In the final pages of Only Sound Remains, Iranian-Australian writer Hossein Asgari posits the ‘impossible metamorphosis of body and soul’ as ‘the only possible cure’ for ‘despair rooted in [his] body … which fed and grew on everything that preceded it: history, culture, and all the surrounding factors’. The lines are uttered by Saeed, the protagonist of Asgari’s debut novel, and they might be thought of as the book’s thesis statement. Arising amidst the death and loss depicted throughout the novel, the note of despair accompanies a detailed and thoughtful engagement with Iranian history and culture (cinema, philosophy, and – most essentially – poetry) throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Though the novel’s allusions are sufficiently rich and lively to limit the pervasive sense of anguish plaguing Saeed, the pain proves ultimately incurable; this is the tension at the novel’s core. 

An Iranian-born writer living in Adelaide, Saeed moves to Australia after publishing a novel, fearing that its political content will invite persecution by the Iranian government. His work concerns the death of his friend Payam, who disappears after being arrested in one of a series of protests. These are suggested to be part of the 2009 Green Movement, which emerged in response to the disputed re-election of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Asgari’s novel takes a greater interest in the relationship between Saeed and his father Ismael, who comes to Adelaide to visit his son. Ismael is a retired teacher of Persian literature and a devout Muslim who condemns the haram cuisine and bikini-clad bodies on display in Saeed’s adopted country. The conflicts and discrepancies between the two men feature among a polyphony of perspectives from various characters, each appearing to represent a different ideology. Throughout, Asgari balances the human with the allegorical, as the novel traces the development of the now transnational filial relationship. 

Asgari presents the story of father and son through a frame narrative in which Ismael’s anecdotes, situating autobiographical events within Iranian history, tend to eclipse Saeed’s life in the present. Occasionally, Ismael uses second-person pronouns, reminding the reader that his is an oral history. The frame narrative splits our attention across two levels of characterisation, in which we see both the drama of the narrative’s content and the concurrent shifts in the narration itself, as Ismael’s character is developed through his chosen disclosures and omissions. The emphasis, however, lies on the content of his tales rather than their context of intergenerational transmission. 

Ismael’s reflections are episodic, structuring the discussion between characters, both real and imagined, who espouse contrasting views on religion, literature, and government indicative of broader schools of thought on these issues. Despite this historical focus, Only Sound Remains emphasises above all the relationship between Saeed and Ismael, as the father hints increasingly at his impending death. ‘I’m alright. I don’t have much time left’, Ismael insists with a sense of urgency when Saeed suggest that they rest, leaving the latter to wonder whether his father means a lack of time in Adelaide or in this world. Although the episodic narrative resists conventional plot and neat causality, clear character arcs are nevertheless delineated by Ismael’s recollections and Saeed’s shifting sense of his father.  

Throughout these episodes, a central figure in Asgari’s engagement with Iranian cultural and political history is the poet and filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad. Farrokhzad has long been controversial but beloved amongst Iranians for numerous reasons, including the colloquial nature of her poetry and its frank discussions of sexuality. As literary scholar Farzaneh Milani writes in her book Words Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement (2011), Farrokhzad’s poetry ‘seldom leaves the Iranian reader impartial, evoking strong attraction or keen aversion, exaggerated hostility or exalted praise’. Adding to the intensity of these emotions is her tragic death in a car accident in 1967 at the age of 32, which has made her legacy all the more iconic. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, her poetry was initially forbidden under the Islamic Republic due to its eroticism. It was heavily censored under the pre-Revolutionary Pahlavi regime, and this continues to be the case in contemporary Iran. Asgari imagines Ismael as having grown up near this iconoclastic figure on whom he develops a crush. Ismael’s account of their relationship to Saeed propels and structures the recollections of a former life.  

