Monday, May 11, 2015

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

 This is a gritty novel about a bewildered colonel in a rainy Iran, mourning the demise of his family. A howl of bitterness and agony if you will, for what has happened to Iran.

The colonel is a man cashiered from the army presumably because he murdered his philandering wife (high time we corrected that etymological mistake); moreover he had refused to go to the front to fight a war (at the behest of the British, the afterword tells us). The colonel has his flaws and he has his principles. He also has five children with diverse political identities; he is not a man who subscribed to oriental notions of letting children be extensions of the family and community but allowed them to find their own way. Clearly the children were invested with a common bank of passion and principles however, and this legacy has made them dangerous to themselves. They have become the victims of successive oppressive regimes.

One son, a revolutionary with strong leftist leanings has given his life to the revolution but is ultimately reviled because he does not represent the theocracy in power. Another son a pious Muslim and a willing subject of the theocracy, dies at the Iraqi front. A daughter has made a pact to survive by marrying a slimy opportunist but she is not happy either, frightened of the evil spawned by expediency. The oldest son Amir, the eternal fence sitter and intellectual has not been spared either, for all his inaction. He is arbitrarily incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, then extolled for the sufferings visited on him by a despotic regime and invited to join the revolution, but later spat out by the new regime when he becomes expendable. Directionless and unsure, yet unable to reconcile to a neutered existence, he is sinking into a catatonic existence in his father’s basement. Meanwhile the youngest daughter Parvaneh has already reared her revolutionary head, distributing papers and probably rallying opinion against the Iraq war (I rely on the notes and the afterword for this). And for these crimes, she has been hanged at the age of fourteen.

The novel begins with the colonel being summoned in the dead of night to a decrepit office building to collect his Parvaneh’s broken body. The colonel is battling to keep a hold on himself as he is a soldier and appearances are important to him. At first he struggles hard to control the wild grief bursting through him (“…shroud, pick, shovel, don’t forget to lock the gate…” he tells himself, and then whimpers “Shroud, shroud, shroud…”), but as the night proceeds he loses his grip entirely until at the very end he stands naked and shivering not knowing what to do, a man ranting and raving about modern Iran and her bitter history of executing the very men who loved her, debating whether to free his dead daughter’s canary to certain death at the hands of the sleek black cat waiting by the pond or leave it in the cage to starve, to realize that it has already, confoundedly, been swallowed.

 The plot unfolds through interior monologue ­— wild ravings, stark and nightmarish impressions, flashbacks and bitter soul-searching, even an examination of modern Iranian history — presented in a stream of consciousness style. Dialogue interlinks passages of interior monologue and serves to bring us back into the action and take the story forward, though reader beware, the action may well be fantasy conjured by oppressed minds at the end of their tether. It is likely the reader misses or dismisses important information. There is stuff that is repeated and there are deaths announced in passing. (After spending many pages burying Parvaneh, the colonel mentions in one sentence that he has to change for Kuchik’s funeral, as Haddad has told him he died!) The colonel is the protagonist but a sufficient portion of the book is told from Amir’s perspective. The dual POV emphasizes the trans-generational nature of the Iranian tragedy. The setting is a rainy town (the coastal regions I am told by the afterword) – as cold, dank, grimy and awful as the story is. It was very hard reading until enough of the Iranian situation clarified itself for me to start reading it as an allegory. I can imagine this being easy for someone who understands the history of modern Iran. Aparna felt it would’ve been better to read the afterword before and everyone agreed. I was too busy appropriating Verena’s crackers and cheese to object (sorry Verena, I put it in the fridge to keep it fresh; I wanted to send it back with you, but by the time I remembered you had left. Convenient huh? Sorry, but also thank you – we had it on Saturday and it was delicious!).

