Cyrus Shams is, in his own words, “another death-obsessed Iranian man,” fixated on death—but more than that, on martyrdom. He needs his death to matter, for the act of his dying to have a purpose.
Cyrus’ family inheritance is one of pointless death. His mother died when her plane was shot down by American forces over the Persian Gulf; she was traveling to visit her brother, a man decimated by his experiences fighting in the Iran-Iraq War. Cyrus’ father died soon after Cyrus left for college. Uneasily sober after years of chasing addiction, Cyrus decides to write a book on martyrs. To help himself get started, he seeks out an artist in New York City, an older Iranian woman named Orkideh, who, in a Marina Abramovic-style performance, has made herself publicly accessible while she dies of cancer by spending the end of her life in the Brooklyn Museum.
Over several days, Cyrus and Orkideh speak on death, art, nation, victimhood, gratitude and family. In between scenes of their easy connection, we read poems from Cyrus’ book and witness flashbacks to Cyrus’ mother’s, father’s and uncle’s stories. There are also chapters recounting supernatural conversations from Cyrus’ dreams, between his mother and Lisa Simpson, Orkideh and the American president of 2017, his father and the poet Rumi, and an imaginary brother and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Martyr! has a certain loudness, between the echo of a weighted Iranian history, the roar of Cyrus’ broken family legacy and his intense internal warfare. Even the book’s title can be taken as a shout, its exclamation point signifying an accusation or revelation. That which quiets the noise is simple enough, delivered in sublime prose from Iranian American poet and debut novelist Kaveh Akbar: “Love was a room that appeared when you stepped into it,” he writes late in the novel. Akbar has previously published two collections of poetry (Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Pilgrim Bell), and his writing makes just enough time for beauty while never languishing.
Throughout Martyr!, language is a saving grace, if imperfectly so. “I get frustrated this way so often,” Cyrus’ mother says in a flashback. “A photograph can say ‘This is what it was.’ Language can only say ‘This is what it was like.’” Similarly, although a novel cannot capture what life is, its truths and inventions can powerfully gesture toward what life is like: full of both pain and pleasure, with death inevitable, and love a choice.