Asgari’s depiction of the relationship between Farrokhzad and Ismael draws on and expands the long tradition of curiosity and speculation about her life. This tendency perhaps began with the initial publication of her poetry during the mid-1950s, which led to rumours about the identities of the male lovers (a distinction readily claimed by numerous men) described in the verses. The prevalence of such gossip emphasises the importance of critic Michael Craig Hillman’s reading of Farrokhzad’s work, which acknowledges its autobiographical nature while also arguing that ‘her poetic voice is a persona or mask and not the actual person of Farrokhzad’. Hillman’s point about the distinction between Farrokhzad herself and her speakers counters the biographical tendency in criticism of female authors (Sylvia Plath is an obvious parallel due to similar sexual frankness in her work), which reduces women’s writing to being diaristic, with only incidental literary value. Only Sound Remains further develops the project of distilling the significance of Farrokhzad’s poetry by weaving her verses (presented in eloquent translations by Asgari himself) throughout the novel, constantly reminding the reader of the poems’ beauty and power and establishing their centrality to the narrative.  

Asgari’s novel is one of several recent works attesting to Farrokhzad’s importance for writers of the Iranian diaspora. Another example is Jasmin Darznik’s Song of a Captive Bird (2018), a work of historical fiction about Farrokhzad’s life written from her point-of-view. Scholar of Iranian diasporic literature Persis M. Karim explains that the ‘remarkable power of her language, imagery, and the boldness with which she lived her own life, has compelled some diaspora artists to claim Farrokhzad as a kind of muse who embodies an exilic, post-migration sensibility and culture that is prevalent in Iranian diaspora communities’. Indeed, in Only Sound Remains, Farrokhzad is present through her poetry, functioning as a muse for Asgari. Although the poems largely serve to embellish Ismael’s story, with Saeed the more obvious proxy for Asgari, the author’s investment in her work finds voice in both characters. Whereas Ismael’s interest in Farrokhzad recalls men’s parasocial fantasies of themselves as objects of the poet’s desire, Saeed’s response to her work illustrates the cultural embodiment mentioned by Karim. For example, after recalling her poem ‘I Feel Pity for the Garden’, Ismael refers to her as ‘a prophet of worldly love’. In comparison, Saeed describes having ‘recited constantly’ several lines from the poem ‘Another Birth’ to work through his grief after Payam’s disappearance, showing an investment in Farrokhzad’s poetry distinct from Ismael’s lust. Existing alongside her verses, these voices (and their role in sustaining her legacy) help create the novel’s layered intimacies, complementing Asgari’s depiction of the father-son relationship, from which Farrokhzad’s poetry becomes inextricable.  

Farrokhzad’s prominence in Only Sound Remains develops themes in Asgari’s earlier short stories. In ‘A New Home’ (2022), published in The Saltbush Review, an English teacher reflects on his past to a couple of young students after one of their Tintin comics reminds him of the comics’ significance to his own childhood. The story shares with Asgari’s novel an interest in the textual bridging of generational gaps between adults and children, highlighting the challenges of overcoming them. Both ‘Everybody Dies Thirsty’ (2021) (which also appeared in The Saltbush Review) and Only Sound Remains explore how impending death can transform relationships, as well as the complex feelings about Iran for the Iranian diaspora. The story ‘Black Spring’ (2022), which appeared in Overland, takes place within Iran, but also (like the novel) foregrounds strained relationships between parents and adult children. Only Sound Remains allows Asgari to work through these ideas within a broader canvas, and the presence of Farrokhzad’s life and poetry provides further intertextual elaboration of such themes.  

Asgari’s novel builds not only on the themes of his short stories, but also their narrative techniques, including the framed episodic narrative. Ismael’s reflections begin with two important discoveries in his young life: Farrokhzad and religion. The latter appears in the form of Ayatollah Entezari, the imam of the mosque where he goes to pray with his father. Ismael is particularly intrigued by Entezari’s ideas about sin, which parallels the discovery of Farrokhzad’s early poem: ‘Sin’. The photograph of her accompanying the poem entices the young Ismael, as does the description of physical intimacy:  

In that dark and silent seclusion,  
I sat anxiously at his side,
His lips poured desire on my lips,
I escaped the sorrow of the crazed heart.

