In 1959, Galway Kinnell, an American poet from Providence, traveled to Tehran to teach as a Fulbright Scholar. He spent six months teaching and another six working as a journalist for an English-language newspaper where he wrote short articles on the culture of his new home. Though he spent only a year in Iran, the impression it made on him was deep and the beauty, the landscapes, peoples and customs shape his fable-inspired novel Black Light.

The novel opens with Jamshid, the main-protagonist who is more Raskolnikov than Meursault, steadily at work restoring the head of a bird of paradise in a rug. He is a seemingly patient, hardworking man though he has an air of religious superiority. But his pious nature is overcome when he stabs a religious leader, Mullah Torbati, over attempting to extort him over the chastity of his daughter. From this seemingly senseless murder the story spirals into a travel narrative with Jamshid attempting to atone for his sin by running.

He takes to the desert and there he finds a cast of sordid characters. In the desert, he meets Ali, a notorious murderer who falls victim to murder himself. After Ali’s death, he vows to return his body to his widow in Shiraz. In the city he first meets an old-man smoking opium at the tomb of Hafez. Finally, through the old man, he meets Ali’s widow. Soon Jamshid’s luck runs out and he must flee the town. He decides to return to home to finally confess to the murder. However, he finds himself in the redlight district of Tehran, what Kinnell call’s New City, and there he meets a young prostitute, Goli and her caretaker/pimp the old “hag” Effat.

The novel ends so unlike a fable, however. There seems to be no moralizing conclusion; only a final scene of Jamshid fleeing once again. In this way, Black Light–which Kinnell firmly announces as a fable in the 1980 afterword–takes a more modern, absurdist turn. The action of the story is seen not as a man trying to find redemption but a story of the impossibility of atonement in life. In fact, Kinnell more or less spells this out in an exchange between Effat and Jamshid in the closing pages: “‘Jamshid,’ she said at the foot of the stairs, ‘I’ve only learned one this in my life.” Jamshid turned. ‘It’s that nothing matters.’” So, after all this travel, this heartache and destruction we are left with this moral.

For a novel about a very religious society, sex seems to be a driving force in the work. The catalyst to the murder of Torbati is his daughter’s sex. In Shiraz, he has sex with Ali’s widow then in the morning decides he must repent and go back to Tehran. In the last chapters, he is literally surrounded by sex workers. And finally, as he mental state breaks down, he breaks out in a rash all over his crotch and inner-thighs. More and more in the novel Jamshid is confronted with his inability to control the sex of others and throughout he is constantly thinking of his daughter’s sex drives and desires. It is a subtle undercurrent of the book, but one that leaves the impression that this novel is more than just a sophomoric aping of Camus’ existential absurdism.

Finally, Black Light shows that more poets should write novels. Kinnell, who passed away in 2014, was an important force in American poetry and his command of imagery and his patience for describing the bleak Irian desert and rough streets is obvious. As Jamshid wanders Kinnell renders the beauty and desolation, the stark contrasts and the ever-present brightness of the sun and sand into beautiful prose. Running throughout the short novel is a landscape that feels both unforgiving and comforting that is mitigated by a quick moving and devastating tale of man trying to find peace in any form it will present itself in.

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