Mojtabai, A(nn) G(race) (Vol. 15)
Mojtabai, A(nn) G(race) 1938–
Mojtabai is an American novelist. She was at one time married to an Iranian government official, and her years as an outsider in the Middle East provide the background for the cultural conflict presented in her most recent novel, A Stopping Place. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 9.)
Carol Booth Olson
A. G. Mojtabai opens Mundome with an image of dissolution and decay. The landscape she describes—like those of Pynchon, Barth, and Barthelme—is in the process of breaking down, losing its vitality and wearing away…. Through her initial depiction of the moldering library, Mojtabai effectively juxtaposes external setting and internal psychology, providing the reader with access to the mind of her protagonist, Richard Henken. For the library in which Richard works … is at once a symbol of the deteriorating consciousness of modern man and an objective correlative for Richard's own psychological condition. Mojtabai's discussion of the corrosion of collective memory and the debilitation of the human spirit mirrors the impoverishment of Richard's own inner being and the "attrition" of his mental stability.
Mundome is in the tradition of what has been called the waste land novel in which "all energies are inverted and result in death and destruction instead of love, renewal, or fulfillment." (pp. 71-2)
In essence, the library is a backdrop against which Richard enacts his own drama, his struggle to save himself from "drowning in [his] own wastes."… His struggle becomes more desperate and more futile as the novel progresses: "Page by page the psyche is laid bare, and with it the feeble defenses that people use to keep hold on their sanity." When the stage clears, Richard Henken is hopelessly entrapped with the prison of madness.
At the outset of Mundome, Richard is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his sister, Meg, who has just been released from a mental institution after many years of confinement. (p. 72)
In many respects, Meg and Richard appear to be exact opposites of one another. (p. 73)
When one looks closely at these characters, however, some similarities in their personalities begin to emerge which make them difficult to categorize. For instance, Meg and Richard do not always display irrational and rational behavior, respectively….
One hears [the statement: "You're insane, that goes without saying"] over and over in Mundome. Meg usually utters it in a matter-of-fact way to let people know that the seeds of madness exist within every individual. She needs to remind Richard, now and then, that they are "birds of a feather" … rather than polar opposites. (p. 74)
Meg's precarious mental condition and her need for constant supervision provide Richard with a plausible reason to avoid having to connect with any other human being. The precise nature of his relationship with and commitment to Meg...
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It is clear that "A Stopping Place," by A. G. Mojtabai, is a tragic comedy of cultures. (p. 558)
[The author] who lived for several years in Iran and Pakistan … uses East and West to indict one another.
In "A Stopping Place," Miss Mojtabai uses her local color well. She turns the experience of foreignness into a feeling of being lost, of being assaulted by metaphors….
The expected riot or invasion [which provides the tension in the novel] is the result of a theft, from a shrine, of a holy relic.
The relic is a hair of the prophet Muhammad. In the East, we are reminded, a hair can cause a war, because every man, as Henri Michaux said about India, is an ecclesiastic. Everything is holy. In America, we understand, nothing is sacred.
This secondary plot is the undoing of "A Stopping Place." Intended as counterpoint, the two themes—the Americans' search for another kind of order, the Pakistanis' search for the hair of the Prophet—never effectively impinge on one another….
"While writing this book, I was haunted by an image—an image of parallel roads unfolding, nowhere converging…." This is A. G. Mojtabai's "note to the reader" at the beginning of "A Stopping Place." At the end of the book, the roads are still parallel, nowhere converging. Her characters and her situations have existed side by side for awhile, and no more….
While we enter a foreign state in this interesting novel, we do not profoundly enter a foreign state of mind. Miss Mojtabai, however, is to be admired for what she has almost done.
As the epigraph to Part 2 of "A Stopping Place," the author quotes an Eastern text: "Listen, I have wept patiently." One senses that Miss Mojtabai, too, has wept patiently over the enormous, accusing space between East and West. (p. 559)
Anatole Broyard, "'A Stopping Place'," in The New York Times, Section I (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 10, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 11, 1979, pp. 558-59).
A. G. Mojtabai made her literary debut in 1974 with "Mundome," an extraordinary, poetic novel…. This first novel was a dark, modern-gothic book, lighted by shafts of demonic wit and marked by distinction of style and bold imagination. One surmised that this strangely named writer of the work with the strange name had been there and back, had by herself descended some distance into the imprisoning abyss where her characters languished. Hers was the report of a survivor….
"A Stopping Place," is set in [Iran and Pakistan] during the early 1960's and shows prescient knowledge of the explosive mixture of Moslem religious zealotry and ethnic power politics that fueled the recent Iranian revolution and has kept Pakistan "destabilized" since the British withdrawal and the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent. The book is almost obsessively concerned with forms and occasions of imprisonment, oppression and constraint. This emphasis reflects, no doubt, the author's [own] marital ordeal….
But tyranny over women is only one form of a social pathology depicted in "A Stopping Place." There is also tyranny imposed by a corrupt officialdom, by sectarian intolerance, the paranoia of misled ethnic groups confronting each other across poorly defined borders, and by the large, cynical manipulations of the Western powers, including the Americans. All of her places … are shown as good places not to stop at. Yet the book, through...
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A. G. Mojtabai is one of those dolorously polished writers—F. Scott Fitzgerald was another—whose prose has the quality of fractured light, playing over the shards of things: the waning of a romance, the eclipse of a career, the dissolution of a mind. Her first novel, Mundome, was a startlingly lucid evocation of schizophrenia. Mojtabai's second novel, The 400 Eels of Sigmund Freud, recounted the disastrous consequences of an experimental program among a group of high school scientists and evinced, again, an unusual sense of the price that is paid for certain advantages of sensibility.
Her latest novel, A Stopping Place, takes off in another direction altogether. It … focuses upon the theft of a holy Moslem relic. James Nirmal Roy, a retired public servant, is assigned to investigate the incident….
A Stopping Place is about different levels of misunderstanding. It seems to me to take its originating impulse from that scene of irreconcilable difference on which Forster's A Passage to India concludes, for Nirmal, after overseeing the safe return of the relic, is stabbed to death in the residue of political intrigue. It is still, many years later, "'No, not yet,'" and "'No, not there.'" At the book's core, as in Mojtabai's earlier novels, is a perception of humankind as utterly lonely, adrift in individual consciousness. If A Stopping Place is not entirely successful it is...
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