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Driven To The Breaking Point: 'Then The Fish Swallowed Him'


What drives someone to a breaking point? Yunus is a middle-aged man in Iran who finds himself driven to one breaking point when he joins a strike of bus drivers in 2005 that angers the ruling regime. And his own anger boils over into a stupid act of violence, and Yunus is consigned to Tehran's infamous Evin Prison, where torture-forced confessions and solitary confinement push him into a point of pain that both few people and too many people have ever faced.

"Then The Fish Swallowed Him" is the American debut of Iranian author Amir Ahmadi Arian, a former journalist and translator. He joins us now from Queens, New York City. Thank you so much for being with us.

AMIR AHMADI ARIAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: How much of Yunus reflects your own family and friends in Iran during this period, may I ask?

ARIAN: Well, not on my family directly, but a lot of my friends. A lot of what you read in this book is actually, you know, pretty kind of well documented, right? It's like an amalgamation of testimonies I got from a bunch of people, yeah.

SIMON: People you know?

ARIAN: Yeah. A lot of them I know very closely. Some of them are very close friends of mine.

SIMON: Were they reluctant to speak with you?

ARIAN: The interrogation part not really. They were actually - they kind of enjoyed, a lot of them, talking about interrogation, the interrogator, their exchanges and the - even, you know, like, moments of kind of humor - like, the funny incidents in the interrogation room. So that part was pretty easy.

But when it came to, you know, having them talk about their time in solitary confinement, when they were on their own for, you know, sometimes days and days, that was really tough. A lot of them didn't even speak at all.

SIMON: Yeah. And tell us about the relationship that Yunus develops - is it a relationship? I mean, is that the word I should be using? - with his interrogator.

ARIAN: Yeah, probably. I mean, they're - you know, the interrogator knows pretty much everything about his life. And they develop a very close relationship in a sick way, if I may call...

SIMON: Yeah.

ARIAN: ...Put it that way. I mean, not all relationships are productive and nice. This one is pretty, you know, perverse and demoralizing. But it's a relationship, and a very close one, I believe.

SIMON: You read your book, and I know I was left with the impression that the trick of interrogation is kind of to get the prisoner to almost believe they're guilty.

ARIAN: Absolutely, yeah. That's the project, you know? You know, the fact is that everybody who kind of lives a certain number of years, they've done something that, like, a state official can hold up as a crime.

SIMON: Yunus begins the book by believing a person can steer clear of politics and just live their life.

ARIAN: Yeah, but that's not the case in Iran. I mean, it - you know, probably not in the U.S. anymore - maybe up to 2016. You move around, and you behave and do things in the shadow of that state. It's almost like it has had like a coronavirus kind of presence in your life. You know, it's everywhere, but it's not necessarily visible.

SIMON: Your novel is being compared to "1984"...

ARIAN: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Which is extraordinary praise, indeed. There are people who look around the world today and think that they see fixtures that could be from Orwell's "1984" - the telescreens, the prohibition or cancellation of certain words and concepts, the incessant acclaim of a leader. Do you look around the world and see fixtures of the Iran you describe in other places today, including ours, the U.S.?

ARIAN: Well, what I see - more like a "Brave New World" than a "1984," which is the overstimulation and overproduction of information, you know, and just the overwhelming amount of data and entertainment. For instance, what happens on Twitter, what Trump does is he just, you know, overloads us with just one kind of disaster after another. And while - when we get to the end of the day, we don't even remember what happened in the beginning in the morning. What was his first tweet, you know, when we woke up?

In "1984," what you had was just the absolute suppression of truth. And in "Brave New World," you have another way of suppressing truth but by overproduction of noise. And that's why we've become so cynical and kind of exhausted.

SIMON: Amir Ahmadi Arian - his novel, "Then The Fish Swallowed Him" - thank you so much for being with us.

ARIAN: Thank you for having me. It was great.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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