Ismael’s guilty fascination with the poem is compounded by Farrokhzad’s moving near his family after divorcing her first husband, Parviz Shapour (whom she wed at the age of sixteen when he was twenty-seven). The range of Ismael’s emotions is captured in his first words after reciting the poem: ‘My heart pounded, my face burned with shame, I read it word by word over and over again’. The frank physicality of his response to the poem mirrors its explicit sexuality. Overwhelmed by the desire fuelled by Farrokhzad’s appearance and erotic verse, he masturbates for the first time. The episode lays the groundwork for his discussion of religion and her poetry throughout the recollections to Saeed, their confessional nature appearing to mark a shift in their previously distant relationship. The poem’s eroticism makes for a particularly stark contrast with the scolding of Entezari, who teaches Ismael ‘that the accumulation of people’s sins could bring God’s wrath upon them’. 

As the relationship between Ismael and Entezari progresses, Asgari moves fluidly between history and fiction. Entezari calls Ismael ‘the son [he has] never had’, their relationship paralleling (and perhaps highlighting the limitations of) the connection between Ismael and Saeed, who begin the novel emotionally estranged. In contrast, Ismael and Entezari share thoughtful discussions of Islam and Plato – discussions which Ismael compares favourably to the lack of literature in his parents’ house. Entezari opens up about his daughter with Down’s syndrome and takes an interest in Ismael’s future plans. Asgari also shows Entezari discussing the importance of Islam’s central role in governing a society, which foreshadows the establishment of Iran as a theocracy after the Revolution. The young and impressionable Ismael is enticed by Entezari’s view of the compatibility of theocratic governance with Plato. Entezari is both a paternal figure for Ismael and a representative of Islamist politics.  

The significance of paternal connections in Only Sound Remains evokes the ‘Rostam complex’, which is identified early in the novel and remains relevant throughout. This concept refers to an incident in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, a narrative poem initially published in the eleventh century and often referred to as Iran’s national epic. The poem’s 50,000 couplets – making it the longest single-authored epic – narrate over sixty historical and mythological tales of ancient Persia. Scholar Hamid Dabashi describes the Shahnameh as ‘the talismanic evidence of dignity and pride of place of a people, a nation, a national consciousness’. A key example of its cultural significance is the persistent resonance of the story of Rostam, who kills his distant son Sohrab in battle prior to realising their kinship. Psychoanalyst Mahmud Sana’i proposed that, in a reversal of the Oedipal complex, this story of a father killing his son could be thought of as a ‘Rostam complex’, and as such represented a significant contrast between Iranian culture’s filicidal and Western cultures’ patricidal narratives. While the pervasiveness of these cultural differences is debatable (an obvious filicidal counterexample is Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Old Testament), the story of Rostam and Sohrab has had an enduring relevance for Iranians that can be felt in Only Sound Remains.  

Such is the importance of this father-son story that Saeed’s novel within Only Sound Remains, The Imaginary Narrative of a Real Murder, begins with a discussion of Rostam and Sohrab after its dedication to ‘Payam and all the disobedient sons’. In addition to this explicit allusion, the conflicted relationship between Saeed and Ismael also suggests the Rostam complex. Ismael’s antagonism towards Saeed – revealed, for example, in a desire for Saeed not to be exempted from military conscription despite his being ‘miserable and … desperate to leave’ – suggests the violence perpetrated by fathers against sons that is central to the Rostam complex. Throughout the novel, Ismael’s disclosure of his past causes further pain for Saeed, in an emotional approximation of such violence. The complexities of Ismael and Entezari’s friendship, as the former both adopts and struggles with his teacher’s view of the political importance of religion, similarly evoke this filial concept. Entezari confirms his paternal relation to Ismael when he writes, ‘you have always been my son’. Ismael thus finds himself on both sides of the Rostam complex through being on the receiving end of Entezari’s paternal authority, then casting a similar shadow over Saeed. Whereas Saeed initially has a more simplistic understanding of himself as an uncomplicated object of his father’s paternalism, the son comes to understand how Ismael has likewise dealt with a relationship to an imposing father figure.   

