Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

The Colonel This summer the Iranian government issued a postage stamp on the novelist Dowlatabadi’s 74th birthday commemorating his lifetime of work. Despite the regime’s professed respect for the art of the novelist, Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel is still not published in his own country. It was first published in Germany, where it was shortlisted for the 2009 Haus der Kulturen Berlin International Literary Award. After publication in Britain, the novel was longlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize and it won the 2013 Jan Michalski Prize for Literature.

This novel was begun by Dowlatabadi in the 1980’s and periodically added to and amended until the author declared it ready for publication in 2008. It relates the story of a man, military man of discipline and principles, who appears torn asunder by the change sweeping his country and his family in light of the 1979 revolution against the Shah which was the end of a 2,500-year history of monarchies. His wife is dead by his own hand for her adultery, and three of his children have been killed, two for their anti-Islamic tendencies, and one as a martyr for the cause of the new Islamic state under Khomeini. Two children remain, but the eldest son is sunk in an unresponsive nihilism as a result of the failure of the Communist faction he supported, and his daughter Farzaneh is married to an opportunist who shifts his allegiances with the changing political leadership.

One of Dowlatabadi’s great skills as a novelist is reputedly to use language in an earthy yet lyrical way. We cannot enjoy the original Persian, but we can see the straightforward way in which he draws his characters, exposing their weaknesses and failures while at the same time acknowledging that one could not have done differently.
"The colonel had always let his children find their own way in life...But now he could not help but wonder whether the dreadful fate that had overtaken every one of his children was in fact due to his laissez-faire approach. But no, this did not really provide the old man with an easy answer, either. He firmly believed that he had bequeathed to his children only the most natural of rights, namely the right to determine what they wanted to do with their lives...In the end, perhaps the colonel's wish that his children lead independent lives was a reaction on his part against a life which he felt had been imposed upon him. He felt that he had been short-changed by never having had the freedom to live his own life. This made him feel like some sort of cripple...At least one of you should look out for himself. It's not as though you were carrying the weight of all history on your shoulders! I'm not as strong as you think I am. That's what he really wanted to tell his children."

Dowlatabadi describes an interrogation session, torture, and what jail is like. He describes the total confusion and uncertainty among family members and the general populace for years after the revolution when the political winds shifted to and fro. He describes the agony of a parent who is despised by his children and who has to bury his tortured 14-year-old daughter on a rainy night without help from his family. He describes the guilt and desperation of educated and serious patriots who no longer believed in god or goodness as a result of what they have seen and how their understanding of their most basic rights as humans felt violated. Even though I have not had much opportunity to read Persian literature, there can be little doubt about how such an open and painful account of despair would be received by a sitting government.
"The colonel felt guilt, too--guilty for the very existence of his children, or lack of it, as the case may be."

Apparently the present government in Iran would be willing to publish this novel in Persian if the author would make some changes, which he has refused to do. And yet, for his other work which is widely hailed in Iran as unique and masterful, Dowlatabadi is respected and honored by the postage stamp in his honor.
"One would think that boys were born coy, but there lurks within them a dreadful, perverse force that can, in the blink of an eye, turn them into savage beasts, beasts that since the beginning of history have been easily drawn into committing the most appalling of crimes, just to prove themselves. They follow orders to the letter and call what they do acts of heroism. Can we blame them? What about us, the people who send these unformed lumps of soft putty out onto the street, where they fall into the arms of the first merchants of villainy they come across? And we just sit back and wait for them to be turned into rods to beat our own backs..."

This book is an important addition to the literature coming from the Middle East, and one hopes that one will never have read its like again.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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