 I feel our eyes would’ve glazed over and rolled back into our heads if we had tried to get the context first. Reading the book, however frustrating it was, made us ready to understand modern Persian history and in that sense Dowlatabadi’s book is very important. Further, given that we had only three weeks to finish the book and despite everyone claiming it was hard reading, all of us finished it and could make the allegorical connections. Mamta was struck by the fact that the name of Amir’s missing wife is purity, a quality that has gone missing for Amir. Everyone got the character of Khezr Javed, the ubiquitous instrument of state oppression who changes garb but remains the same, he whose actions are inexplicable and terrible. I liked the characterization of the colonel’s wife as licentious and amoral, possibly describing modern Iran as the child of incompatible hedonism and righteousness. The colonel’s killing of his wife has been interpreted by many as representing the burden of tribal pressures on Iran despite all the modern thought – our group disagreed with this view. It appears to us that in Iran, the desire to do the right thing has led to men of principle killing the sensual and the human in them, leaving behind their passionate but half formed children, - “fledglings who cannot fly - and a gale blowing.”

 Aparna wondered why Qorbani Hajjaj got so much bad press, he was clearly unsavoury but he was certainly not villain of the piece, the tragedy of Iran could not be attributed to him, yet he received maximum contempt from the writer.  Clearly idealism is extolled over expediency, but is the examination of the ideals not as important as the reviling of hypocrisy if one has to guard against extremism?

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

 It is important and interesting to note that a book like this, although still lying with the censors, has not been banned in Iran, that the author is not being persecuted, at least for now. The story of the author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is incredibly interesting too, but you can Wikipedia all that. I am very glad I read this book. But I will never look askance again at a non-Indians who do not get Rushdie. Context is all ladies. And for people who would like some context before they embark on the book, please see below and do not sue me, my history of Iran is as follows, (attributions in brackets) 
Cruel Sumerians (Atwood formed that opinion for me)à Persians, Cyrus the great, the Achaemenid empire, the Sassanids (Zarathushtra, Alexander, Indo European language studies, Wikipedia)àArab invaders and the flight of Parsis to India (growing up in India)àadvent of the Turkic tribes (Wikipedia) àMongol invaders (Wikipedia)à advent of more Turkic people (Wikipedia)àSafavid Dynasty (Mughal chronicles, Wikipedia)àNadir Shah (rape of Delhi and the deathblow to Indian sovereignty in the face of Western imperialismàAmir Kabir Father of modern Iran, a progressive Prime Minister who could’ve taken Iran places but was killed (the book)à a period of political uncertainty as imperialistic forces, Britain and Russia in particular, jockeyed  for power in the Iranian landscape. There were patriots, men of fierce principles and integrity like Kolonel Mohammad Taqi Khan, etc. who tried to take the country forward for but who were ultimately taken down, often by whipping up sentiment against them (the book)à a coup by Reza Khan who founded the last dynasty to rule Iran and who might have been Iran’s Ataturk if Iran had been stronger and did not have oil; as it happened British Petroleum controlled everything leading to popular disgust (the book, Wikipedia) à and the overthrow of the Shah followed by the election of the uncompromising Mossadeq who nationalized the oil industry resulting in a paranoid CIA (media, Argo) à engineering a coup reinstating the Shah who was bolstered by the western powers and a secret service outfit, the hated SAVAKS (the book, media, Persepolis)àleading to simmering discontent leading to the àIslamic revolution and the advent of the Ayatollah; helped in no small way by the leftist resistance  (book, media, Rushdie)àtragedy of the Iraq war (Persepolis)àAhmadinejad (media)àMore Benign Now (media).

Mamta wished she could read it in Farsi and that led to an interesting discussion on the use of Anglo Saxon instead of Latin words to denote the fact that the writer has eschewed Arab imports in favour of original Persian words in his writing. But you see Farsi and Latin are closer cousins if you check out the Indo European Family tree, than Farsi and Anglo Saxon are. So to denote purity by using words that have less real resemblance to Farsi may or may not have been a great tactic, but since I do not know the language I will hold my peace. I think I will reread Persepolis now. It is in the graphic novel format with dollops of humour and a woman’s point of view. Makes for a change without changing the subject.