Ismael’s challenges are compounded by his relationship to Farrokhzad, whose brazen sexuality contrasts with Entezari’s religious paternalism. The connections between all of these characters intersect with historical events throughout the novel, including the 1953 coup d’état that deposed former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, widely considered to be a central incident in twentieth-century Iranian history. As Ismael browses a bookstore hoping to find Farrokhzad’s first poetry collection, the window shatters and a Jeep driven by loyalists to the Shah drives down the street. Although Ismael briefly acknowledges the significance of this event, far more important to him is the acquisition of Farrokhzad’s collection The Captive (1955). Following a brief summary of the coup’s aftermath, Ismael quickly moves to describing his need ‘to get [his] hands on the book’, which he subsequently reads nine times. After he becomes personally acquainted with the poet, she asks him to mail a letter for her after running into him on the street. For the young and infatuated Ismael, both this incidental interaction and Farrokhzad’s work loom far larger than the coup in a manner that is typical of Asgari’s expert interweaving of personal with political histories. By showing Ismael’s greater interest in his encounters with Farrokhzad than the coup, Asgari illustrates how art and emotions can become more prominent for individuals than political events, despite greater global interest in the latter (and international conversations about Iran often do centre on politics, crowding out discussions of anything else happening in the country). 

The 1953 coup is especially key to understanding Iran’s relationship with Western countries over the twentieth century due to the involvement of British and American intelligence agencies in response to Mossadegh’s nationalisation of oil. Iranian attitudes towards the West colour a number of Ismael’s anecdotes, such as those pertaining to his relationship with his father’s cousin Vahid. Whereas Entezari represents political Islam, Vahid’s studies in France and presence at café poetry readings associate him with bourgeois cosmopolitanism. This attitude leads Vahid to both an interest in the continental philosophy of Hegel and Schopenhauer and a critique of Farrokhzad, whom he dismisses (along with women he deems to be of her ilk) as being ‘nothing but westernised dolls’. The slight evokes Farrokhzad’s poem ‘Wind-Up Doll’, in which she critiques patriarchal restrictions on women’s autonomy:  

Like a wind-up doll one can look out 
at the world through glass eyes,
spend years inside a felt box,
body stuffed with straw,
wrapped in layers of dainty lace.

Although Asgari does not include this passage in the novel, Vahid’s insulting description of Farrokhzad evinces the sort of objectification she critiques here. Farrokhzad also seems to pre-empt Vahid’s misogyny when he impregnates Ismael’s sister Zari and abandons her before she gives birth, a long-hidden family secret previously unknown to Saeed. Ismael shares such information with his son while also mentioning his connection to Farrokhzad and facts about her life, such as her notorious affair with the filmmaker Ibrahim Golestan, for whose studio Ismael works in order to be closer to her. In Vahid’s dismissal of Farrokhzad, the poet’s romantic liaisons are symptomatic of a shallow kind of Westernisation, an absorption of the West’s sexual mores without its intellectual heritage. 

Asgari also establishes the importance of anti-Western politics to Only Sound Remains through the character of Amir, whom Ismael befriends at the University of Tehran. Amir’s parents send him to boarding school in England and host regular parties for writers and artists; his father is also a member of Iran’s communist Tudeh party. Amir identifies as anti-colonial and argues that ‘light comes from the left’, though he refuses to call himself a Marxist. The tensions between different approaches to leftist politics are embodied in the fictionalisation of the historical figure Khalil Maleki, who initially enters the narrative as a friend of Amir’s father, and later of Amir himself and Ismael. Maleki was an activist who initially was a Tudeh member and had a founding role in several Iranian leftist organisations, including the Socialist League of Iran. He split with the Tudeh party over a disagreement about alignment with the Soviet Union, while also maintaining an opposition to British and American imperialism – thereby ‘breaking with the bipolarity of the Cold War’, in the words of Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi. Both Maleki and Amir introduce yet another perspective to the young and impressionable Ismael, complementing the political Islam of Entezari and Vahid’s embrace of Western philosophy.  

