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Last Scene Underground: A Review

By Ather Zia.


Roxanne Varzi, Last Scene Underground (Stanford University Press, 2015)

In Roxanne Varzi’s “ethnographic novel,” we are told that everyday life in the city of Tehran is “lived creatively, whether you are an artist or not.” It is here in the Iranian capital that we meet Leili, a young university student and Christian Armenian whose world, we will come to find, is laden with shadows, eyes, and whispers. Early in the novel, in Leili’s Islamic morals class—“an elective but not an option”—she establishes the defiance that will run through the whole of the novel, when she replies to the professor’s question, “When is it appropriate for a layperson to interpret a spiritual leaders decree?” with “always” rather than “never.” With this, she announces herself as the novel’s hero, though the more accurate term here may be martyr.

Ethnographies rely on the method of participant observation, from which a precise detailing of the everyday life and culture of a place is pieced together. The researcher must “go native,” immersing herself in the culture for long periods of time. Varzi, our participant observer and a professor of anthropology at UC Irvine, is, beyond this, of Iranian descent as well, which gives her a valuable insider perspective. Drawing on more than a decade of fieldwork, Varzi’s research spans from the cultural production of the Iranian state, especially around the war with Iraq, to alternative, non-state sanctioned culture, like the underground theatrical performances on which this book is based.

The everyday life detailed in this novel, it should be noted, is that of a class of young, economically privileged Iranians and their distinctive practice of experimental theatre. With a trained anthropologist’s eye, Varzi brings to life the sense of huntedness prevailing in Leili’s world, where a “hundred eyes are on her back.” She and her contemporaries are suspended between the imperatives of the state and those of youth, as their professional, emotional and spiritual lives are under constant surveillance from an overbearing religious and political order.

Leili is the daughter of an old Marxist academic who lost his job for the simple act of taking photographs. From her small act of rebellion in class, Leili enters the heart of another subterfuge that becomes the pivot of the novel: her classmate, a theatre artist, invites her to act in a play. In this way, she is introduced to other young rebel-artists, as well as the play’s director, Hooman, whose experimental work has gotten him put on probation on charges of treason against the republic.

The Iranian state considers theatre a potentially subversive art, so although plays are technically permitted, government officials, who the actors jokingly call “janitors,” given their level of understanding drama, are charged with ensuring that the play is written and produced according to state dictates. The first performance, in fact, will be staged for them; if rules are not followed, the play might never be publicly performed.

To the young actors, the preparation for the play is pregnant with meaning. In one scene, we see Leili along with her fellow actors running to escape the police. Training in a derelict basement, where male and female bodies might touch, the play and its rehearsal becomes a potentially punishable offense. The play as a subversion is, however, also a process of healing. A refuge. As the director and the chief theoretician in their group, Hooman emerges as the ethical heart of the novel. He worships Agha Jerzy—that is, the great theatrical innovator Jerzy Grotowski—but oscillates between painful personal ponderings and detached meditations on God, mythology, theater, art, society, and Leili. He becomes a true subversive, though, when he begins to criticize his own critiques. Each of his tales, as he meanders between denouncing organized systems and banned texts and valorizing the naked actor, begins with the words “In the name of God.” While one moment he’s praising Grotowski, in the next he’s calling him “a bore, or worse, another guru.”

Hooman plays a vital formal role in the novel too. He allows Varzi to skillfully fulfill her dual duties as an ethnographer and a novelist. Varzi divides the narratives into two parts. On the one hand, the plot unfolds, depicting events in the lives of the young rebel-artists. On the other, Varzi depicts the wounds of these actors’ lives, and tries to heal them, through Hooman’s ruminations. If her ethnographer’s intellect presents the events of the story to us, it is through Hooman’s reflective narrative that her ethnographer’s heart is laid bare.

Varzi plays the role of what the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has called a positioned observer, trying to make sense of life long after the ethnographer’s duty of detailed description has been completed. Clifford Geertz has described creative ethnographers such as Varzi as novelists manqué, and she captures what I elsewhere have theorized as ethnographic surfeit. This surfeit is what remains after an ethnographer has paid dues to the science of empirical social knowledge. What is left is not quite hard data, but nonetheless an invaluable remainder of insight, affect, conversation, and emotion; an entire sensorium, which even if the ethnographer wants to, will not let her go.

While most social scientists are trained to keep this surfeit at bay, anthropology has a rich tradition of allowing it to flourish as “creative ethnography.” From the diaries of Bronislaw Malinowski, where he penned his inflammatory passions for local women, to the fiction of Victor Turner, Ruth Benedict, and contemporaries like Paul Stoller and B. J. Isbell, Varzi is following in an illustrious tradition.

In Varzi’s book, subversion is generative—and not just of punishment. It emerges as a form of resilience, and as a therapy. The rehearsals symbolically take place near a heavily policed intersection, which is also heralded as the home of the revolution. The intense physicality and the demands drama makes on the actors’ emotions and bodies lead to a different kind of martyrdom, as does the performance itself. We are told, “This is not the martyrdom during our war, where mysticism was a union with God through death, but a mysticism where we meet God on earth: in a blade of grass, a piece of trash and ultimately in ourselves.”

Trash, indeed. The derelict basement where the actors rehearse had to be first cleaned of festering refuse, including needles and dead rats. And the healing power of the performance must extend beyond the actors to the audience as well. They will not be mere spectators, but will have to take some of the same risks: “Why should audiences sit back comfortably, while actors work in fear?” The cast intends to have more tickets than seats, for instance, so that the audience will sit close together, “knee to knee.” The sheer physicality of this kind of experimental, underground theater will make the staging of the drama an event in itself, in the hope that it “will change the audience, who in turn will change others, a mass therapy.”

For Varzi, our author-ethnographer, the book functions as another form of therapy: for the experience of ethnographic surfeit itself. In one instance, Hooman invokes the Persian legend of Zahhak, who is advised by the spirits to feed the brains of the youth to the serpents. “I could write a modern version of a story like Zahhak,” Hooman says. This is precisely the sort of ethnographic truth-telling Varzi has herself undertaken in Last Scene Underground.


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Ather Zia is an Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department and Gender Studies Program at University of Northern Colorado, Greeley. She also writes ethnographic fiction and poetry. In 2013, she won the Victor Turner prize for her ethnographic poetry. She is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit, a digital journal based on writings on the Kashmir Valley, her region of research.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 19th, 2016.