I read The Colonel because it’s longlisted for the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize. It’s the work of a distinguished Iranian author, and because it’s dissident literature subject to censorship, it’s been published only outside Iran, perhaps at some risk to its author. However I’m going to be upfront about this book: as regular readers of this blog know, I enjoy reading challenging books and books that introduce me to other cultures, but this one took me a long way out of my comfort zone. The Colonel is hard work to read.
It’s not the language: the translator Tom Patterdale has done a good job of rendering the book into palatable English from the Persian, and wisely, he has explained in a note at the beginning that because the original uses rough-and-ready street language which ‘shatters Persian literary conventions‘ he has rendered this style with English words of Anglo-Saxon etymology rather than Latin.
So there’s none of that flowery rambling that I was expecting after hearing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the media. What a pity it is that his is the only Iranian voice most of us know! (I found this one at random, what a classic!)
Woman is a reflection of God’s beauty and is the source of love and caring. She is the guardian of purity and exquisiteness of the society. The tendency to toughen the souls and behaviors of women deprives them from their very basic right of being a loving mother and a caring wife. It would result in a more violent society with irreversible defects. Freedom is a divine right that should serve peace and human perfection. Pure thoughts and the will of the righteous are keys to the gates of a pure life full of hope, liveliness and beauty.
Address to the UN, 23 Sep 2010, at Educate Yourself
But I digress. (Though not entirely, because this attitude to women impacts on the what happens to two females in the plot).
The Colonel is difficult because this story is a fable of the Iranian Revolution and it’s full of allusions to historical events that readers won’t recognise if like me they know next-to-nothing about Iran. (Other than the drip-feed of demonizing aspects that come from the mainstream media, that is, and an awareness that Iran was once the Persian Empire with a cultural heritage we should know more about).
As with the dissident literature emanating from China, the mere act of reading this novel is a political act, which means care must be taken when interpreting it. Most of us reading this book in this English translation will be reading political criticism of a place we know very little about. I spent a long time fossicking around on Wikipedia trying to make sense of things, and I’m still not much the wiser. Iranian history is rather complex. What’s more, we have no way of knowing anything much about what kind of dissident the author is, except for what we are told by his translator. The book is recommended by PEN, and it’s shortlisted for an impressive prize, but still, as the ‘Arab Spring’ rolls onward and we do not know what kind of reforms might evolve in Iran with its nuclear ambitions, I feel on my guard. Because the author is so pessimistic, I am not sure whether he is pining for an unattainable past or hoping for a restoration of some aspects of it.
On top of that, the structure is confusing. It is deliberately fractured, like Picasso’s Guernica. Shards of plot lie scattered around, easy to miss, easy to crumble under the weight of my ignorance about Iranian history and culture, even though there are footnotes and a useful glossary at the back. There are no chapters. The past and the present are intertwined, signalled sometimes but not always by the use of italics. And there are multiple pasts signifying Iran’s revolutionary history, which is not just the one that I knew about i.e. the deposition of the last Shah in 1979.
Add to that, the confusing characters. All of them are symbols, sometimes of an -ism, sometimes of a significant person in Iranian political or military history, and sometimes from Iran’s epic poem, the Shahnameh. Sometimes a character is referred to by another name and it’s not clear who it is until the full name is eventually used. There’s the lower-case ‘c’ colonel, who we get to know well, and an obviously symbolic upper-case one who lives mostly in a photo on the mantelpiece but sometimes wanders around bleeding from the neck and occasionally headless. The dead don’t just make an appearance in the past; they turn up in the present too, sometimes obviously as ghostly figures and at other times as if they were still alive. All these strange characterisations are manifestations of the colonel’s disorientated and distressed state, and that symbolises the political mess of the body politic in Iran. (Perhaps my confused reaction to it all symbolises the West trying to make sense of Iran’s role in international politics!)
(There’s also idiosyncratic punctuation: whenever the lower case colonel makes an entry at the beginning of a paragraph, the definite article is also not capitalised, (i.e. the colonel, instead of The colonel) as if a non-English speaking typesetter didn’t understand that ‘the’ is a separate word and should be capitalised at the beginning of a sentence, even though he’s been instructed to capitalise one colonel and not the other).
