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Book review

A tale of four women
Alex Smith (2010)
Four Drunk Beauties. Cape Town, Umuzi, Random House Struik, Softcover edition, 223 pages, P179.95. ISBN 978-1-4152-0104-6. Available at Exclusive Books.
By Sheridan Griswold (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: Book review








Four Drunk Beauties is the creative, highly imaginative, tale-within-a tale by Alex Smith that deserves far more recognition than it so far has received.  It is her fourth book, following a travelogue on China and a novel for young adults, Agency Blue, that won the Tafelberg-Sanlam Youth Literature Competition in 2010. Her two other books are Algeria's Way (2007) and Drinking from the Dragon's Well (2008).  In August last year the booksellers of South Africa honoured Alex Smith at a dinner in Cape Town.  Four Drunk Beauties, was declared, "The book booksellers most enjoyed selling". One wonders if they'd actually read it?

Supposedly inspired by the ancient classic, One Thousand and One Nights, Smith's new novel, which is set in Iran today, might have the ancients rolling in their graves-either with laughter, or grief, or perhaps both at the same time. We are asked to remember that "Fiction truer that a thousand and one lies" (page 11). In a long author's note at the beginning of this novel we are told that this novel comes out of an all-night-long storytelling by an illusionist, Simorgh, at the "Cafˇ 79, near Valiasar Square" in Teheran. There are a number of footnotes crediting other Iranians concerned with "Quantum Emptiness", a cult of birds, the invention of a 'smart textile', the use of tattoos for freedom, death by stoning, the Planck scale and the strife of love in dreams. In this case who is spinning the illusion?

On page 223 Smith provides an extensive alphabetical lost of acknowledgments. Why is Simorgh missing here?

Smith calls her novel Four Drunk Beauties, but it is also about two incarcerated men. The 45 chapters are divided into two parts, in different fonts and odds versus evens. The even chapters that begin with arched illustrations are the narrated tale of our four women. The shorter, but no less significant, odd chapters are those that tell about Kamaal and Drew. It is Kamaal's ability to transcend their conditions that allows him to convey the story of the four dark women.  Kamaal Safavi and Drew, as they come first, and have the last word (or do they?) need to be introduced first. They are together in "Iran's worst prison", naked, tied back to back, in a dismal, festering cell.

They are both deemed to be enemies of the State. Drew, who was born in Israel, is a "hungry photojournalist", with an American father and a Cuban mother, both of Jewish origin. Kamaal is the storyteller. He will use his words and the tale he spins to lift them out of their confinement. As the stories unfold we will learn more about each of them.

The four beauties of the even chapters are Adriette, Elvira, Lou and Mimi. Adriette is a "culinary anthropologist".

She was born in South Africa and grew up in the Orange Free State on a ranch. She is tall and elegant, but now a rigorous Manhattanite. She is graced by miraculous tattoos of flowers that almost smell. Alouette, Lou-Lou or plain Lou is from Senegal. She is a noted sculptor. Mimi, the scarlet lipped, is an accomplished cellist and the heartbreaker originally from China where she'd grown up "eating root vegetables that had been fed off the bones of musicians".  She once worked as a waitress in a greasy spoon in Muswell Hill, London. All her earnings went to pay for concert tickets. She dreams of playing the cello "like Nicolo Paganini plays his violin". 

Elvira Forteza is from Chile, South America, is a Catholic, has a daughter Carmelita, who is due soon to be married. She wears an unusual and functional bracelet of nine copper coins. The four friends' lives are transformed because Elvira has won the New York Mega Millions Lottery. This enables the quartet to holiday in Southern France and to proceed to tour Iran on a quest following an attack by

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giant killer birds on a man they met by accident in the Cours de Saleya accompanied by the theft of something very odd, the Falcon's Eye. It is the name of a rare emerald from the Scabbard of Silence in Iran. Is it the Chashme Shahim, the Eye of the Falcon? It is meant to be secure in the vaults of the Central Bank in the Tehran Jewelry Museum. It is there with anther sacred object, the Most Perfect Feather, or it should be.

When the four beauties visit the Widow Nila at her palace they are recruited to revenge her husband's murder.

Their pursuit takes them first to Nice in Southern France in search of a yacht, the Najmeh, and then another bird attack on an Iranian woman, Najmed Salehi. From another source in Paris, a Dr Goulmy, they learn more about the Saker falcons, the assassin birds. He tells them, if they are serious about their investigation, they will have to go to a mountain village, Abyaaneh, south of Kashaan, in Iran and look for Zamen Sayyid Tabatabai. The four beauties fly to Tehran and there engage a Mr Mohammad Bahraami to guide them to Abyaaneh. Now their adventures really begin and their exposure to aspects of Iranian art, culture and social dynamics. "The Sufis are using many words as symbols of something else. 'Lap' is a pilgrim's heart and 'morning' refers to that moment when light turns darkness and truth to joy" (page 67). On the way Adriette collects her recipes, first from Mr Bahraami, and then he translates to help her acquire more.  In Abyaaneh one is provided by a soup-seller who ends, "Thank Allah always, write poetry and kiss like there's no tomorrow" (page 69). This soup-seller was related over many generations, going back 750 years, to the poet Jalauddin Rumi, and is the first in that long line to have his qualities again.

The four beauties every movement is being observed and followed by Gorbeh Maahee, the bird master. He has even roped Mr Bahraami into his scheme as a spy on the women. They are next to meet at the Babaghaa Cafˇ in Esfahan. When various disasters unfold, Bahraami tells the four beauties, "Iran is a beautiful country, but everything is not always easy". An ancient and rare Shah Sevens carpet has had a central square cut out of it, a carpet containing a picture that will reveal its secrets to those able to see them.

Meanwhile in their odd chapters Kamaal and Drew, confined in their dungeon, continue to get to know each other.

Kamaal says to him, "Advertisers never tell anyone how everything a person buys is an added responsibility - even a tooth brush is a weight on the soul. Why is it people so love to be bound-by contracts, agreements, possessions?" (page 87).

Their quest takes the pulchritudinous ladies to Professor Moallem Hamez-pour, a "leading expert in the field of Persian carpet historiography". He is an authority on the great weavers of Esfahan and Yazd. He cautions them, to "take care when you speak of revolution here".

Slowly one scent leads to another source. They learn that the mutilated carpet had at its centre an image of the Chogha Zanbil, a temple they will soon visit. They are also told the carpet is cursed by legend. They discover that Iran is "the home of the first ever charter of human rights ...The Charter of Kourosh" proclaimed by Cyrus the Great In 539 BCE.  There are many debates and references to world literature in this amazing novel. It carries the reader forward, fully engrossed, at an amazing rate. As the visit ancient sites they find that Chogha Zanbil is the anchor for Shoostar, Shiraz, Yazd, Esfahan and Kashaan. The urgency of their quest drives them forward, as it will you, the reader.
E-mail: sheridangriswold@yahoo.com

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