ČAŠMHĀYAŠ (1952; tr. by John O’Kane as Her Eyes, 1989), a novel considered by many critics as the most important contribution of the noted Persian novelist, Bozorg Alavi (1904-1997; q.v.), to modern Persian fiction (Mirʿābedini, I, p. 151; Dastḡeyb, p. 115; Kasmāʾi, p. 87).
The novel unfolds in 1938 with the death of Mākān (Makan), a renowned artist and key figure in the underground leftist struggle against the rule of Reżā Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925-1941). Being on the black list for his anti-government activities, Makan is exiled to a small village in Khorasan, where he later dies. As a cover up strategy, the government gives him a spectacular funeral and sponsors an exhibition of his works. The mysterious piercing eyes of one portrait in the exhibition, called "Her Eyes," which the artist has painted in exile, attracts much attention and significant speculation about the source of the artist’s inspiration, especially since the belief was that no woman had played any significant role in his life.
The structure of the novel replicates its title and resembles a framed painting, with a frame within which the main body of the story is narrated (Mirʿābedini, 2008). The narrator of the frame story is the assistant principal of an art school, where Makan has taught for a few years and which is named after the painter. He is engaged in an obsessive search to unravel the secrets that have surrounded the life of Makan, and the mysteries that radiate from the painted woman’s eyes. Years pass and the mystery persists. One day, on the tenth anniversary of the artist’s death, Aqa Rajab, Makan’s life-long servant and the only person who knows the secret of his master’s inspiration, informs the narrator that the woman has come to visit the school’s museum, which houses the famous painting, and has signed only her first name, Farangis. Five more years pass. On the 15th anniversary of the artist’s death the narrator, hoping that the woman will return and ask to be admitted, decides to close the museum. The narrator’s strategy pays off, and on that day a shapely, well-dressed woman comes to visit the museum. Before her visit, however, the narrator hides the painting, and when she asks about “Her Eyes,” the narrator tells her that he will bring the painting to her house in exchange for the story of her relationship with the master painter. And so the main story unravels.
Farangis, the only child of a wealthy influential family takes lessons from the renowned artist. Unimpressed by her attempts at painting and also oblivious to her charms, Makan treats her coldly and gives her no encouragement. Disconcerted and disgusted with the artist, whom she labels selfish and cruel, Farangis goes to Europe to pursue her schooling in art. In Paris, she meets a distant relative, Colonel Ārām, under whose protection she is to live. Rather than learning to paint, Farangis indulges in a life of pleasure and play, surrounded by many men, all of whom hope to gain her favor, including Colonel Ārām. Rejecting all her suitors, she breaks many hearts, in one case resulting in the suicide of a young Italian. Bored with life in Paris, she travels to Italy where she meets Ḵodādād, a young Iranian painter and passionate revolutionary. She learns from him about Makan’s involvement in the underground resistance movement in Iran, and is eventually persuaded to return to Iran to help the active anti-government groups. Upon her return, she meets Makan again and a passionate love seizes her. Makan, who struggles to avoid any emotional involvement with her, requests that she type letters exposing government corruption for him, and she complies. Eventually the police, tracing the typewriter, arrest and finally exile her father. On one highly romantic occasion, however, the painter tells her that he fears her eyes, which are like those of a snake trying to mesmerize a rabbit.
Colonel Ārām, now a general and police chief, has been a persistent visitor and suitor of Farangis, who continues to reject his offers of marriage. As the resistance movement is gradually uncovered, Makan is arrested and jailed. Farangis consents to marry General Ārām on the promise that he will send Makan into exile instead of imprisoning him, a fact that she conceals from the painter. After Makan’s death, however, she divorces the General. She ends her story with an emotional outburst, asks the assistant principal to take the painting away because she no longer has any interest in it, and tells him that the painter was mistaken and that the eyes were not hers.
Similar to the plot of Her Eyes, which is triggered by speculations about the identity of the model of Makan’s painting, the publication of Her Eyes gave rise to speculations about notable political activists and other prominent figures of the time as the models for the characters depicted in the novel. The names of Kamāl al-Molk (1853-1940; q.v.), the renowned Iranian painter who also died in a self-imposed exile in Khorasan; Taqi Arāni (1902-40; q.v.), a Marxist activist and a close friend of Alavi, who died in prison; and Sadeq Hedayat (1903-1951; q.v.), the noted Persian fiction writer of the 20th century, or some combination of aforementioned, appeared on the top of the list of figures upon whom Makan’s character might have been based (Mirʿābedini, I, p. 151; Dastḡeyb, p. 124; Golširi, p. 507; Kasmāʾi, p. 87; Mirsādeqi; p. 618; Sepānlu, p. 155). General Moḥammad Ḥosayn Āyrom, the chief of police who fled from Iran in 1935, found a fictional counterpart in the novel’s General Ārām, who also flees to Europe (Golširi, p. 509; Sepānlu, p. 155). The assistant principal’s curiosity and persistent search for the identity of the model of the portrait has also inspired critics to compare Alavi’s narrative strategy to that of a detective story. Even though the sense of suspense and intrigue is sustained to some extent throughout the story told by Farangis, the main story, as many critics have observed, is a romance of psychological insight and oblique political protest, devoid of clichés and ideological platitudes (Yarshater, p. 34; Mirʿābedini, I, p. 148; Yavari, p. 584; Dastḡeyb, p. 136).
