“The Colonel” by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated by Tom Patterdale (Melville House Publishing, 256 pages, $17.95 paper)
“The Forbidden: Poems From Iran and Its Exiles,” edited by Sholeh Wolpe (Michigan State University Press, 182 pages, $19.95 paper)
This is how the world ends.
An old man, drenched from relentless rain, having just buried his teenage daughter – who was tortured to death for distributing anti-government pamphlets – meditates on the horrid fate of his five children – three dead at the hands of successive, oppressive regimes; one driven mad in prison and now hiding in his father’s basement; one surviving through marriage to a profiteering sycophant, who props up whichever corrupt despot is in power.
At the same time, the old man reviews the shame and humiliation of his mortal sins – murder and military insubordination. He dons his dress uniform, stripped of its insignia, takes down the gleaming saber from his living-room wall – the saber he ran through the heart of his adulterous wife, then eviscerated her with – feels the edge of the blade, runs his thumb across his jugular vein, steps out into the courtyard, crowded by the specters of his past, and takes his own life.
His is the tragic face of Iran; his a story still untold in his birthplace, banned by the Islamic Republic censors.
He is the colonel, who believes that “the ancient tribal customs of our country still more or less obtain.” And yet:
I ’m well aware that at every stage of history there have been crimes against humanity, and they couldn’t have happened without humans to commit them. The crimes that have been visited on my children have been committed, and still are being committed, by young people just like them, by people stirring up their delusions, giving them delusions of grandeur. So why do I imagine that people might improve?
Saluting ‘The Colonel’
There are two reliable ways to discover the character of another country; neither has anything to do with American politics or broadcast journalism, which tend to feed their audiences a steady diet of xenophobia.
The first and most successful way is what I call sustained independent travel. To travel well, you need to have the secure props of home kicked out from under you for as long as you can manage. You need to encounter disconcerting circumstances, unfamiliar customs and ideas, uncomfortable ways of being. You need to feel your way toward psychological safety, struggling to become, however temporarily, a fledgling local.
The second way is through the great gift of world literature. Here, you engage in an intimate exchange between one sensitive, creative mind (the writer) and another (you, the reader). This is how the commonalities of the human condition come to light: through the paradox of the truth of fiction.
Now, consider Iran, the country in question. For most inveterate American travelers, it is not a destination of choice. We still associate it with terrorism, with the drive to produce unneeded nuclear weapons, with George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil.” We may never wholly shed these characterizations. But one path toward inward detente is to contemplate the glories of ancient Persia, the millennia-old motherland of modern-day Iran, to which the colonel still clings.
Indeed, Persian is the exalted, luxurious language of Iranian literature, reaching its pinnacle in the ecstatic poems of the 13th-century mystic Rumi. It is the key (through the inestimable gift of translation by such experts as Tom Patterdale and Sholeh Wolpe) that lets us unlock the hidden heart of an entire people.
It is the language of the harrowing novel “The Colonel” by Iran’s patriarch of fiction, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, and it is the language of the lyricism and loss that haunt the works of contemporary poets in Iran and in exile around the world.
At 71, Dowlatabadi looms as the colossus of Iranian literature, a self-taught writer who revolutionized his country’s fiction, hardening its diction, coarsening it, infusing it with a street-wise poetry of everyday speech.
He is best known in Iran for “Kelidar,” a 10-book, 3,000-page saga about a nomadic Kurdish family, part of which he wrote during his two years in prison under the Shah’s dictatorship.
After his release, Dowlatabadi soon began framing “The Colonel,” a novel 25 years in the making, still banned by the Iranian censors, still unread in its native language.
At the time of the book’s conception – shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that deposed the Shah and replaced him with the Ayatollah Khomeini – intellectuals in Iran were summarily executed, and Dowlatabadi was called in for questioning.
He hid his new novel from the eyes of the authorities, picking up the manuscript periodically to advance the narrative, refine the prose, and express the terrors of totalitarianism, whether secular or religious:
“But the putrescence [of our wounds] has gone far beyond any normal bounds, so they have to use scissors and kitchen knives and a bow saw to remove the rotting flesh from our bones and, since we are rotten to the marrow, they decide to amputate our bones and they cut off our hands, that his corrupt body might be dismembered and then, in a manner of their own prior devising, reassembled.”
Like a strong drink that leaves a sticky, dizzying taste on your tongue, “The Colonel” has aged into a psychological and political masterpiece of world literature.
You will want to drain it to the last drop.
