Author Nandita Jhaveri-Menon was asked by a mutual friend to record the stories of Hélène Zulgadar, an aging beauty who had been married to bold international bon vivant and inveterate yarn-spinner, Aliyar Bey, known as “Zulu.” What the author gleaned from listening to the cultured, intelligent widow was a glimpse of romance and history spanning from Europe to Africa to the Middle East. Both “refugees” of their day, Aliyar was the son of Azerbaijanis fleeing Russian occupation, while Hélène was the daughter of "White Russians" forced out of their homeland after the fall of the Czars. Hélène was married off in her teens to a cruel, uncaring husband who divorced her after leaving her and their daughter to serve in the military. Willowy and blond, Hélène often worked as a fashion model. She met Aliyar in Paris when she went to visit an "elderly" wounded soldier in hospital; Aliyar came across as anything but elderly, and the two soon became a couple. Zulu’s indomitable charm attracted all the beautiful people, including the Iranian Shah, who considered Aliyar highly amusing as well as an astute military man, who helped organize the Iranian army.
In assisting Hélène to revisit her past, Jhaveri-Menon was swept up in it, even journeying to Spain to try to locate Zulu's grave. Jhaveri-Menon's narrative takes brief respites from Hélène and Zulu’s escapades to depict the international canvas, including the history of the Foreign Legion and an intimate look at the royals of pre-revolutionary Iran. Giving Hélène’s reminiscences their fullest due, Jhaveri-Menon creates a broad vista of events on the world stage interlinked with a personal diary organized with respect and sensitivity. A paean to bigger-than-life characters in a bygone era, The Fourth Wife of Aliyar Bey will have resonance for modern-day students of Middle Eastern history and culture.
RECOMMENDED by the US Review