*’Thirst, thirst… I’m thirsty.’

…Thirst, his third book to be translated into English, assumes a cultural awareness as well. Dowlatabadi remains a modern anomaly in that he does not cater to an American – or even a Western – audience. His novels are written in Persian and, with the exception of The Colonel (which remains censored in Iran), intended to be read by his fellow countrymen. The resulting aesthetic is very different from what most Western readers are accustomed to.

Title: Thirst

Author: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

Translator:  Martin E. Weir

Publisher: Melville House, New York (2014)

ISBN:  978 1 61219 300 7

 

ThirstMahmoud Dowlatabadi’s novel The Colonel, translated in 2013, assumes the reader has a basic understanding of Iranian history. Thirst, his third book to be translated into English, goes a step further and assumes a cultural awareness as well.  Dowlatabadi remains a modern anomaly in that he does not cater to an American – or even a Western – audience. His novels are written in Persian and, with the exception of The Colonel, published to be read by his countrymen.  The resulting aesthetic is very different from what many of us are accustomed to.

Thirst, like The Colonel, is set during the Iran-Iraq War. An Iraqi author is being pressured by an army Major to write a propaganda piece. (What that entails isn’t entirely clear, but seems to involve a report about a fabricated murder committed by POW’s meant to somehow demoralize the Iranians and inspire the Iraqi army). When the author fails to produce the Major threatens  his family.  The author begins telling  the Major a fable set in the desert. Writing it has distracted him from the Major’s commission.

Any number of shells have rained down. But the water tank still remains standing in one of the valleys between the hills up ahead. In all likelihood, it has shuddered several times from near misses, causing the water inside to spill over and run down the outside of the tank, but it’s still standing in the same gulley, seemingly immune to all gunfire. The tank should be safe for the time being, as it’s not in the enemy’s direct line of sight; unless, that is, their troops crawl out of their trenches, charge down the hill and happen upon it. But it seems that they have not yet been given the order to do so; if they d id advance down the hill, they might find themselves trapped in the same gulley as the water tank, in plain sight and within range. Which would mean that anyone who opened fire could kill as many of them as he had bullets. So the hope is that, at least until this intense bombardment is over, the water tank will remain unscathed, while those soldiers who have fallen on the path leading from the tank to the trenches will also stay where they are, dead or alive. In the distance, between the bow of the hill and the water tank, some enemy soldiers have fallen dead  or dropped to the ground: some of them before reaching the tank and some on their way back with full water bottles, some of which may still be intact, dangling from their necks and shoulders. But we can also assume  that many of those flasks will be mangled and riddled with bullet holes. Now anyone who tries to fetch water will first have the difficult task of finding and quickly gathering up any empty, intact flasks before dashing down to the tank to get water.

But what it all the flasks are full of holes?

Al-atash, atash … atashaan.‘*

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. As the soldiers lay hallucinating in the hot sun, cut off from their supplies, desperate for a drink – one by one they volunteer to crawl to the tank to fill the flasks with water. The volunteers are shot by soldiers in the opposing army and left (by necessity – those attempting to reach them will in turn be shot) to die in the scorching sun. An impasse – condemning the men in both armies to a slow, horrible death by dehydration.

There is a cinematic quality to Dowlatabadi’s books – influenced, perhaps, by his experiences as an actor.  The book opens with a wide shot (see the passage above) that takes in the entire battlefield, and then slowly zooms into a master shot of three men. A Lieutenant attempting to inspire and save the single, remaining soldier under his command and their wounded prisoner.  Cut to the author of this tableau who, in a post-modern cameo,  “lights up his cigarette and writes: ‘Under no circumstances should prisoners be killed! They are your captives, and are completely in your charge.'”  We (the readers) hear a knock at the door.  Enter the Major, demanding his report. The writer doesn’t have it.  He begins to talk about the fable he’s been writing instead.  Cut back to the Lieutenant in the desert.

Thirst is written entirely in present tense, much like a screenplay and regardless of which character’s perspective we’re being given, making for what should be jarring transitions between the fable set in the desert and the writer’s confrontations with the Major. Instead, one scene shifts seamlessly into another in a way that can be momentarily confusing, but also very compelling. Without warning we’re pulled into the Lieutenant’s hallucinations.  And then, suddenly, we’re back in the room with the Iraqi author as he attempts to distract the Major with his fable.  Parallel narratives are created: one in which the author tells the fable and one in which the Lieutenant (within the fable) is experiencing those events. Realities merge, tear apart, and slowly merge again. Thirst is a sophisticated piece of literature that is a joy to read.

