Call Me Zebra, by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

“Now twenty-two, I still burned with rage, grief and confusion at the arduous path of my past.”

img_2610I finished reading Call Me Zebra a week ago but it took some time for the whirling emotions it spurred to sink and settle, for me to pick them up, analyse them and lay them on the screen.

So here we go!

I don’t really remember how I got to buy this novel. I think it is a case of a gorgeous cover and intriguing blurb I caught a glimpsed at on Instagram, and that led me to preorder the book without much thinking.

And oh how glad I am I did!

The novel tells the coming of age story of a young woman. It opens as she is a child fleeing Iran with her family, the Hosseinis, who belong to the persecuted intellectual elite of their country. After years of drifting on the lonely routes of exile, they settle in New-York.

Now 22, her father– her only family left, is dying. From there, her world unravels. In an effort to get a grip on her life she renames herself  — she will now be called Zebra–, and sets on a voyage through her history and identity, backward – retracing the tracks of her family’s exile. Lonely and stricken with grief, she decides to write her manifesto. She thus sets on a quest to embody literature, be a symbol and receptacle for it,  bear a message to the world, and thus be worthy of her forefathers. Zebra needs a cause greater than herself, and her grandiloquence is the only antidote she knows to her helplessness.

“I had become more Zebra than ever before, as troubling as literature, as disquieting as language itself.”

Follow absurd and hilarious encounters where she lectures clueless innocent people on the high truths of literature, history , life, and death. Among these people, Ludo, whom she meets in Barcelona. Their mutual attraction is undeniable but is he worthy of her? Can he stand her otherworldly intensity? This ardent and stormy relationship, is that…love? Their conflictual and sensual tango soon becomes a prominent part of the novel and an important catalyst to Zebra’s questionings and actions.

“I should have known then and there. A fake philologist. A thought murderer.”

Zebra is a sharp yet somehow unreliable narrator. Self-righteous, pompous, unreasonably introspective, full of anger and contempt, she resents her fellowmen for leading vain and careless lives while she is suffering. Logical and uncompromising to the point of absurdity, imbued with literature to the core, she is permanently deciphering its signs and symbols in the world around her, in a never ending quest that borders on permanent hallucination.

“‘You,’ I said ‘are at liberty to turn your nose away from the cadavers of history, to protect your stupidity and innocence’ — her smooth cheeks flushed and her blue eyes went round — ‘but I could never do the same'”

A living paradox, she is faced with a constant dilemma. Marked by loss, she simultaneously wants to inhabit the world and retreat from it. She is contemptuous of love and still longs for it. Sensing a “void” in herself she frenetically seeks to fill it while claiming to embrace it.

“We are all the very thing we rebel against.”

Despite her self-righteous and pompous attitude, Zebra is ultimately relatable and utterly lovable. Following the stream of her thoughts allowed me to understand the logic of her meandering philosophy, as well as the reasons behind her hesitations in the face of love; and totally connect with her. I even recognised myself in some of her madness. In the end, despite her obsessive infatuation with literary theory and although her heartrending history makes the question of identity exceptionally urgent, Zebra is a young woman like you and me, engaged in a coming of age journey, exploring the mysteries and intricacies of love. A young woman seeking to reconcile with her past and find her place in the world after having been dispossessed of her home country.

In this odyssey through her mind, I was totally swept away by Van der Vliet Oloomi’s luminous writing. Deftly leaping from extravagant erudition to poetic lyricism and shrewd humour, she vividly brings Zebra to life. Her agility with words is evident, and it shines in all registers.

“The dark silky folds of evening descended through the retreating light. Ludo’s trail of smoke rose against it, a ghostly thread eclipsing, like a secondary ethereal world, the falling darkness.”

Her erudition is also conspicuous, and all the references may seem intimidating at first. But I don’t think it is the author’s intention to stun the reader with her knowledge. Quite the contrary, I felt like I was invited into a wonderful journey through literature, history… and love. And there is such brilliant humour woven throughout this story, I often found myself laughing out loud. So there is lush erudition yes, but nothing austere.

Gleefully immersed in this unique tale, I felt aggrieved when it came to an end. The conclusion is beautiful, with a realisation that propels Zebra into a new stage  of her life, toward adulthood, lucidity and peace (or maybe more trouble, you never know with her). But I did not want it to end. I had found my place in the nooks and crannies of Zebra’s tortuous mind and did not want to leave. It was so warm and vibrant there. She is probably the liveliest character I have ever encountered and I will certainly reread her story, just to spend some time with her again, and maybe discover new wonders in this diamond sea of a book.

Conclusion : One of the most satisfying reading experiences I have ever had. Sometimes demanding but oh so rewarding! I have offered my current interpretation of it, but it is so rich I have probably just scraped the surface. Read it if you are ready to enter a strange, picaresque quest, fuelled by love, grief and anger, carried by exceptional writing. You will soon find yourself at home and unwilling to leave…

“My dear grocer, no one is spared. Someday you too will join the world’s unlucky, the world’s foot soldiers, the bearers of grief. And when that day arrives, you will finally understand that a book is a counsellor, a multitude of counsellors, and you will think back of me fondly.”

If you want to discover this exceptional gem of a book, head over here!

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