The story begins with the old colonel roused in the middle of the night to come and deal with his fourteen-year-old daughter’s body. As he stumbles around in confusion, guilt and dismay, his actions and interpretations of events show that the ordinary has become extraordinary in Iran, and vice versa. This death of his youngest daughter has taken place under a fundamentalist Islamic regime and yet he is being told by the authorities to bury her in the middle of the night, something we learn much later in the book is against Islamic law. The body should be laid out by women, but this can’t be done either. Piecing these elements together, and discovering the betrayal that lies behind her death, however, is no easy task because past and present are muddled in the colonel’s thoughts and actions, and the dead from his past come back to life and not (it seems) just in the old man’s memories. His ramblings reveal that he himself doubts his sanity, and so do we.
This (small ‘c’) colonel, the central character, was an army officer under the Shah, the last one, that was deposed by Islamic Fundamentalists led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to the dismay of the West in 1979. Father of five children, the fictional colonel hero-worships an historical figure, Colonel Mohammed Taqi Khan Pesyan, a patriot from the first world war who (the translator tells us in the glossary) resisted the corrupt central government under the last of the Qajar dynasty, Soltan Ahmad Shah. Because Peysan was educated overseas, he was known popularly as Kolonel instead of by its Persian language equivalent, Sarhang. And because the central character admires this man so much, naming his second son after him and trying to emulate him, he is nicknamed ‘colonel’ (with the lower-case c).
This unbridled admiration for Peysan was politically unwise under any regime. Colonel Peysan led a coup against a mate of Reza Khan, who was eventually propelled by British interests into deposing the Qajar dynasty in 1921 and founding the Pahlavi dynasty when he became the Shah 1925. (Reza Khan was the father of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the one who was deposed by the 1979 Revolution, so it wasn’t much of a dynasty). Prior to his elevation to royalty, Reza Khan suppressed the coup, and as Minister for War, ordered the beheading of Peysan. Kurdish tribesmen obliged, bringing the head to Tehran to prove it. Mourning for Peysan was officially proscribed under Reza Khan, and (I think) we can assume that his son was no fan of Peysan either although he did much to modernise the country. But the change of regime to a virulently anti-Western one was no better. Under the Islamic Fundamentalist theocracy, admiring someone with a Western nickname implies liberalism, secularism and a predisposition to be open to Western influence. In a country where the wearing of a tie is a political act because it symbolises ‘Western corruption’, having the Colonel’s photograph on the mantelpiece is risky.
As the colonel struggles to come to terms with his daughter’s fate, (his part in it not at this stage revealed to the reader) he begins to think that
the strangest things could happen in life, and that mankind had been created to go through life in a string of bizarre experiences, then to die with his eyes wide open in amazement, proud of never having been shocked by anything. (p50)
Well, try as he might, he can’t help but be shocked by what happens to his five children. He is a liberal, so he tells us, (though he didn’t hesitate to murder his wife because she betrayed his Islamic honour by being unfaithful), and he has brought his children up to follow their own path. Each of them has in different ways followed a different -ism representing Islamic history from the overthrow of the Shah, the Shah’s reinstatement, and the Fundamentalist Revolution in 1979 up to (I think) the present. The entire family, representing the nation, has been subjected to the waves of repression that accompanied these tumultuous events.
- Amir, the eldest son, supports Tudeh, the party aligned with the Moscow Politboro who in 1941 supported Prime Minister Mosaddeq’s campaign to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. (This led to the 1953 coup (engineered by the US) replacing Mosaddeq which in turn provoked Mohammed Reza Shah (the last one) into the repressive and dictatorial actions which eventually led to his overthrow).
- Farzaneh, his eldest daughter, married to Qorbani Hajjaj, a nasty piece of work who’s in cahoots with the current authorities i.e. the Islamic Fundamentalist theocracy
- Mohammed Taqi, his second son, who supports the People’s Fedayan*, i.e. the Communists
- Kuchik Masooud, his youngest son, who supports Khomeini, and dies a ‘martyr’ in the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), and
- Parvaneh, only fourteen, who develops what seems to be a teenage crush on the leader of the People’s Mujahedin*, and is hanged.
(*Both the People’s Fedayan and the People’s Mujahedin were underground groups that supported the Islamic Fundamentalists who overthrew the Shah in 1979, but were then repressed by Khomeini who tried to eradicate them. Like the Tudeh Party these groups still exist but are politically very weak).
