son of Izikiel, pays her off and evicts her from the Soleyman household. Leaving behind a trail of curses, she reappears two years later dragging a boy by the hand, and declares, “Oh ye of little faith, this is the true and legitimate son of Raphael Soleyman.”
And so begins the feud, which culminates where the novel begins: with the disappearance, in June 2013, of Raphael’s Son from his Aston Martin, parked in front of his $52 million house in Holmby Hills in Los Angeles. In the car is a pool of blood but no body.
The premise brings to mind the very funny 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which Louis Mazzini, 10th Duke of Chalfont — whose mother was disowned by her aristocratic British family after she eloped with an Italian opera singer — systematically eliminates relatives (all brilliantly played by Alec Guinness) who stand between him and his dukedom. Kind Hearts and Coronets was loosely based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, whose shunned protagonist is not Italian but the son of a Jewish merchant and a Christian mother from a noble family — the Gascoynes. After years of suffering insults for being a Jew — even though he was baptized a Christian — Israel murders his way, in a far less comedic fashion than in the film, to the title of earldom in order to gain society’s respect.
In the novel, the slighted man — Israel Rank, the one desperate to obtain societal approval — is slighted because of his Jewish name. In Nahai’s novel, the twist is that Raphael’s Wife and, later, Raphael’s Son covet the Soleyman name because the Soleymans, having left behind the decrepit Jewish ghetto, have, through their wealth and subsequent education, entered the upper echelons of Iranian society, Jewish name and all.
Like many Jews, the Soleymans prospered during the Pahlavi reign — the rule of Reza Shah from 1925 until 1941, and his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, from 1941 until 1979. Freed from many — though not all — of the civic and legal restrictions imposed on them during the Qajar dynasty, the Jews of Iran, present in the country for over 2,700 years, were once again allowed to flourish.
The name “Soleyman” references King Solomon, believed to have built the First Temple in Jerusalem and associated with the golden age of a united kingdom of Israel, before it would split into two under the rule of his sons. The Black Bitch’s declaration, upon her return — “Oh ye of little faith, this is the true and legitimate son of Raphael Soleyman” — is a reference to Matthew 6:30, from the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament and part of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus, in a discussion about people’s worry over material wealth says, “Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, Shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” This verse follows a direct reference to King Solomon, in verse 6:29 of the Gospel of Matthew: “And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”(“these” being the flowers in the field).
If the Soleymans prospered — as did thousands of other Jews — in a climate of economic and social disparity, they later paid the price when the revolution of 1979 uprooted most of them and sent them into exile to various corners of the world — yet another addendum to the long legacy of Jewish diaspora.
A sizable number — an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 — made their home in the United States, the vast majority settling in Los Angeles (referred to by many as “Tehrangeles”). One of Nahai’s gifts is her astute observation of this community, her own, which she describes with unsparing precision. She speaks of the “new royals” — “every chambermaid and seventh cousin thrice removed” who suddenly claimed to have been related to the royal family and therefore worthy of the title of “prince or princess”; of “an absurd number of former conscripts from the Iranian armed forces” who introduced themselves as having once been “personal pilot to the shah”; of women whose pastime became shopping on Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, and families who, after fleeing Iran, “took with them the boldness of the once-untouchable ghetto dweller who, overnight, became part of the master class in Iran, the greenness of the carpetbagger who believes he can carry an entire civilization in his slight, battered suitcase.”
Tellingly, two characters who ascribe to blind American optimism both meet tragic ends, one in Tehran, the other in Los Angeles: named after icons of the American dream — Jay Gatsby and John Wayne — both fall victim to disillusionment. In Tehran, Jaaveed Ghareeb, “with a degree in English literature from Harvard and an affinity for silk scarves and tiepins and white suits with wide, padded shoulders,” changes his name to Jay Gatsby, after the character in Fitzgerald’s novel, because “he felt he was reading his own and his people’s story: there was the rags-to-riches trajectory, the tension between new and old money, the yearning for beauty.” His destiny ends up being as catastrophic as that of his namesake. The other character, Jahanshah Varasteh — dubbed “John Vain” by the Mexicans who work in the shop where Jahanshah buys his cowboy boots — brings to America the blessing of “ninety-nine years of good luck” that he received from a woman “in a transparent white chador” — perhaps a ghost — when he was a boy recently abandoned by his father during a vacation near the Caspian. In Los Angeles, John Vain launches his restaurant, Lucky 99, financing it through a forged loan application and employing Iranian exiles he can only afford to pay on credit. His luck, as it turns out, does not hold in America.
