Silent was Zarathustra

Genre: Autobiography

Author and Illustrator: Nicolas Wild

Translator: Edward Gauvin

Publisher: HarperCollins India 2016

No. of pages: 220

Subthemes: Religion, history, socio-politics, culture

Timeline: 2007 to 2009, with throwback sequences to the 1960s, covering Sophia’s growing up period over the last decades of the 20th century.

Storyline:

Based on the real-life journalistic memoirs of Nicolas Wild surrounding the murder of an Iranian Zoroastrian activist in Geneva in 2007, this graphic novel is an autobiographical journey through the lives and times of Zoroastrians living in Iran. The author holds a lens to the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, bringing to life the past and the present of its people through his narrative.

The plot begins in a courthouse scene in Geneva, before circling back to the beginning. It is a non-linear plot with flashbacks playing a major role in providing context and relevance to the narrative. The central theme of the plot is the Zoroastrian religion, conveyed through the personal lives of some members of the community in Iran. The protagonist is the author himself, and he uses his own personal experiences as the major crux of his narrative, drawing from his interactions and the friendships he built over the years through his travels. The recurring use of different languages including Afghani, Persian and French play a vital role in bringing out the multicultural ethno-linguistic aspects that are explored through the narrative, and acts as a significant metaphor for the central theme. The initial artwork is extremely clean and compact and minutely detailed, laying the foundation for the entire novel through their information packed content.

The plot starts out with a brief introduction to the murder trial of Cyrus Yazdani in Geneva, before reverting to a flashback sequence laying the foundation for the narrative. The reader is introduced to the protagonist, the author himself, in his native city of Paris, and his inherent involvement in the lives of Afghani refugees and other people from the MIddle East. A chance encounter with the enigmatic Sophia Yazdani under dubious circumstances leads to his travelling to Iran for the occasion of her deceased father’s birthday – a day she wants to commemorate by opening to the public a Zoroastrian cultural centre in Yazd, her father’s dream institution. This trip turns out to be transformative for Nicolas, as he travels across Iran and is introduced to the grand and ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, and the present day politico-religious implications for members of the community living in Iran. The narrative focuses on flashbacks to the youth of Cyrus Yazdani, a fiery and vocal Zoroastrian, and his lifelong engagement with his religion and culture. His life is portrayed as a microcosm for the broader political issues and backlash faced by the community in Ayatollah Khomeini ruled Iran. The narrative is a political statement of sorts, a metaphor for protest of a minority community. The author provides the impartial outsider’s view to deeply personal issues through his narrative. 

A significant section of the narrative is dedicated to exploring the history of the Zoroastrian community and the diaspora communities, particularly in India. There is also an implicit focus on political and diplomatic intricacies. Cultural idiosyncrasies are beautifully portrayed through the narrative, and the artwork aids in this substantially. The occasional delving into the private lives of the Yazdani family add a poignant personal touch to the plot, tying into the broader theme of loss, but also the attempt at community building that was the ultimate goal of the murdered activist’s life. Humour plays an important role in the narrative, though it can sometimes be misplaced and superfluous. The plot culminates at the murder trial of Yazdani in Geneva, but there is limited space given to the criminal aspect of the narrative.

There is a brilliant interlude of original photographs from the trial and of Iran in general towards the end of the plot. It is essentially a ‘news’ novel, and the journalistic touch of the author is evident in the narrative. The title is particularly interesting, being a direct reference to the classic literature by the German philosopher Nietzsche – himself greatly influenced by the religion –  ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’. The narrative is as engaging as it is informative, and is a treat to the history or politics enthusiast, a thoroughly satisfying journey into the world of Zoroastrianism.

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