The things that make Thirst such an incredible book are the same reasons why it might not be for everyone.  In addition to the complicated structure, readers contend with unfamiliar cultural references. The book’s original Persian title is Besmal, which is “the supplication required in Islam before the sacrifice of any animal”.  The term would be familiar to Iranian readers, identifying the novel as an anti -war treatise. Besmal is a motif/theme that’s frequently repeated and referred to in the story.  The translator includes a footnote (which is what is in the quotations), but how much can such a short explanation actually impart?

There are multiple references to a lioness suckling her cubs, or a man transforming into a dove, – the symbolism behind both is probably as obvious to Persian readers as references to the tortoise and the hare are to us. Antithetically, perhaps the lioness and dove have no culturally specific meanings at all. Lacking a frame of reference makes knowing the difference difficult.  (For example:  last year I spoke briefly with Sara Khalili, the translator of Censoring An Iranian Love Story.  I asked her about the dwarf who appears and reappears throughout that novel. Is it a reference to Arabian Nights or some other Persian folk story? She laughed. No, it’s just Mandanipour playing a joke). Sometimes translated literature becomes a puzzle to solve.  And not everyone wants that kind of complexity.

Thirst also abandons the more traditional plotting of Missing Soluch (Dowlatabadi’s first novel translated into English) and the breathtakingly evocative prose of Tom Patterdale’s translation of The Colonel.  Martin Weir’s translation of Thirst is vibrant and fluid, but very different from Patterdale.  A good thing in my opinion.  The story itself is so strange, almost allegoric – there seems to be a progression towards more the experimental in the author’s writing – that here less is more when it comes to individual sentences.  Weir’s plain, straightforward prose holds the book in balance.

I wouldn’t recommend Thirst to someone just discovering Dowlatabadi.  Despite how much I enjoyed it, new readers would be better off starting with one of his other two novels. But for those of us who already know and love his work, and who recognize Mahmoud Dowlatabadi as one of Iran’s most important contemporary authors, Thirst is a challenging and exciting addition to the canon.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

TheWanderingFalconThere’s a lot of talk among bloggers and reviewers about the importance of translation and International literature.  Some of the most concise criticisms have been written by Tim Parks for the New York Review of Books blog.  He makes good points that the idea that translation/international literature opens up  cultures is exaggerated and a convincing case that literature as a whole is becoming homogenized.  This may be true for most Western countries, but parts of the East may be an entirely different matter.  Aspects of some societies and governments may have the unintended benefit of preserving a country’s literary traditions by the simple fact that exposure to outside influences is limited.   In many ways Jamil Ahmad is the perfect counter argument to Tim Parks.  He is a 79-year old former Pakistani civil servant.  The Wandering Falcon is his first novel, written in the 1970’s.  Here is an author who is clearly not connected to the Western literary tradition.

There was a full moon, and it hung half hidden behind the northern cliff.  The moonlight was strong and dazzling to the eyes.  His wife silently pointed at the moon.  A long distance away on the mountain crest, he could see small antlike figures silhouetted against its orb.  There was a long chain of them moving slowly with loads on their backs.  These were the ice cutters.  They were men who lived in the highest village, whose main occupation was cutting blocks of ice from the glaciers and carrying them on their backs down into the valley, where waiting trucks loaded them up and sped away to the cities, to people living in warmer regions.

Take for example the titular character of the novel, Tor Baz,who laughingly dubs himself as the wandering falcon in one of the stories in this collection.  He is always a secondary character.  There is not a single  story in these pages that is all his own.  Ahmad uses him is an unusual framing device, having him make Hitchcock-ian cameos in every story. Tor Baz is our escort and guide.  Through the course of the narrative we learn about the events that led to his birth, his strange upbringing and coming of age.  The author hints at the man he might ultimately become, but he is never given a plotline to be resolved.

Most reviews describe The Wandering Falcon as a collection of linked short stories.  The protagonist of this collection isn’t Tor Baz.  It’s a specific culture .  I have to believe that Jamil Ahmad set out to describe a way of life that once (perhaps still?) existed in the  Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.  FATA is an isolated region that shares its borders with both Afghanistan and Iran.  And although The Wandering Falcon was written in the 1970’s – before this area became associated with U.S. drone attacks and the Taliban – modern readers will link what they read to the place constantly in the media.

