November 28, 2011 by markstani
Iran’s parliament spent part of this week chanting ‘Death To Britain’ as part of its seemingly never-ending nuclear row with the West. In his latest novel, The Colonel (pub. Haus Publishing), Mahmoud Dowlatabadi implies that rather more introspection is required to find the root cause of his nation’s continued tumult.
Dowlatabadi’s Iran is devoid of almost all hope: crushed by the oppression and paranoia of successive regimes, and, like the ageing narrator who spends the first part of the novel seeking to bury his murderered fourteen-year-old daughter before sunrise, lurching ever deeper into blackness.
It is small wonder that ‘The Colonel’ is banned in Iran. Translated tirelessly from Persian by Tom Patterdale, it is an exhaustive and gruelling piece of work, undoubtedly most valuable to those who are denied it. The rest of us can only admire Dowlatabadi’s epic from afar.
The Colonel of the title has lost four of his five children to execution or frontline action. Burying his daughter and preparing for his middle son’s funeral in the weeks which mark the beginning of the Islamic revolution, he can do little but ruminate on the mistakes made by his country’s successive rulers, his pessimism manifested in endless rain and darkness.
Thrusting between past and present, employing a mixture of narrative techniques and rich in references – both direct and oblique – to heroes of Iranian history (invaluably covered in the book’s sizeable glossary), Dowlatabadi has not made it easy for those with only a tenuous grasp of his subject.
But then, he has little or no reason to. This is plainly, first and foremost, a despairing and as yet unheard plea to the Iranian people. In a world where a man’s torturer can then seek – and be granted – sanctuary in his victim’s house when the plates of power shift unfavourably, Dowlatabadi lays bare his nation’s hypocrisy and misplaced morality.
“Father, the tragedy is this! They say that the servants whom the Almighty loves, he kills. And I see that our country kills those who love it the most. Is this country committing suicide? They get under your skin, they use you to speak for them, and, in your name, they then kill you. Crying ‘salvation and welfare’, they drive you to destruction. Your servants – people like you were once – are destroying you.”
‘The Colonel’ could by no means be described as an enjoyable book. Clearly, it is intended to be digested first and foremost by those who are directly affected by their nation’s politics. For them, the importance of this book must not be under-stated, thus we should celebrate its inclusion on this year’s longlist for the MAN Asian Literary Prize. For others, it provides a valuable insight into a nation with whom the war of words is unlikely ever to be won.
‘The Colonel’ has also been reviewed by my fellow Shadow MAL Prize jury member, Lisa at ANZLitLovers. Read her review here.