The political subplot of the story and Alavi’s involvement in anti-government Communist political activities, for which he was jailed in the late 1930s, has inspired some critics to describe Her Eyes as a romantic novel in praise of revolution (Golširi, p. 518). Leftist commentators have criticized Alavi for having failed to champion the anti-dictatorial cause pursued in the novel by Makan and Ḵodādād, by foregrounding and even romanticizing the character of a whimsical rich woman, devoid of sympathy for the poor or their plight, who joins the movement for selfish reasons, and for presenting her as a central character that gains the attention and even the sympathy of the reader (Behāḏin, pp. 65-8; Dastḡeyb, p. 136; Kamshad, p. 120). As held by other commentators, however, Farangis, like many of Alavi’s female protagonists, outgrows her socio-political confines (Vakili, p. 357), and can perhaps be best understood as symptomatic of the rapid modernization Iran was undergoing during those years (O’Kane, p. 4-5).
Alavi’s studied portrayal of characters and their psychological makeup (Kubickova, pp. 415, 133; Mirsādeqi, p. 619; Shafiʿi-Kadkani, p. 201), and his skillful description of the scenes, events, and other components of the story (Dastḡeyb, p. 140; O ‘Kane, p. 5), infused in a simple and economical language, devoid of words in local dialects (Ḵānlari, p. 397; Bahārlu, pp. 108-9), that often acquires a poetic overtone (Āryanpur, p. 202; Kasmāʾi, p. 86; Sepānlu, p. 155), have turned Her Eyes into a memorable artistic work and a major contribution to the development of the Persian novel.
Čašmhāyaš is translated into German by Herbert Melzig as Ihre augen: Roman (Berlin, 1959), and into polish by Josef Bielowski. It has also been translated into Russian, Uzbek, and several other languages.
Manučher Āryanpur, "Retrospect and Progress: A Short View of Modern Persian Literature," Books Abroad, Vol. 46, 1972, pp. 200-10.
Yaʿqub Āžand, Adabiyāt-e novin-e Irān az enqelāb-e mašruṭiyat tā enqelāb-e eslāmi, Tehran, 1984.
Moḥammad Bahārlu, “Jāmeʿa-šenāsi-e zabān va nasl-e avval-e nevisandegān-e mā,” Negah-e now, 27, Bahman 1374 Š./February 1996, pp. 97-111.
Idem, ed., Bargozida-ye āṯār-e Bozorg-e ʿAlavi (Selected works of Bozorg Alavi), Tehran, 1999.
Maḥmud Eʿtemādzāda (Behāḏin), “Čašmhāyaš,” Farhang-e now, 1:1, 1331 Š./1953, pp. 65-8.
Hušang Golširi, Bāḡ dar bāḡ, Tehran, 1999, pp. 293-94, and 501-24.
Hasan Kamshad, Modern Persian Prose Literature, Cambridge, l966, pp. 120-24.
Parviz Nātel Ḵānlari, Haftād soḵan, vol.3, Tehran, 1991.
Ali Akbar Kasmāʾi, Nevisandehgān-e pišgām dar dāstān nevisi-e emruz-e Iran, Tehran, 2005, pp. 84-87.
Vera Kubickova, "Persian Literature of the 20th Century," in Yan Rypka, History of Iranian Literature, 1968, pp. 355-418; tr. as“Adabiyāt-e Iran dar qarn-e bistom,” in Yaʿqub Āžand, Adabiyāt-e novin-e Irān az enqelāb-e mašruṭiyat tā enqelāb-e eslāmi, Tehran, 1984.
Ḥasan Mirʿābedini, Ṣad sāl dāstān nevisi dar Iran (A hundred years of fiction writing in Iran), vol.1, Tehran, 1989.
Idem, ALAVI, BOZORG, www.iranicaonline.org.
Jamal Mirsādeqi, Adabiyāt-e dāstāni: qessa, dāstān-e kutāh, romān, Tehran, 1986, pp. 617-19.
Moḥammad ʿAli Sepānlu, Nevisandegān-e pišrow-e Iran, Tehran, 1984.
Mohammad Reza Shafiʿi Kadkani, “Persian Literature (Belles-Lettres) from the Time of Jami to the Present Day,” in George Morrison ed., History of Persian Literature from the Beginning of the Islamic Period to the Present Day, 1981, pp. 133-206.
Siāmak Vakili, “Čašmhāyaš: gozineši miān-e ešq o siāsat,” Yād-e Bozorg-e ʿAlavi, ed., ʿAli Dehbāši, Tehran, 2005, pp. 353-59.
Ehsan Yarshater, Persian Literature, New York, 1988.
Houra Yavari, “FICTION ii (b). THE NOVEL,” Encyclopaedia Iranica IX, 1997, pp. 580-92.
(Mohammad Reza Ghanoonparvar)
Originally Published: January 21, 2011
Last Updated: January 21, 2011