“I am composing a manifesto,” she responds.
Zebra is an anarchist, atheist, and autodidact. She is also an exile, carried in utero from her parent’s home city of Tehran, her parents driven out by a long line of tyrannical conquerors, “each of whom briefly took pleasure in the rubble of dynasties past.” Saddam Hussein, who “proudly launched a brutal and tactless war on a fatigued and divided Iran,” was the despot who ultimately displaced her father and mother. They finally ran for the hills, having already suffered enough loss to last a lifetime.
Growing up on the run, Zebra’s life and mind are stuffed with literature. How does an exile also live as a bibliophile? Memorization, among other things. In the moments of stasis, Zebra’s father surrounds her with books by “The Great Writers of the Past”: Friedrich Nietzsche, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Omar Khayyam, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Miguel de Cervantes, Walter Benjamin — the list goes on and on. Zebra’s father had his own familial manifesto. The first commandment: “Trust nobody and love nothing except literature, the only magnanimous host there is in this decaying world. Seek refuge in it.”
What Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts did for gender and sexuality, Call Me Zebra does for the experience of exile, deftly threading the narrative with theory while also using theory to pull the reader in. Though Call Me Zebra happens to be fiction, both books are stuffed with complex ideas made irresistible and lyric. Both symbiotically use philosophy to clarify and amplify the human story. “The literature produced by exiles [is designed to] objectify and lend dignity to a condition designed to deny dignity,” Zebra says, citing the postcolonial theorist Edward Said. “By transcribing the literature of such writers we will be restoring dignity not only to literature, but also to ourselves.” A person of no particular nation, Zebra is left situated in her own body and mind. Similar to The Argonauts, there can be some liberation in living beyond an inherited identity. It can also be quite isolating.
The bulk of Call Me Zebra features our bereaved and outspoken protagonist pursuing a literal reverse-exile tour of her family’s anguish. It is a tour of familial erasure and it often only leads her deeper into her own mind. “More than anything else in the world, I felt the need to record the uselessness of my family’s suffering,” Zebra says. “That obligation to share our story, to sound it out as an alarm, had been assigned to me by my dead father and was so exhaustive that it competed with every other rudimentary need: food, sleep, the company of others.” Zebra is obsessed and relentless. She is — in hilarious ways — a lot to handle. Van der Vliet Oloomi sets herself the tall task of writing a precocious narrator, a self-proclaimed “expert connoisseur of literature,” a narrative path that’s littered with prospective pitfalls. In less capable hands, this could easily be annoying or unconvincing, but Zebra is unvaryingly brilliant and deadpan funny.
With a small bit of funding from her American mentor — “Ah,” he notes early in the book, “you have pitched your tent in the same dark forests as I have” — Zebra travels from New York City to Barcelona to Girona to Albanyà. Many writers tend to thrive at a particular scale and rhythm, but Call Me Zebra demonstrates that Van der Vliet Oloomi can write a story of any size. In 2012, Dorothy, a publishing project, released her debut, a surreal murder mystery titled Fra Keeler. Fra Keeler is a novel in a single sustained place and scene as the reader is led by the sleuthing narrator’s acrobatic mind. Call Me Zebra, meanwhile, is an international novel that roves through Iran, Spain, and the United States; it matches Fra Keeler with its obsessive pursuit of meaning, but the pathway this time leads us through world history and halfway around the globe.
As she travels, Zebra takes the saga of both exile and literature on her shoulders. She believes in a “giant literary womb” in which every text is a mutant and a doppelgänger; all books are “connected to one another via nearly invisible superhighways of language.” Literature has evolved through a process of “borrowing, repetition, plagiarism.” Once Zebra starts down this path of finding everything to be connected, she doesn’t stop until everything is included. She calmly explains to another character that instead of the universe absorbing her father upon his death, she later learned she had absorbed him through metempsychosis. Zebra adds, “I’ve recently discovered that I’ve also absorbed traces of my mother through my father, who had absorbed her previously.”
Rather than finding herself represented at each stop on her journey, Zebra is reminded of the manner in which — in a physical sense — exiles are erased. Alienated from her worldly experience, Zebra digs deeper into the inherited ideas of her father’s idols. “I redirected my attention to [Walter] Benjamin,” Zebra says, “a man unafraid of holding a candle to the night in order to measure the immensity of the darkness that surrounds us.”
Though transient and nearly broke, Zebra also finds a variety of ways to anchor her body and mind to the earth. She carries a notebook, for example, that she fills with mantras and maxims from her literary forebears. “I came to myself in a dark wood / for the straight way was lost,” is a line from Dante that serves as a slogan for her journey. Zebra relentlessly rattles off these profound meditations even in the most inopportune of moments. As she and Ludo Bembo, the man she’s sometimes falling in love with, stumble toward the bedroom, she — in between bouts of kissing — quotes the Greek mythological hero Silenus: “What is the best of all is utterly beyond your reach; not to be born, not to be, to be Nothing. But the second best for you is — to die soon.” Ludo stops, takes off his glasses, and rubs his face. She notices he looks tired.
