“Messenger from Mystery”
Review by Hannah Hill
“Messenger from Mystery” by Deno Trakas is a melancholy, lyrical story. It is not a historical thriller, although it is set in the backdrop of the Iranian hostage crisis. Rather, it is a coming-of-age story, an exploration of life through the eyes of an ordinary guy with the soul of a poet as he is thrust unexpectedly into the hard, gritty realities of war.
The first half of the book is slow and a bit meandering. The protagonist, Jay, is a PhD student at the University of South Carolina. The typical sheltered, self-absorbed American, Jay’s theories and ideals are watertight and pleasant – if a bit out of touch. His world is rocked when Azi shows up in his English class. Azi is from Iran, and she is a dreamer as well – sweet, innocent and idealistic. Jay falls for her, but their romance is short-lived: Azi is closely related to Iranian leadership, and as instability increases her relatives send for her to return home.
Trakas’s storytelling is sensitive and, at times, slow. You feel Jay’s loss as Azi returns home, and his aimlessness as he pursues his degree and teaches his students. His romantic encounters are another source of confusion for him: His heart is still Azi’s but he begins to have feelings for another woman as well.
The story’s pace picks up with a call from the CIA. They know about Azi, and need to reach the Iranian leader she is related to. Like any naive, patriotic American, Jay is excited to help, and even more excited to see Azi again. The operation goes horribly wrong when she is kidnapped by terrorists and whisked away under the noses of the CIA operatives. At that point, in the CIA’s eyes she is just an Iranian caught up in the Middle East conflict. But to Jay, she is Azi and he cannot rest with the CIA’s meaningless assurances that they are “working on it.”
At last he mounts an operation of his own with the help of friends and CIA connections, and Trakas brings the war-torn streets of Iran to life as the small party carries off a daring, unlikely rescue.
One of the hardest parts of growing up is the collision of youthful idealism with the harsh realities of life. The Iranian situation and Azi’s imprisonment and torture are a baptism by fire for Jay. Life is bigger than literature, theory, and ideals, and Jay is overwhelmed as he grapples with the ugliness of war and the suffering it causes. Trakas’ storytelling is sensitive but unapologetically realistic.
Jay also encounters true heroism for the first time – first in Azi’s courage under unimaginable circumstances, then through the selflessness of his CIA contact, Garrison. An American operative living in Iran, Garrison places his own safety on the line and eventually sacrifices his own life for the little group of strangers.
The human mind cannot fully comprehend that level of sacrifice, and we struggle to make sense of it along with Jay. We share his guilt for Garrison’s death, his helplessness and utter inability to offer a fitting tribute. And we ask why.
There are no answers, but Trakas leaves us with a note of hope: Jay and Azi have returned to the States, battered and broken but safe. We don’t get a Hallmark-style happy ending, because life doesn’t guarantee happy endings. What Trakas does give us is the possibility for love and healing and the knowledge that while poetic ideals can reach us at our deepest level, they cannot interpret life for us. Life is life, in all its grandeur, pain, joy, and sorrow. And we are better and wiser when we accept that.