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In Teheran, Noir is a political act

Writing crime fiction in post revolution Iran

Back in the day, so my mother tells me, on the rare occasions when my father took her along to one of the cabarets of old Tehran, the tough guys—the lutis—the bosses, the knife brawlers, and the traditional wrestlers, would lay out their suits and jackets on the floor of the place for my mother to walk on. It was a gesture of supreme respect for one of their own. And it says a lot about a Tehran that simply doesn’t exist anymore—a Tehran of chivalry and loyalty, a place where allegiances meant something, where friendships harked back to a classical world of warriors from the great Persian epic, the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), and to the medieval Islamic notion of the ayyar brotherhood in Iran and Mesopotamia where the bandit and the common folks’ champion were one and the same, and where every man followed a code of honor set in stone.

Or else, all of this may simply be wishful nostalgia for something that didn’t exist even back then. Back then means a time before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. That watershed event that sits in the mind of every Iranian as a chasm, a sort of year one after which everything strange became law. The brutal eight years of war with Iraq—the longest conventional war of the twentieth century—the persistent pressures from America in its own everlasting twilight war with Iran, the official corruption of the new ruling class, and the snowballing inflation turned just about everyone into a “night worker.” Living an honest life was no longer an option. Prostitution, theft, an explosion in the drug trade and addiction, the selling off of raw materials and historic national treasures—plus endemic, in-your-face bribery—became a way of life. Meanwhile Tehran grew and grew, until it was one of the megacities of the world, now pushing at fifteen million stray souls—a leviathan that can barely stand itself, a purgatory of unmoving traffic, relentless pollution, and noise and anger and inequity, surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world.

Tehran, then, is a juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty that breaks the heart. A place where not one but two inept dynasties came to miserable ends, and where, arguably, the third most important revolution in history (after the French and the Russian) was started. It is also the city where Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt met to divvy up the world while the flames of WWII were still burning. And it was where one of the CIA’s first manufactured coups (with the prodding and support of the British—who else?) against a democratically elected government was put into motion, thus ushering in years of a dictatorship which in turn was swept aside by the first real fury of fundamentalist Islam, a harbinger of the world we now live in and call post–9/11.

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The new Scandi noir? The Korean writers reinventing the thriller

The country has emerged as a surprising literary force as a novel by the ‘Korean Henning Mankell’ bags a six-figure deal and sparks a global bidding war

Last December, Korean novelist Un-su Kim set out on an eight-month deep-sea fishing trip as part of research for his next book. Unreachable by phone or email until next August, when his boat docks in Fiji, he has no idea that his thriller The Plotters has been the subject of a wildly enthusiastic auction in the US, where it recently sold to Doubleday for a six-figure sum. German publisher Europa Verlag has called Kim “the Korean Henning Mankell”, while publishers in the UK, Czech Republic and Turkey have placed offers, and international film companies are also battling for rights.

His agent, Barbara Zitwer, who plans to meet him in Fiji to reveal the news, believes Kim’s novel, about an organisation that masterminds assassinations, has caught a wave of interest in Korean thrillers – a previously unknown quantity. “The world is finally embracing them. Korean thriller writers are invigorating the genre,” she said. “They are pumping new life into it. Readers are tiring of Scandinavian thrillers – they crave something new.”

Korean writing can seem new to English readers due to the unique cadence and economy of the language; translator Deborah Smith described the process of changing Korean to English as “moving from a language more accommodating of ambiguity, repetition and plain prose to one that favours precision, concision and lyricism”. There is no grand tradition of mystery writing in Korea. Writers there are creating something entirely new: sparsely worded, stylistically sophisticated page-turners that incorporate ideas important to Korean society, such as family, loyalty, nature and hierarchy.

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8 Contemporary Japanese novelists (who aren’t Haruki Murakami)

When Japanese bookshops opened up at midnight on Feb. 24 for his book launch event, Haruki Murakami was back in the news and back on our shelves. Although no publication date has yet been set for the English translation of Killing Commendatore, if you’re looking for a contemporary J-lit fix already available in translation, here are eight other authors worth exploring.

1. Hiromi Kawakami

One of the big translation events of 2014 was Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. This story of two lonely people passing the Tokyo seasons together is an excellent place to begin. Famous for being quirky and sometimes surreal, but far less twee than the more renowned Banana Yoshimoto, Kawakami is a must for readers who love to luxuriate in captivating prose.

2. Fuminori Nakamura

Sampling elements of noir and crime, Fuminori Nakamura writes bleak, violent existential thrillers that peel back Tokyo’s scabs and dig around in its wounds. His prose is sparse and haunting, underscored with a black sense of humor. English-language publishers have taken an interest, which has lead to six of his books translated in four years. His latest, The Boy in the Earth, is a vivid, vital story about a man still attempting to deal with the abuse he suffered as a child. A previous novel, The Thief, is guaranteed to make any Tokyoite avoid the darker streets at night.

3. Hitomi Kanehara

Writing in a style that reflects the uneducated “street” voice of her characters, Hitomi Kanehara is notoriously difficult to translate. As a result, she still only has two short novels in English — Autofiction and Snakes and Earrings — as well as a handful of short stories. Both are harsh, cynical books dealing with young women outside mainstream Japanese society. Open and honest about self-destruction, sexual promiscuity and the murky world of Tokyo subcultures; Kanehara’s fiction is a short, sharp shock designed to startle and unsettle. And it’s all the better for it.

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