Against her independent spirit and desires, Ludo becomes the most powerful connection Zebra has to the larger physical world. Though fiercely intellectual and compelled toward identifying the macabre in the universe, Zebra also learns “how easily one person can become laced with another.” It is through Ludo that Zebra finds her ragtag gang of fellow exiles, a group that shares her alienated experience and that she hopes will share her efforts to chart their disappearances onto the world. She calls them “The Pilgrims of the Void,” and she paradoxically manages to both force inclusion and make the criteria for membership strict. Prerequisites for participation include experiences of disenfranchisement, rejections, financial or psychic poverty, and voluntary or involuntary exile. On a three-hour hike from Palafrugell to El Far de St. Sebastià, where the Catalan journalist Josep Pla would go to write in his notebook, one member starts crying. “My rash is burning,” she says, “from all the sweat.”
“My dear Remedios, discomfort is a literary experience you have to learn to bear,” Zebra responds. “Imagine how you will feel once you are standing in the center of the void. Terrible! That’s how! You have to build your endurance.”
One of the greatest components of Call Me Zebra is how funny it is. Van der Vliet Oloomi’s narrator is mostly aware of her bizarre nature, but it’s a state she has long and comfortably settled into. Other than Ludo, the most lasting and powerful friend Zebra makes on her reverse-exile journey is a “mongrel” bird that she steals from her borrowed apartment in Barcelona. Despite the bird’s disagreeable attitude, he makes a perfect companion to Zebra. She carries him with her in her suitcase to Girona and Albanyà. At a restaurant, the bird puts his beak to the suitcase’s drilled air holes. The Pilgrims of the Void eat plates of sausages and rice while the bird releases “macabre screams at fixed intervals” throughout the meal.
Confident in her ways and carrying the spirit and intellect of the world’s greatest theorists within her, Zebra is also an expert at telling people off. While Ludo is her lover and a near-equal intellectually, she also feels “sporadically suffocated by his presence.” In one scene, Zebra tells him she has good news and bad news. Which does he want to hear first? He says, “The good news?” already with a general sense of what he’s in for. She tells him he has a benevolent and tender mouth and, to a certain extent, an unruffled spirit. “And the bad?” Zebra tells him he lacks imagination and his mind is as stiff as a stick.
Zebra’s ferocious intellect and razor-sharp wit provide her a certain amount of armor against a world that has disenfranchised and destroyed her family — both her biological and her intellectual one. While in the United States, she receives an endless stream of mail from various universities offering her scholarships. “This is perfectly in keeping with American foreign policy,” Zebra says. “Interfere with and profit from far-flung governments at the peril of their citizens, and once those poor, unfortunate souls have been dispatched to the Four Corners of the World, in exile and on their knees, offer a scattering of them asylum and a compensatory education.” Zebra’s father had long warned her that the world’s numb-skull intellectuals, which form 99.9 percent of all intellectuals, would feed her lies — to spit the lie right back out. She doesn’t take the scholarships. She is her own greatest teacher.
Call Me Zebra also features quietly devastating moments when Zebra’s emotional defenses fall away, when we are reminded that because of tyranny, war, and poverty, she has been left entirely alone to process her family’s eradication from the earth. “There is nothing noble about my suffering,” Zebra observes at one point. “It is the result of an exhaustive investigation into the deepest recesses of human nature — its senselessness and propensity toward fakeness, its lack of honesty.” At times, she finds that the likelihood of being right — about how unjust and cruel the world is — doesn’t necessarily lead to a transcendent place. It simply identifies the reality she is stuck with.
While Zebra is typically the one taking her revenge on the world by “contaminating it with [her] thoughts and [her] suffering,” her compatriots don’t always simply roll over. Late in the book, Ludo quiets Zebra long enough to tell her that the way she copes with her past is unbearable to him, that there are toxic effects to her behavior. While she tries to protest, he tells her he struggles with her sudden disappearances and pathological indifference toward the living. He also dislikes her patterns of consecutive days lying in bed, “stinking up the bedroom as if [she] were a corpse.” Referring to her obsession with the void, he asks, “What are you hoping to find? It’s not a treasure box.”
As Zebra rightly identifies, “a book is a counselor, a multitude of counselors,” but a force that mediates can also be one that separates. One night unable to sleep, she wanders her room, with her bird walking by her heels. She thinks of the words of Albert Camus:
Everything is strange to me, everything without a single person who belongs to me, with no place to heal this wound. I am not from here — not from anywhere else either. And the world has become merely an unknown landscape where my heart can lean on nothing.
This is the sort of thought that might rouse many in the darkness of night. But in Zebra’s case in the morning, Ludo is there.
Ulysses sets off on a Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, Don Quixote on a Grand Tour of Literature, and Dante the Pilgrim on a Grand Tour of Human Nature. Zebra decides she can do all three at once. She largely manages it, in part by eventually giving up some of her absolutism, by accepting that mapping the void is a fundamentally impossible task. Zebra is the smartest narrator you will encounter this year, and she’s smart enough to finally know that she cannot reliably chart meaning in a senseless world. “We can only conquer life a little at a time,” Zebra reflects. “There will always be a remainder out of reach.”
Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes to Literary Hub, The Atlantic, The Millions, the Washington Post, Electric Literature, and more.