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"Review of 'Martyr!' by Kaveh Akbar: A Vibrant Story of a Mourning Child"

“Review of ‘Martyr!’ by Kaveh Akbar: A Vibrant Story of a Mourning Child”


Yrus Shams does not possess many positive qualities. He struggles with alcoholism and is an unknown poet of Iranian-American descent living in Indiana. He makes a living by pretending to be a terminally ill patient for medical trainees. His mother was killed by the US navy, and even his name seems to be a disapproval. It is not surprising that he has turned to writing a book on martyrdom as a way to find purpose in his life, although it remains mostly unwritten despite his extensive planning.

Cyrus’s mother was among the 290 individuals on Iran Air flight 655 when it was targeted by the USS Vincennes, who thought it was a fighter jet. Her death holds great significance for Cyrus, as he wishes for it to hold more meaning than just a statistic. He yearns for her to be seen as a martyr and also desires the same recognition for himself, in hopes of silencing the “doom organ” that constantly pounds in his throat.

When his encouraging companions come across an advertisement for DEATH-SPEAK, the most recent exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, they believe “if anything has ever felt like a signal, this seems like a sign.” Orkideh, an Iranian-American artist with a terminal cancer diagnosis, will spend her remaining days residing in the gallery and conversing with anyone who joins the line. If that isn’t a pursuit of finding significance in death, then what is? Cyrus is easily persuaded to use his remaining savings on the plane ticket.

So far, he has revered Bobby Sands, Joan of Arc, and the Tiananmen Square Tank Man, but the lady he meets at the Brooklyn gallery completely changes his perspective. He goes back every day, excited to see her once more, and realizes that she feels the same way. However, as he starts to gather more and more questions for his new teacher, Cyrus overlooks the fact that she is dying from cancer.

In addition, Akbar portrays a diverse and ever-changing depiction of the events that have led our aspiring martyr to this moment. We are shown his mother, Roya, who is unhappily married but finds solace in the wife of her husband’s best friend. We also see his father, who is enraged and thrown off balance by his wife’s senseless death (“Ali’s anger felt insatiable, almost otherworldly, like a deceased dog yearning for its own bones”), emigrating to Indiana with his infant son. Furthermore, we are introduced to his uncle, who is drafted into the Iran-Iraq war with no education, special skills, or responsibilities beyond his country. He is assigned the task of riding a horse through the dark killing fields at night, dressed as an angel in a black cloak, providing last rites to his fellow soldiers who will be left to slowly perish. However, he can only offer them religious certainty as he is forbidden to give them the water they truly desire. Tragically, Roya was on a plane to visit him in a PTSD ward in Dubai when it was destroyed.

While struggling with sleeplessness, Cyrus creates imaginary conversations between real and fictional people. In these surreal situations, Roya talks to Lisa Simpson while Trump talks to Orkideh, who is searching for a copy of Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.”

It is evident that this novel approaches the reader from various perspectives, some light-hearted and playful, others more fanciful and dark. The author, a highly esteemed poet with three award-winning collections to their name and formerly praised in the US as a champion of poetry, unsurprisingly includes poems in this work. However, there are also monologues from Cyrus’s lover and Orkideh’s art dealer, as well as a brief history of Iranian epic poet Ferdowsi. While this fragmented and mosaic-like technique creates a lively and chaotic energy, it comes at a cost. As Cyrus continues to dwell on his deep sadness and struggles, he becomes the least interesting and least dynamic aspect of the novel. Even his closest friend tells him, “You just wallow in self-pity and don’t write.” When a significant revelation is revealed to him, it lacks the emotional impact it deserves. It’s not that we don’t sympathize with Cyrus’s anger and pain, but Akbar makes it difficult for us to truly empathize.

  • Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar is published by Picador (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com