CALL ME ZEBRA
By Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
292 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24.
There’s a first-person poem by Baudelaire, not particularly well known, though it’s one of his “Flowers of Evil,” called “L’Héautontimouroménos” (“The Self-Tormenter”) in which he describes the all-consuming masochistic act of writing. Ink, he declares, fills the writer’s veins: “It’s all my blood, this black poison! / I am the sinister mirror / Where the Fury sees herself.”
This could also be an ode to the furiously introspective, fiercely literary young narrator of Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s second novel, “Call Me Zebra.” That narrator, Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini, was born in the library of her family’s home, between the Caspian Sea and Iran’s Alborz Mountains, early in that country’s war against Iraq. An only child, she is the last in a long line of self-taught sages whose creed is “Love nothing except literature.” Barely out of toddlerhood, the girl absorbs her father’s lessons on “Great Writers of the Past,” reciting passages by Goethe, Dante, Stendhal, Borges, Cervantes and the Persian poet Hafez because “memorization is our only recourse against loss.” (Later she records more quotations in a notebook that “will smell like ink, like the blood of literature, the blood that runs through all Hosseini veins.”) At the age of 5, as the war worsens, Bibi flees with her parents toward the Turkish border, but her mother dies when a building collapses on her as she forages for food. Bibi and her father must continue on alone, making their way through Kurdistan, Turkey and Spain. Eventually, years later, they come to a halt in New York.
It’s here, when Bibi is in her early 20s, that her father dies, leaving her “among the loneliest of this pitiful world.” As she watches the light fall in stripes on her father’s coffin, she decides that she will take on a new identity: She will now be known as Zebra, a name that “represents ink on paper,” making her “a martyr of thought.” Thus armed, she will embark on yet another journey, returning to the places she once visited as a refugee — inspired not by a need for self-discovery but by a thirst for vengeance. Outraged when confronted with the misfortunes of exiles and the complacency of nonexiles, she believes she has a duty to “mirror back to this miserly universe its own terrible distortions.” This is Zebra’s quest: “I, a modern literary inventor, was going to walk the void of my multiple exiles causing trouble, discombobulating the world.” Her map will be literature, “the only true form of cartography in the world,” and she will begin her mission in Catalonia.
In this ferociously intelligent novel, Van der Vliet Oloomi — who came to the United States from Iran with her family when she was a child — gradually brings her orphaned heroine to the realization that literature (Zebra calls it the “corpse of my past”) may not be enough to sustain her. So when a “surprisingly good-looking” Italian philologist named Ludovico Bembo (Ludo, for short) meets her at the Barcelona airport, he shoulders her suitcase full of books and shakes her determination to exist via thought and abstraction, to paraphrase (as Zebra does) the French philosopher and literary theorist Maurice Blanchot. Sex with Ludo she welcomes without hesitation, seeing it as a way to “annihilate each other through hot passion,” but she recoils from any emotional connection. She’s “antilove,” she tells him, and if pushed will “retreat into the Matrix of Literature.” Yet as she stubbornly pursues her literary “Grand Tour of Exile,” she finds it increasingly difficult to conduct her expedition solo.
With intricacy and humor, Van der Vliet Oloomi relays Zebra’s brainy, benighted struggles as a tragicomic picaresque whose fervid logic and cerebral whimsy recall the work of Bolaño and Borges. In her first novel, “Fra Keeler,” a psychological thriller about a man who buys a house and is obsessed with the circumstances of the previous owner’s death, she showed similar acuity and dark wit; here, however, she immeasurably expands her terrain. Literature, as Zebra’s father has observed, is “a nation without boundaries” and for this high-minded heroine, “landscape and literature are entwined like the helix of DNA.” But the pilgrimage she undertakes in “Call Me Zebra” teaches her to raise her eyes and register the reality of the people who exist in her present, not just those who survive in the pages of her past.
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