Reviewers in Great Britain were among the first to gain access to the novel, which was released this spring in the United States by a small press, Melville House.
Such privilege apparently did little to enlighten the English critics. One labeled Dowlatabadi’s accomplishment “a fable”; others complained about the book’s confusing, fragmented narrative. But such lazy myopia simply sells the novel short.
Far from being a fable, “The Colonel” is a heightened, unflinching exploration of psychological realism. It is a mirror of the tortured soul of a nation, and its generations of victims.
All the book’s action takes place in one night and the following day. Historical flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness reveries fill out the narrative with layer after layer of political brutality and betrayal, all interpreted by the colonel as a travesty of the once-cherished majesty of his beloved Persia.
Only the most superficial, obtuse reading could fail to detect the way that Dowlatabadi succeeds at leaving clues to help the reader navigate the shifting points of view, the non-linear storyline, and the dense, Shakespearean monologues on Persian history and the characters’ personal failings.
Indeed, the novel reads like a grand, sustained final act of “King Lear.” Unrelenting rain embodies the inescapable misery and madness of a world tilting on its axis: “Laughing is counted as treason, mourning and lamentation are now the order of the day.”
What raises “The Colonel” to an even higher pitch of artistic excellence is Dowlatabadi’s expert handling of moral ambiguity. The colonel is guilty of unspeakable familial atrocities, yet he is also a clear-eyed witness to the cannibalism of Iran’s repressive regimes. His son, Amir, driven mad by the Shah’s secret police, feels strangely compelled to protect his interrogator once the military thug becomes the target of angry mobs seeking to hang their former executioners.
If the overall narrative sweep of “The Colonel” resounds as Shakespearean, then its psychological acuity is patently Dostoevskian: Here, the Underground Man strides triumphantly across the Earth, spreading his nihilistic gospel of spite and suspicion, humiliation and hate – the irrational will to power conquering all.
Yet Dowlatabadi’s aesthetic mastery in “The Colonel” is so self-assured that he lends even the grossest brutality a ghostly beauty:
I know this much, that young birds get lost in the wind, particularly in a west wind. It confuses them and makes them giddy, it ties them up in knots and they lose their sense of direction and in their struggle to find their way, they break their wings. And in a storm there is no shortage of hawks and vultures looking for prey.
Fruits of ‘The Forbidden’
One of the great values of Sholeh Wolpe’s introduction to “The Forbidden,” an anthology of poems by Iranians and exiles from the country, is that it clearly explains why “The Colonel” is banned in Iran, and why all Dowlatabadi’s other works – because they remain so wildly popular – still smack of subversion to the Islamic authorities.
“In a country like Iran, literature, particularly poetry, is like rain – it cannot be arrested,” Wolpe writes. “Indeed the first who recognize literature’s power are the tyrants themselves. ... [T]hey fear the poets, jail them, torture them and send them into exile, but they cannot silence their words.”
As such, “The Forbidden” looms as a monument to the poets’ heroism; it is a downpour of defiant, cleansing, nurturing rain.
In my sight, you are a dark tempest
that has suddenly seized a thousand youthful leaves.
Let the wailing of your prisoners
grow so loud that they cannot be contained.
Let the flood of people’s tears and blood flow
until the roses of revenge rise from the soil.
Though highly charged with the spirit of revolt, the political poems are not necessarily the most successful. They pale beside the gems of Apollonian control, of compact dramatic tension, of a fierce allegiance to poetic form.
Of course, the strength of an anthology also hides its Achilles heel: We hear a vast array of voices, but they are unequal in their achievement, divergent in their aesthetic aims.
Yet one voice rises above the rest: Simin Behbahani’s, whose poem “And Behold” “is so well known in Iran,” Wolpe tells us, “that it is often recited by heart.”
Listen to the poem’s beginning and end:
And behold the camel, how it was created:
not from mud and water,
but, as if from patience and a mirage.
. . .
Patience spawns hatred and hatred the fatal wound:
behold with what vengeance the camel
bit through the arteries of its driver.
The mirage lost its patience.
And behold the camel.
And behold Dowlatabadi; for he, too, is the camel.
With both “The Colonel” and “The Forbidden” in hand, you will have a fuller portrait of contemporary Iran. Throw in “The Essential Rumi,” translated by Coleman Barks, and the three books may not change your politics, may not alter the way you view the nightly news, may not prod you to set foot in Iran, but they will – if read openly, intimately, one creative mind to another – release the relentless rain of literature from the hidden depths of Persian to slake your thirsty soul.