The porous borders reported on the evening news feature prominently in The Death of Camels (my favorite story), but from a flipped perspective.  The Kharots depend on their ability to travel unmolested between Pakistan and Afghanistan with their camels.  They need to stay on the move, using watering holes and grazing pastures located on both sides of the border.  (It’s really a simple equation – staying too long in one place will deplete the area’s resources and the camels die).  This is how they’ve survived for generations.  The closing of the borders equals disaster for their way of life.   Ahmad constructs a heartbreaking portrait of how the tribal structure struggles to function in a world changing too quickly.  On another level he is telling a heartbreaking story about a father and son.

This way of life had endured for centuries, but it would not last forever.  It constituted defiance to certain concepts, which the world was beginning to associate with civilization itself.  Concepts such as statehood, citizenship, undivided loyalty to one state, settled life as opposed to nomadic life, and the writ of the state as opposed to tribal discipline.

The pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life, had to die.  In this clash, the state, as always, proved stronger than the individual.  The new way of life triumphed over the old.  The clash came about first in Soviet Russia.  After a few years, the nomad died in both China and Iran.

By the autumn of 1958, with the British Empire dismantled and the once fluid international boundaries of high Asia becoming ever more rigid, both Pakistan and Afghanistan challenged the nomads.  Restraints were imposed on the free movement of the Powindas, the “foot people.”

In Ahmad’s stories a woman’s fate is usually dependent on the whims of some man – husbands, fathers, brothers and even complete strangers hold the power.  We meet women who are sold into slavery, valued by their husband as less than a performing bear or hunted for adultery.   They make choices, fully aware of the consequences attached to them.  Again, the perspective is different from what I’m used to.  The situations are often brutal, but the women are never depicted as down-trodden.  They show no self-pity.  They are not necessarily unloved.  Ahmad portrays them as dignified and courageous…not as victims.  The men they encounter are not caricatures.  And so Ahmad shows us both right and wrong, hope and despair, honor and depravity – often within the same character.   His judgements are all the more powerful because they remain unwritten.

Ahmad describes events as if he has personally witnessed them, slowly and steadily pulling us deeper into the culture of the “foot people”.  What happens in one story has repercussions in another.  (Much like what happens in one part of the world has repercussions in another).  When I finished I felt I had a better understanding of a place I’ve heard about, but never seen.  Don’t misunderstand me – I am not trying to claim reading The Wandering Falcon made me an overnight expert on Pakistan.  It’s a step in the right direction, though.  And perhaps an American or a British author could have written this book which isn’t even a translation.  But a Pakistani author did.  30+ years later, an American woman has the opportunity to read it and it is completely relevant to the state of the world she lives in.  I think that’s important.  Actually, I think it’s pretty incredible.

Note:  The Wandering Falcon was just shortlisted for the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.  In 2011 it was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. 

Publisher:  Riverhead Books, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 59448 827 6

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The Colonel: A Novel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale)

A basic grasp of 20th Century Iranian history is advisable if you plan to read Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel, published in English last month by Melville House Books.  Readers might be able to get by on the information provided by the publisher in footnotes and a glossary, but a little time spent on Wikipedia can’t hurt.  (I also recommend Lisa Hill’s excellent review on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog).  The Colonel is both a political novel and a family drama – knowledge of the former is essential in understanding the latter.  To complicate matters further: it also functions as a Persian fable.

Two colonels are referenced in the title.  The first, “the colonel” (always in lowercase letters), is the novel’s protagonist and one of its two narrators.  He served in the military under the Shah.  After Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was ousted the colonel was arrested and sent to prison. (I’m fuzzy as to whether this was because of his politics or because he killed his wife in a drunken rage).  He has five children.  The eldest son, Amir, witnessed his mother’s murder.

Amir is the novel’s second narrator.  His life, in many ways, mirrors that of his father’s.  Both men have troubled pasts.  Both men supported different, fallen regimes (Amir supported Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh who deposed, and was later deposed by, the Shah); both were imprisoned and tortured; both men played a part in their wives’ deaths. Their combined actions and choices – particularly their political choices – have led to the destruction of their family, contributing to the deaths of Amir’s two brothers and youngest sister.  A second sister is married to a brutal opportunist who holds both his wife and her family in contempt.   At the point where the story begins Amir and his married sister are the only children of the colonel still alive.  We meet the other three in flashbacks.  We learn the details of their deaths and, as the story unfolds, understand that they were sacrificed.

The catalyst which sets the story into motion is a knock on the door in the middle of the night.  The colonel is summoned to collect the body of his fourteen year old daughter, Parvaneh, from the police station.  She died in custody and he must bury her before dawn in an unmarked grave.  Two soldiers accompany him to assist with the burial, which turns into something of a farce… almost a comedy of errors (except it’s not funny).  There is no women to bathe the body, they have no shovels to dig the grave, the rain never stops, the ghost of the colonel’s dead wife makes a tragic appearance… as does the ghost of the second Colonel.

The second colonel of the title – The Colonel (always capitalized) is a historical figure.  The details of his life would be familiar to most Iranian school children.  Footnotes and the book’s glossary provide some detail.  To my mind, his importance is more as a symbol and less as a man.  The colonel keeps his picture in a place of prominence in his home.  As he loses each of his children he places their photographs in the frame at The Colonel’s feet.

Dowlatabadi moves back and forth between the colonel and Amir to tell the story.   The Colonel is non-linear, filled with flashbacks, memories and hallucinations – making the timeline of events sometimes difficult to follow.  I initially believed this was done on purpose to reflect the states of minds of the two narrators.  To demonstrate how their individual psyches and family are deteriorating apace with the nation.  But if Dowlatabadi meant for this novel to be taken as a fable then it’s possible that what I identified as hallucinations were meant to be visions or, even, actual occurrences.   This is just one instance among many where I fell short as a reader.  (Another being my failed attempts to grasp the amazingly complex political and cultural traditions depicted in the book).

Iran seems to be a country where lines are constantly blurred – with so many regime changes and each member of the colonel’s family aligning themselves with a different political cause –  friends and enemies are difficult to keep track of.   It wasn’t entirely shocking when Amir welcomed his former torturer, a man named Khezr Javid, into his father’s home as a guest and hid him from the revolutionary mobs crowding the streets.  Or for that same torturer to reappear later on dressed as a Mulla, now serving in the new government.  After telling Amir how he also served the Shah at one time, he explains his situation  –

“Listen, boy.  Political police are like a religion.  Has anyone ever heard of a religion being overthrown?… A new gang may take over, but they don’t go and overthrow the very basis of the old régime.  I grant you that some of us were strung up by a few of your hot-headed brethren, but that’s not the end of the story.  Not by any means.  We’re the very foundation of everything, we are the underpinning of the state, my engineer friend!”

____________

I’ve read only one other Iranian author.  The difference between Shahriar Mandapour and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is palpable.  Both write about the political and social climate of Iran – but Censoring An Iranian Love Story is more indulgent in its tone.  Mandapour creates a metafiction narrative that acknowledges the reality of his main characters’ situations, but forces upon them unrealistically happy endings (while acknowledging the implausibility of these endings).  Whereas Dowlatabadi is the complete opposite. The Colonel has not been published in Iran due to censorship.  This poses a problem.   He is the quintessential Iranian author, as Mark Twain is the quintessential American author and Dickens the British, even in his open criticism of the current government under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  And so his novel is dependent on and assumes readers with a certain level of knowledge about his subject matter.  Yet, I can’t help but wonder, outside of Iran and it’s neighbors, how many people have that knowledge?  Dowlatabadi’s writing is more dramatic…grittier… then Mandapour.  His story takes place in damp basements, muddy streets, dark mortuaries and smokey, confined spaces.  He paints a dark and bitter picture of Iran and its politics – of a nation that sacrifices its young people.  While I don’t doubt the truth in what he says, is it an objective or a subjective truth?  Amir speaks of the events leading up to his sister’s, Parvaneh’s, death.

That was when people started talking: it was the duty of any respectable family to repudiate a girl like that and send her packing.  She was now mahdour ud-dam*, fair Islamic game.  It would be an honour killing.

A few pages later the colonel, that girl’s father, recalls speaking to a crowd at his matryed son’s funeral (the morning after burying Parvaneh in an un-marked grave).

…the memory of what he had said about Parvaneh over the unseen, echoing loudspeakers at Masoud’s funeral.  He could not believe that he would ever have been capable of uttering those words against a child who was not even fourteen, a girl to whom he was both a mother and a father.  Had it really been his own voice that had yelled:  ‘This girl is mahdour ud-dam… She must be killed.  She is impure, possessed by the devil and now lost to us all…’

Passages like these are incredibly disturbing to read.  Particularly for a reader without the experience to recognize concrete fact from what is being shaped by the author’s opinions and artistry.  Much like his character Amir,  Dolwatabadi’s writing portrays him as disenchanted with and disenfranchised from his homeland.  Reading these pages it’s difficult to find any redemption or hope for Iran.  I don’t dispute the book’s brilliance, even I recognize the genius behind it.  But for those readers (and I count myself among them) coming to these pages ignorant of the background material, The Colonel is an intense experience.

Note:  The Colonel was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is being whispered as a possible future Nobel Prize winner.

*deserving of death

Publisher:  Melville House, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 6121 9132 4

Censoring an Iranian Love Story. a novel. by Shahriar Mandanipour.

Nabokov has, in his brilliant lectures and lessons on literature, said, “Literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf, and there was no wolf behind him.”

But this is simple.  I would say that the best stories are those in which the lying shepherd boy, or the writer, comes crying wolf, wolf, and a wolf that was not there appears behind him.

I’m fascinated by  Censoring an Iranian Love Story. There’s an inflection,  a way in which the narrator structures his sentences, which I love.  Mandanipour’s writing  style is distinctively Middle Eastern (in contrast to a Western author writing about the Middle East).   There’s a poetic formality to his phrasing, yet at the same time a lightness to his overall prose that keeps the novel from becoming too dense.   Shahriar Mandanipour describes his country as only a hometown boy does  – with understanding, a tinge of sadness and a hefty dose of irony.

The novel’s premise, and the  goal of the book’s narrator – Mandanipour’s thinly veiled alter ego – is to write a love story and see it published in Iran.

…for reasons that like other writers I will probably discover later, I, with all my being, want to write a love story.  The love story of a girl who has never seen the man who has been in love with her for a year and whom she loves very much.  A story with an ending that is a gateway to light.  A story that, although it does not have a happy ending like  romantic Hollywood movies, still has an ending that will not make my reader afraid of falling in love.  And, of course, a story that cannot be labeled as political.  My dilemma is that I want to publish my love story in my homeland… Unlike in many countries around the world, writing and publishing a love story in my beloved Iran are not easy tasks.

To accomplish these tasks he needs to get past the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the embodiment of which is the  character of Mr. Petrovich.  And so a large part of the narrative is taken up by the author examining and second guessing his characters’ actions; deciding what can be said openly and what should be implied.  His hope is that though he will need to  compromise, it will not be at the expense of artistic integrity.  Our narrator believes, naively, that he will be able to reason with the Ministry.  His conversations with Mr. Petrovich are enlightening.

Mr. Petrovich will say:

“Do you really think that if writers write about the wolf it will show up behind them?”

“It depends.  If they write really well and creatively, somehow some sort of a wolf will appear behind them and before the eyes of the reader.”

But this is very dangerous.  What you are saying is that writers can write about hundreds of antiregime guerrilla groups and thousand of counterrevolutionaries, spies, and malfeasants, and they will all appear.”

I have to kick myself really hard.  What have I done?  I have not only made matters worse for myself and my colleagues, but…

“In reality, you story writers are like Aaron, who made a golden calf and misled the Israelites.  You deserve whatever trouble comes your way.”

The  love story, about an Iranian couple named Dara & Sara, is printed in bold text.  It is constantly interrupted by the author’s explanations, protests, insertions of himself into the narrative action and self-censorship.  Entire passages are crossed out with black lines (but are still legible for the sake of the reader).  Censoring an Iranian Love Story, visually, has a very Tristram Shandy feel to it. And while the love story is  poignant: star-crossed lovers separated by government, economics and class; a more complicated  metafiction is  told over and around it.

One of the things I found unusual about Censoring an Iranian Love Story is the playful way in which Mandanipour deals with what could easily become pretty depressing subject matter.   At no point did I doubt the accuracy of his descriptions – I’ve read other books that prepared me for the culture shock of Iran.  But this is where irony plays a key role:   much like  families will tell funny anecdotes about crazy uncles and disastrous vacations, Mandanipour’s narrator describes his homeland with both humor and affection. And while there are obvious fantastical asides, some embroidery of the facts, the novel captures the essence of a country and city that simultaneously inspires and infuriates.  Shahriar Mandanipour’s love story is not just about the relationship between his hero and heroine.  It is about his own love affair with Iran.

Unfortunately, these two love stories seem destined to only end badly.  I read that because of this novel Shahriar Mandanipour  cannot return to Iran. The obstacles that Dara, Sara and scores of Iranian youth face appear insurmountable.   But, despite a gloomy outlook, for two hundred and ninety-five pages the reader is  treated to  a magical story inhabited by One Thousand and One Nights, flying carpets, a hunchbacked midget, alchemists and ghosts. Again and again Mandanipour’s narrator invites us to “Ask so that I can explain…”

And the explanations are beautiful.  There is a delicate intricacy to Censoring an Iranian Love Story which, combined with the tone of the writing and the psychologically complex characters at the novel’s center, will not fail to enchant.

Iran

Due out in paperback, from Vintage, on June 1st.

Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2009)
ISBN:  978 0 307 26978 2

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