Ismael’s brushes with anti-Western politics coincide with Farrokhzad’s own travels to the West. Whereas he encounters figures critical of Western imperialism, such as Amir and Maleki, she embraces her travel to Europe to promote The House Is Black (1962), her poetic documentary about a leper colony. Asgari imagines Ismael angrily intercepting her letters to Golestan while she is abroad. Ismael’s jealousy overlaps with his own evolving politics, as his anger towards Farrokhzad foreshadows his increasing conservatism as he ages. These emotions contradict Saeed’s previous impression of his father’s ‘passionless life’, though the unrequited infatuation with Farrokhzad hardly elicits admiration. Instead, Saeed recognises the imbrication of his father’s feelings with a complex and evolving political and cultural milieu, as feelings of desire and anger become inextricable from historical tumult.  

As the novel progresses, Ismael’s narration becomes more and more dominant, but the Amir anecdote prompts one of the more extended flash-forwards (still only several pages) into the present-day conversation with Saeed. Knowledge of Ismael’s own brushes with political activism fuels Saeed’s anger towards his father for dismissing his attempts to comfort Payam’s mother over her son’s disappearance. Although Ismael describes his youthful interest in politics, his advice to Saeed is to remain apolitical. Saeed attempts to heed this advice, but remains a target for the police, who raid his university dormitory despite his avoiding the Green Movement protests. Ismael’s guidance can thereby only seem to Saeed both inefficacious and hypocritical. The generational divide between Ismael and Saeed is representative of the discrepancy, identified by Shahram Khosravi, between the First and Second Generation of Iranians, who were old enough to remember the Revolution, and the Third Generation, who have no memory of pre-Revolutionary life. This discrepancy is illustrated by the father and son here, as Ismael recommends apathy while Saeed recognises its impossibility.  

Among Only Sound Remains’ strengths is its combination of richly drawn characters and compelling depictions of the context in which they interact. Ismael’s relationships with Saeed, Farrokhzad, and the various characters (both those entirely fictional and those who are fictionalised historical personages) who populate the novel are situated in the series of historical events it encompasses, their characterisation developed through a sense of their place in Iranian history. Asgari refracts these moments through an array of political and cultural attitudes personified by the dramatis personae. The novel does a remarkable job of covering this historical ground without feeling didactic, as the discussion of politics merges organically with the character arcs. Asgari’s centring of Farrokhzad within the historical fiction aligns with Milani’s description of her poetry as ‘an accurate portrayal of the pain and pleasure of a whole generation undergoing radical change’. As Milani argues, Farrokhzad’s verse reflects the emotions of Iranians of Ismael’s era, and Asgari uses the representative quality of her verse as a foundation for the even more direct relationship between Farrokhzad and Ismael. Only Sound Remains imagines what the range of emotions described by Milani might have felt like for Ismael and shows how they can lead to the complex intergenerational relationship between him and Saeed.  

In using Farrokhzad’s verse to help characterise the father-son relationship, Asgari shows the capacity of her poems (and poetic persona) to shape the lives of her readers, while also presenting their raw power to the readers of his novel. This approach to the poetry aligns with the thinking of Persian literary critics Nasrin Rahimieh and Dominic Parviz Brookshaw, who argue for the importance of attending to Farrokhzad’s aesthetic achievements alongside discussions of her biography: ‘While it is crucial to situate Farrokhzad’s work against the backdrop of the social, political, and personal events that shaped her life, it is equally important to not subordinate her poetry and film to them’. Asgari keeps attention on the work itself by featuring it prominently throughout the novel, constantly reminding the reader of the many reasons for Farrokhzad’s legacy. Allusions to Farrokhzad and other Iranian poets accompany references to works of Western literature ranging from Plato’s Republic to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), demonstrating the rich literary canon on which Asgari draws. The nexus of these influences is perhaps best epitomised in the reference to the much beloved translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (1943) by Persian poet Ahmad Shamlu. The inclusion of such references alongside Farrokhzad’s poetry calls attention to the importance of understanding Iranian literature in a global context. For Saeed and the other characters of Only Sound Remains, the work of both Iranian poets and Western authors is essential to their literary imaginations, which are instrinsic to their understandings of themselves and each other.  