Raphael’s Son, who throughout his boyhood accompanied his mother on her vengeful visits to the Soleymans and would remember for decades to come “the color of the sky that morning when he and his mother were thrown out of the Big House” and “the way the door slammed behind them the moment they had cleared the threshold,” decides, once in Los Angeles, that the way through those closed doors is with astronomical wealth. Devising a Ponzi scheme that fattens his own bank account and those of many of his compatriots, he eventually gains the community’s tolerance, if not acceptance. That Nahai gives us the monetary value of many of the possessions described in the Los Angeles sections of the book is telling: we learn that Raphael’s Son wore $2,800 Zegna suits and $700 jeans from Barney’s; that he had a $30,000 gold Rolex Daytona and a “five-karat diamond pinkie ring he wore instead of a wedding band”; that when the police arrived to investigate his disappearance — and possible murder — his wife Neda had on a $275 bathrobe purchased “at the spa of the ugly and expensive Montage hotel.”
The number of people who may wish Raphael’s Son dead is not negligible: they include his wife; his gardener; the investors ruined after the 2008 collapse of his Ponzi scheme (which managed to spare him and his maternal family members, known as the “Riffraff Brigade”); certain members of that very same Riffraff Brigade; his bookkeeper and “personal slave” Eddy Arax, whose face was disfigured by chemicals during the Iran-Iraq War and who is living in America on an expired visa; a union boss named Jimmy Lorecchio; and countless others who crossed his path and were inevitably wronged.
Nahai’s decision to give us biographical sketches of each of these characters and dozens of others who populate this eventful novel is perhaps one area where the book falters. We know what Neda’s housekeeper, Esperanza Guadalupe di Chiara Valencia, eats for lunch (“a grilled vegetable sandwich with a side of quinoa and garbanzo beans in a lemon tahini sauce from Joan’s on Third,” and, for dessert, “a cup of mixed berries from Whole Foods, sprinkled with sweet agave nectar from Trader Joe’s”). We are told that the panhandler Kareem Islam maintains a small apartment with his wife — also a panhandler — in “the Pico-Robertson area among all the Orthodox Jews,” and that Jimmy Lorecchio, the union boss, is estranged from his wife and children and has a sister who “hadn’t reached out to him or returned his calls since Christmas 2001.” These details are entertaining up to a point, beyond which one begins to crave for a few characters’ inner thoughts rather than a roomful of characters’ amusing quirks. What the novel offers in scope and breadth it withholds in interiority.
Most of the narrator’s comments are sharp, funny, or cutting, but they can be, every now and then, surprisingly bland. In one instance, for example, after a humorous passage that describes Americans’ wariness of their new Iranian neighbors who “haggled for everything because where they came from the ‘asking price’ was only a place from which to start negotiations,” we curiously get this lackluster sentence: “And yet there was also this: the laws of the United States and the spirit of generosity upon which it was founded assured a level of tolerance and opportunity rarely available anywhere else in the world.” The ever-present often-witty narrator perpetually remarks on the characters, sometimes leaving little room for them to have thoughts or feelings of their own, as in the case of Aaron’s wife, Elizabeth Soleyman.
After Raphael’s death, Aaron sells his brother’s wing of the house to a Jewish family consisting of “Madame Doctor,” her mathematician husband “the professor,” and their children — eight-year-old Elizabeth and her twin little brothers. The new tenants are beleaguered by repeated floods that occur mysteriously and are believed to be caused either by the Black Bitch’s curse or by her “widow’s sigh” — “a black wind that blew from the darkest corners of the universe to punish those who broke a widow’s heart.” Eventually, a massive flood drowns the family, leaving one survivor — Elizabeth.
A “doe-eyed” girl, a math wiz who “read science textbooks for entertainment,” Elizabeth was intent on marrying the much older and very eligible Aaron Soleyman from the moment she met him. Years later, after losing her family, a teenage Elizabeth visits him with a box of marzipan on the Persian New Year and proposes to him. He accepts, because, “Why not?” His heart had been broken after an illicit affair he had had with his uncle’s wife, Fereshteh, and this marriage, it seems, is as good as any.