Weaving his evil throughout the affairs of this family is Khezr Javid, a secret policeman with no principles, and a survivor under any regime. Having tortured Amir and his wife on behalf of the Shah’s regime, he skulks into their home for refuge when the Shah is overthrown and hides out there while he sorts out his strategy for making do under the Islamic Revolution. (In a rare moment of humour in the book, he has a little rant about having to grow a shaggy beard and give up his Johnny Walker.) Amir, still traumatized by the torture, is almost too damaged by his experiences to take advantage of Khezr’s temporary position of weakness, to ask what became of his wife who was not released from interrogation when he was.
None of the characters are able to communicate properly with each other. The fear of being denounced, of revealing hidden actions, of remembering traumatic events, of creating more hurt, or of provoking political diatribes exacerbates a culture of secrecy and distortion. It leads to madness in the family (and, the author seems to be saying, in the body politic).
So why should [the colonel] now be shocked to see his son reduced to this state – his eldest son, who had witnessed his mother’s murder so manfully that he had become almost an accomplice in the deed? Just for a moment it crossed his mind that he should take Amir to hospital, but he dismissed it immediately as pointless. He remembered that the city hospital was overflowing and that the only psychiatrist had gone mad and had been locked up in of the cells of the Tehran mental asylum accused of being a spy, and was undergoing ‘re-education’. (p50)
The central theme of this work seems to be that Iran is beyond hope. The rain pours down incessantly, symbolising tears of unquenchable grief, and the (male) characters smoke incessantly, representing self-destructive behaviour. Everyone is at cross-purposes, and families are riven by political conflict. A rare moment when she isn’t weeping allows Amir (on the verge of suicide) to confront his sister Farzaneh with her alienation from the family (because her husband is on the political Right, while the other siblings are on variations of the Left):
The tragedy of our whole country is…we are all alienated, strangers in our own land. It’s tragic. The odd thing is that we’ve never got used to it. Yet, woe betide us if we do. The irony is that, if you really want to be seen as a good Iranian, and especially if you aspire to high office in this country, you first have to be a foreigner, someone who wasn’t born here at all. On the other hand, if you were born and bred here and try to remain true to yourself, your country and your people, then alienation is the most lenient punishment you can expect. (p91)
This is a reference to foreign interference in Iranian affairs, which has been a constant in their history, especially since the discovery of oil but also because the ‘Persian Corridor’ facilitated the strategic movement of arms from the Soviet Union to the Middle East, which suited the US and UK during World War II but not during the rise of the Bolsheviks and not during the Cold War. I think (but am not sure) that it might also be a reference to a phenomenon caused by internal repression. If those who would reform a state have to leave it and take refuge elsewhere until conditions favour a return, then the reformer is, by definition, changed by the experience of living in a more liberal country and becomes a ‘foreigner’ on return, bringing ‘corruption’ with him.
It is a profoundly pessimistic work. As the colonel takes a rest from digging his daughter’s grave in the rain, he muses:
Who am I trying to fool? 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? Everything going on around us seems to indicate that the values our forebears passed down to us no longer apply. Instead, we have sown the seeds of mistrust, scepticism and resignation, which will grow into a jungle of nihilism and cynicism, a jungle in which you will never find the courage to even mention the names of goodness, truth and common humanity. (p99)
A while ago, round about the time that Iran was labelled part of the ‘axis of evil’ I saw a documentary about Iran which featured interviews with young people in their twenties. Although necessarily guarded as they spoke to journalists from the West, these English-speaking and well-travelled young people were acutely aware that reforms were needed, but they seemed optimistic. I hope they were right, and that Dowlatabadi is wrong.
(Update 15.12.2011: see also Mark’s thoughtful review at Eleutherophobia).
PS As it happens, I learned a little bit about the Shahnameh at the recent annual State Library of Victoria Foundation dinner. Next year the SLV is mounting a very special exhibition called Love and Devotion from Persia and Beyond with ancient Persian manuscripts from the SLV’s collection and others on loan from the Bodleian Library. The guest speaker at the dinner was Susan Scollay, who is co-curator of the exhibition and an expert on Persian poetry. Follow this link to see a preview with her entertaining video presentation
Author: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
Title: The Colonel
Translated by Tom Patterdale
Publisher: Haus Publishing, London, 2011
Source: Personal library
PS I have just discovered a really interesting blog post by an Iranian expat: she thinks Dowlatabadi should win the Nobel Prize!