The lovers have had a fight, and frankly it’s about time. Ever since Ludo Bembo arrived at the airport in Barcelona to pick up Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini, an errand that was a favor for a friend of a friend, his stubborn willingness to remain in her orbit has been a mystery.
“Here to reclaim José Emilio Morales’s friend,” the sign Ludo held at the airport read, and though this handsome man was smoothing her voyage, she quibbled pedantically with his use of the word “reclaim.”
“Have you ever possessed me?” she asked. “Technically speaking . . . you can only reclaim something if you’ve claimed it once before.” And Ludo, an expatriate Italian living in Spain, ignored the neon-bright warning signs and fell into a romance with this Iranian-born New Yorker, who calls herself (another blaring alarm) Zebra.
The morning of their fight, after she has ordered him to never again use the word “love” around her, they argue about the croissants that he has bought and she has not touched.
“To each his own,” Zebra says, convinced that Ludo is as fixated on food as Cervantes’s loyal Sancho Panza. “But let it be known that I align myself with Don Quixote, the Knight of the Sad Countenance, for whom food is anathema because he, like me, feeds on the flesh of language.”
Indeed. To the obsessive, isolated title character in Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s complex and deliberate novel “Call Me Zebra,” the words of history’s great writers and thinkers are the planet’s most precious resource. They are what Zebra gorges on, and what she regurgitates.
Having fled the warring land of her birth and lost each of her parents in turn, she is a young woman without family or country — an exile consumed with the suffering of her persecuted forebears and herself. But her father taught her to revere literature, stuffing her mind with memorized passages from the time she was small. Such knowledge becomes Zebra’s refuge, a place where she can psychologically wall herself off from the world. And so she does, even when — after her father dies in New York — she embarks on what she calls her Grand Tour of Exile, retracing the zigzagging journey they took from Iran.
“If Ulysses can set off on a Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, Don Quixote on a Grand Tour of Literature, and Dante the Pilgrim on a Grand Tour of Human Nature, then it stands to reason that I, Zebra, can do all three at once.”
Zebra is smug and contemptuous, callous and self-pitying. Her social skills are minimal, and the fact that she has been so traumatized that she is barely engaged with life is part of the point. A Nietzsche devotee obsessed with death and convinced that she absorbed her father’s mind through metempsychosis, she is, like Don Quixote, not quite all there.
Oloomi (“Fra Keeler”) knows exactly what she’s doing in creating a narrator-protagonist who lives almost entirely in her head — someone who has been, as Zebra describes it in typically cataclysmic terms, “squashed by history; ground down to the atomic level; reduced to dust; pulverized; flattened to a singular surface; rendered as thin as paper, two-dimensional.”
The trouble, for the reader, is that this very two-dimensionality makes Zebra seem less a character than a thought experiment infused with literary homages. That impression persists through most of the book’s first 180 pages, including when she meets Ludo and, surprisingly, turns out to be a sexual creature.
Oloomi, in her rigor, asks us to inhabit Zebra’s airless, intellectualized existence without the compensations of, say, extraordinary prose or arresting atmospherics. (Those do come later.) It makes for tiresome reading, though it’s relieved whenever Ludo is around, which is not nearly enough in that first chunk of the book. Likewise the bird who shares Zebra’s rented Barcelona apartment. His name is Taüt, which in Catalan means coffin, and he is a funny little guy.
“ ‘What is the nature of my predicament?’ I asked Taüt. ‘I am from nowhere. Homeless, adrift, bewildered, crippled with endless estrangement.’
“Taüt nodded along in agreement with the calm patience of a man who has been locked up his whole life.”
In fact Zebra is the one who needs to find the key to her liberty. Intellectual freedom, that precious right that her parents and their parents had to fight for, is soundly in her possession. What she needs to reclaim (and she did possess it once) is the capacity to live with her whole being, to risk loving and hoping when she knows how very ugly the world can be.
As the novel blossoms at long last, Zebra starts to rewrite her own grim narrative. She begins to emerge — fitfully, ridiculously — from the part of her exile that was always self-imposed.
CALL ME ZEBRA
By Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp., $24
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