Though we are told that Elizabeth “adored [Aaron] in her dispassionate way,” we experience very little of this adoration. Dispassionate people have interior lives too, but we get almost none of Elizabeth’s. Later the narrator tells us:
Not that anyone asked, because there was no need to — the answer was so obvious, even the village idiot would have figured it out all on his own — but there was a reason why eight-year-old Elizabeth had homed in on Aaron […]. You didn’t have to know Freud to see that Aaron embodied everything Elizabeth’s father had lacked: confidence, power, good looks, the ability to make a quick exit if the house were on fire.
At the risk of being called the village idiot, this reader would have preferred to have experienced Elizabeth’s feelings for Aaron rather than receive a psychological précis from the narrator.
What Elizabeth does have is a supernatural dimension: she smells like the Caspian Sea, a scent that’s “heady and strange” and that drifted “from her hair and skin and filled every space she walked into.” This, along with Raphael’s “incandescence,” brings the novel to the realm of magical realism, a technique Nahai has used in previous works. In her novel Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, another character, Roxanna, smells like the sea; she also develops feathers in her sleep and is able to fly. But while in that novel no one other than Roxanna’s sister Miriam could smell the scent or accept the feathers as an ordinary occurrence, in this book everyone is able to smell Elizabeth’s scent and to perceive Raphael’s glow, which are accepted as fact even though they are scientifically inexplicable. This places The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. more securely in the magical realist tradition, which has been characterized in one early definition (by Amaryll Chanady, in her book, Magical Realism and the Fantastic) as the coexistence in a novel of “a rational and irrational worldview.”
The magical elements of the book originate in the Tehran sections, thus depicting Iran as more fluid and mystical, and America as more rigid and rational. While it’s true that Iranian and other Eastern cultures are more steeped in a mystical tradition, one must also question whether perpetuating the image of the East as a land of myths and allegories does not subtract from the very hard realities of its present-day existence.
Ultimately it is Angela, Elizabeth’s daughter, who attempts to coalesce the two worlds — Iran and America, mystical and rational, past and present. In her early 40s, a graduate of Princeton and unmarried, Angela is an anomaly in the community. Abandoning her lucrative legal job, Angela is the writer of a blog, The Pearl Cannon, named after a faulty 19th-century Persian cannon that exploded through the back into its own army. Though her main aim, at least initially, was to expose “the truth about the Soleymans’ sworn enemy, that reptile-in-Ferragamo-loafers, Raphael’s Son,” Angela, opinionated and self-righteous, also manages to disparage in her blog every aspect of the Iranian Jewish community. By the book’s end, though, when a little boy named Jonah — also with a luminescent heart — enters her life, she gains a new understanding of the community she had for so long shunned but from which she had been unable to extricate herself.
In the book’s final chapter, which is presented as text from her blog, Angela writes:
They say, in LA, that Iranians feel unjustifiably entitled, that their kids are spoiled at home, their men quick to find a loophole, and their women resistant to rules. It’s true for some, just as it is for any crowd. There may be a Paris Hilton or two among the tens of thousands of Iranians in this town and they do stand out, but the rest of us, I want to say for the record, all carry within us a repository of hardship and struggle, of fear and regret and sorrow.
This recognition, coming as it does in the final pages of the novel, can feel like a last-minute retraction of all that has been portrayed up until that point, a too-easy reconciliation not only between Angela and the community, but also, indirectly, between the narrator and the characters.
Still, there is beauty in the idea of this young boy, whose name, Jonah — like other names in this novel — is not insignificant. Every year, on Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — Jews read from the book of Jonah, which elucidates the concept of teshuvah, often understood as repentance, but more correctly translated as “overturning.” And it is Jonah — named after the reluctant prophet, the son of Amitai (which means truth), who was swallowed by a whale and thrown to the sea before grasping the meaning of teshuvah — who allows past wrongs to be corrected, and helps the present to embrace the past.
Dalia Sofer is the author of the novel The Septembers of Shiraz (Ecco Press), which was selected as a The New York Times “Notable Book of the Year,” has been translated and published in 16 countries, and is currently being adapted to film.