While feelings of hopelessness do not abate for the characters, they are inextricable from the beauty of the literary and cultural allusions prevalent in the novel. Asgari’s frame narrative facilitates the reader’s engagement with these complexities within the context of the generational divide between Ismael and Saeed, which deepens the depiction of how Farrokhzad’s still heavily censored poetry has influenced Iranians of different eras and different countries of habitation. Ismael’s telling of his encounters with Farrokhzad in Adelaide mirrors Asgari’s own position as a diasporic writer working on a novel centred around her in Australia. This position allows for the unrestricted sharing of Farrokhzad’s uncensored verses, opening up distinct ways of engaging with her poetry in the diaspora. It also assists in the further globalisation of Iranian literature, exposing previously unfamiliar Australian readers to the beauty of her work, a prospect made all the more feasible by the relatability of the novel’s father-son relationship. Through Ismael’s fictionalised relationship to Farrokhzad, Asgari has managed the double feat of chronicling the poet’s enduring appeal to different generations of Iranian readers — probing the sexuality that has both sustained and undermined her literary legacy — while also demonstrating her undiminished allure to those encountering her verses for the first time. Only Sound Remains is not only a compelling debut novel, but a chance for those new to her poetry and those who have grown up with it to appreciate Farrokhzad’s ongoing resonance. 

Works Cited

  • Asgari, Hossein. 2022. ‘A New Home,’ The Saltbush Review, 2. 1-4. 
  • —. 2021. ‘A Passage through Sin: Life and Poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad,’ Ph.D. thesis, University of Adelaide. 
  • —. 2022. ‘Black Spring,’ Overland, 249. 
  • —. 2021. ‘Everybody Dies Thirsty.’ The Saltbush Review, 1. 1-8. 
  • Asgari, Hossein. 2023. Only Sound Remains. Waratah: Puncher & Wattmann. 
  • Brookshaw, Dominic Parviz, and Nasrin Rahimieh. 2010. ‘Introduction.’ In Forugh Farrokhzad, Poet of Modern Iran: Iconic Woman and Feminine Pioneer of New Persian Poetry, edited by Dominic Parviz Brookshaw and Nasrin Rahimieh, 1-6. London: I.B. Tauris. 
  • Coetzee, J. M. 1999. Disgrace. London: Vintage. 
  • Dabashi, Hamid. 2019. The Shahnameh: The Persian Epic in World Literature. New York: Columbia University Press. 
  • Darznik, Jasmin. 2018. Song of a Captive Bird: A Novel. New York: Ballantine Books. 
  • Farrokhzad, Forugh. 2007. ‘Wind-up Doll.’ Translated by Sholeh Wolpé. In Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad. 25-7. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press. 
  • Hillmann, Michael Craig. 1990. ‘An Autobiographical Voice: Forugh Farrokhzad.’ In Women’s Autobiographies in Contemporary Iran, edited by Afsaneh Najmabadi, 33-53. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 
  • Karim, Persis M. 2010. ‘Re-Writing Forugh: Writers, Intellectuals, Artists and Farrokhzad’s Legacy in the Iranian Diaspora.’ In Forugh Farrokhzad, Poet of Modern Iran: Iconic Woman and Feminine Pioneer of New Persian Poetry, edited by Dominic Parviz Brookshaw and Nasrin Rahimieh, 179-94. London: I.B. Tauris. 
  • Khosravi, Shahram. 2008. Young and Defiant in Tehran. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.  
  • Milani, Farzaneh. 2011. Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.  
  • Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, Eskandar. 2020. ‘Gharbzadegi, Colonial Capitalism and the Racial State in Iran.’ Postcolonial Studies 24.2: 173-94. 
  • Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. 2021. The Little Prince. Translated by Irene Testot-Ferry. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited.