*’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 Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon, translated from Arabic by the author

Man’s reaction to his own mortality is a topic that’s been showing up on my personal radar quite a bit lately. Zadie Smith’s recent essay Man vs. Corpse (The New York Review of Books, December 5, 2014); Drew Gilpin Faust’s National Book Award winning This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (which, admittedly, has been sitting on my bookshelf for some time) and Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer – a novel I finished weeks ago but have had difficulty articulating my opinions on – have me considering how war and death shapes a generation in both large and small ways. Faust opens her book with the sentence “Mortality defines the human condition.” She continues…

‘ “We all have our dead – we all have our Graves,” a Confederate Episcopal bishop observed in an 1862 sermon. Every era, he explained, must confront “like miseries”; every age must search for “like consolation.” Yet death has its discontinuities as well. Men and women approach death in ways shaped by history, by culture, by conditions that vary over time and across space. Even though “we all have our dead,” and even though we all die, we do so differently from generation to generation and from place to place.’

This Republic of Suffering specifically discusses how the huge number of casualties during the American Civil War – 620,000 killed – on both sides of the battlefield changed how the dead were prepared and mourned in this country. The expediency of identifying the remains, returning them to their families and allowing those left behind the opportunity to find closure (to use a modern term) took precedence over the traditional religious rituals. “Civil War death narrowed theological and denominational differences. The shared crisis of battle yielded a common effort to make the notion of a Good Death available to all.” Dying in the U.S. became a much more secular business, and one could argue that it remains so to this day.

In the Muslim world this does not seem to be the case, but Faust’s words concerning how “men and women approach death” remain equally applicable. There’s a moment in The Corpse Washer when the Shiite protagonist asks his father why they wash the dead.

… He said that every dead person will meet with the angels and the people of the afterlife and God Almighty and therefore must be pure and clean. Decomposition must not show on the body, and its odor should be made pleasant. It should be covered so that the hearts of the living be not hardened. I also asked him about the differences between us and the Sunnis in washing. He said they were very minor indeed. Certain details involving the mention of imams and the writing of supplications on the shroud, but nothing major. He said that Christians and Jews may also wash a Muslim if there are no Muslims at hand. The important thing, he added, was to be possessed of noble intentions.

The passage – which I found to be incredibly beautiful in its simplicity – goes on to explain the details of the ritual:  who is allowed to wash who and what to do when there is no water available to wash, or herbs to dress, the body.  Jawad, the young man who asks his father that important question (important to him and important to readers) is the youngest son from a family of mghassilchi – corpse washers in Baghdad.  His beloved elder brother, Ammoury, is a doctor who becomes a soldier in the first Gulf War. Jawad, showing no interest in medicine or engineering, is the son chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps. He spends his Summers apprenticed at the mghaysil, the washhouse, where he takes copious notes on how his father prepares the bodies. Eventually the notes are replaced by drawings and against his parent’s wishes, with only Ammoury’s support, he enrolls in art school – in effect turning his back on the family profession. But fate has different plans for Jawad. The first Gulf War, his brother’s death and their father’s subsequent embitterment shape his future in ways he never thought to anticipate. The art market dries up and Iraq is invaded a second time. His father dies, leaving Jawad responsible for the support of his mother.  Circumstances leave him with no option but to return to washing bodies in his father’ mghaysil.

Jawad narrates his experiences in the first person, from the position of a man reflecting on his life up until the present.  The prose is lovely. Simple, straight-forward, but capable of raw poetic flourishes – as when Jawad describes one of his many nightmares or compares death to a postman, crying out to his dead father that the letters are piling up (his anguish palpable).  Sinan Antoon translated his own novel from Arabic, and perhaps this explains the  intense intimacy that he establishes between Jawad and the reader.  Events feel immediate. We share in Jawad’s nightmares.  We act as witnesses to the volume and variety of carnage produced by war.  We better understand the subtleties of the political situation and their effects on our protagonist’s – and Iraq’s – prospects when we experience them through the eyes of the main character.

The next day the electricity was back on long enough to see on the TV the official announcement of the formation of the governing council under the aegis of Paul Bremer.  The council was a hodgepodge of names supposedly representing the spectrum of Iraqi society, but we had never heard of most of them.  What they had in common was that each name was preceded by its sect:  Sunni, Shia, Christian… We were not accustomed to such a thing.  My uncle was furious when he saw the secretary general of the Iraqi Communist Part sitting with the other members.  He’d heard at the headquarters that the party had polled its cadres and that they’d voted to be part of the council, but he still couldn’t believe his eyes.

He waved his hand and said, “Look at him, for God’s sake.  They put him there as a Shiite, and not because he represents an ideological trend or a party with its own history of political struggle…”

Antoon, in describing the course of Jawad’s life, has built a tragedy of Greek proportions. Again and again Jawad is forced back into that stone building he has spent his lifetime trying to escape. He’s plagued by terrible nightmares. Unable (or unwilling?) to marry, he is left alone. It’s hard not to see Jawad and the destruction of his dreams as representative of a generation of young Iraqi men. The women of the country leave or are sent away – including Jawad’s mother – to safety.  Single, particularly young, males are not allowed through the border crossings.  Antoon chose as his theme all the things war, and occupation, rip away:  lives, futures, choices, freedom.

So we can perhaps forgive Jawad when he fails to recognize that hope resides in the mghaysil.  If only because it endures.  As Iraq collapses into sectarian violence a good samaritan, a fellow Shiite, requests that Jawad wash the bodies of Sunnis left rotting in the street.  The samaritan delivers them to the washhouse and then arranges for them to be buried after Jawad prepares the bodies.  Whereas the process of preparing the dead was ritualistic, spiritual – beautiful even – in his father’s time, during the second Gulf war and its aftermath the bodies come too quickly. “The Angel of Death is working overtime as if hoping for a promotion, perhaps to become a god”.  And, still, an exhausted Jawad attempts to perform his duties with the same care his father did.  Though it pains him, though he gives every appearance to succumbing to despair, he continues to wash the dead with noble intentions.

The Corpse Washer is not an optimistic book, but then Antoon has chosen that defining characteristic of humanity – “we all have our dead” – as the bridge between his readers and subject.  He relies on this shared condition to build empathy.  Not the happiest of topics, admittedly, but a universal one (and probably the reason why the novel has done well with Western readers despite that not being the audience it was originally intended for).  While it seems unlikely at the end of the novel that things will work out for Jawad, his future is still left somewhat open-ended.  Something I appreciated.  The glass if far from half full, but we can choose to believe that Jawad will endure his “like miseries” and find his “like consolation”.  The desire for Grace, Antoon seems to understand, is also universal.

Publisher:  Yale University Press, New Haven & London (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 300 19060 1

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Reading Assignments for the 2013 Brooklyn Book Festival

Fall is here… more or less.  The weather is still closer to 80 than 70 degrees.  And the view from my window looks nothing like the cover of the L.L. Bean catalog that just arrived in the mail (a couple sitting on the tailgate of an old pick-up truck, a lake surrounded by pines, fall leaves covering the grass).  But it is September and in a few short weeks it will be one of my favorite days of the year.  The Brooklyn Book Festival is being held on Sunday, September 22nd.

I’ve already put together my spreadsheet (yes, I put together a spreadsheet) of the panels I’ll be attending.  I’m a sucker for panels.  I always overbook myself, forget to eat and leave way too little time to tour the tables set up in Brooklyn Borough Plaza.  This year’s line-up looks especially distracting with a number of translated authors in attendance.

There are at least three books I hope to read before the Festival day arrives.

The Assignment: The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Sound of Things FallingMy Reason:  There’s been a ton of buzz around this novel.

The Panel:  Personal Stories, National Memory: Fiction can be as narrow or contained as a single consciousness, or open up and embody something intrinsic to an era or nation. Alexander Maksik (A Marker to Measure Drift), probes the shattered inner world of a Liberian war refugee; Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez (The Sound of Things Falling) captures the dread and violence of his country’s drug war years, and Oonya Kempadoo (All Decent Animals) offers a polyrhythmic, panoramic view across contemporary Trinidadian society. Moderated by Anderson Tepper. Special thanks to the Colombian Film Festival New York.  (Borough Hall Community Room, 209 Joralemon Street)

The Assignment:  HotHouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar Straus & Giroux by Boris Kachka

HothouseThe Reason:  History about books, where can you go wrong?  Plus, I always like to attend at least one “industry” panel.

The Panel:  Publish and Perish? E-books are killing publishing! The corporations are killing publishing! Self-publishing is killing publishing! While headlines continually bemoan the end of the literary world as we know it, others argue that the reports of publishing’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  Janet Groth (The Receptionist) and Boris Kachka (Hothouse) take a look inside two of our most storied institutions—The New Yorker and Farrar, Straus and Giroux—and consider the past while taking the pulse of the literary world today. (Brooklyn Historical Society Library, 128 Pierrepont Street, 3PM)

The Assignment:  The Corpse Washer By Sinan Antoon

The Reason:  This was a coin flip – between The Corpse Washer and Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s Where the Tigers Are At Home (Roblès sits on a 4PM panel called Lost and Found: The Journey Begins At Home).  I’ve been reading a lot of French novels lately and decided on something different.

The Panel:  What Fills the Void After War? Three acclaimed writers from countries that have known conflict and political unrest discuss war’s aftermath and how it informs their work. With Irish writer Colum McCann (TransAtlantic), Sri Lankan writer Ru Freeman (On Sal Mal Lane) and Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon (The Corpse Washer). Moderated by Rob Spillman (Tin House)  (Borough Hall Community Room, 209 Joralemon Street, 5PM)

If you’ll be in Brooklyn on the 22nd here’s the link to the 2013 Brooklyn Book Festival events schedule.  You know, so you can make your own spreadsheet!

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