Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 22, 2018

Disoriental, by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover

I am indebted to Michael at Knowledge Lost for his recommendation of this book— Disoriental, the first novel of Négar Djavadi, is a multi-award winning book which was also nominated for the National Book Award for Translated Fiction.  Claire at Word by Word read it too during #WITMonth and was very impressed. (See her enticing review, and Michael’s is here).

If I described Disoriental as a family saga I would do the book a disservice.  It’s not one of those multi-generational historical novels that are best read on a longhaul plane flight when the brain isn’t working anyway.  This novel tells the story of the Iranian Sadr family and its decline from wealth and power to disorientating exile in Paris, tracing the turbulent history of Iran in the process.  And while the dream of Paris isn’t all that was expected during the long years of political disarray in Iran, it brings with it freedom of sexual identity that just hadn’t been possible in Kimiâ’s homeland.

The book begins with the as-yet unnamed narrator waiting in a French fertility clinic.  From the outset she positions herself differently to the other couples, and not just because she is alone.  And while she waits for the process to follow its inflexible and dehumanising routines, she uses the time to retell her family’s long journey from the days of a powerful great-grandfather’s harem, through the Iranian Revolutions which installed and then deposed the Shah, and the transformation of the country under the theocracy of Ayatollah Khomeini.

These changes transform Kimiâ’s family: from the largesse of multiple uncles and aunts and cousins in Iran to their dispersal around the globe and her own nuclear family in Paris.  This is a novel of discontent: this is not the Paris of lovers and great restaurants and happy tourists.  It’s not even a Paris of intellectuals.  Unwelcoming, alienating and dismissive of any heritage not their own, the Parisians of this novel barely exist.  Kimiâ is disorientated by language, by the way they change her name, by poverty and by her parents’ retreat into depression.  And as the novel progresses, the fluidity of her own sexual identity alienates her from the remnants of her family, because in Iran, the only role for a woman is childbearing, and as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (President of Iran (2005-2013) so famously said, there are no gays in Iran.  Religion forbids it, and the theocratic state executes them.  And although her parents are secular and liberal, they are beset by so many other anxieties that Kimiâ does not discuss her sexuality with her family…

All this sounds pretty grim, and indeed there are elements of the story that betray bitterness, but the narrator has a light touch and dark humour lightens the mood.  The intentional disruption of stereotypical views about Iran and Iranians is revealed in many elements: Kimiâ’s parents were secular intellectuals who opposed both the Shah and the Islamisation of the country.  Education is important for girls.  And despite the mullahs, Iran is not Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan…. at one stage when Sara and her daughters are fleeing across the mountains of Kurdistan, she is mocked for not knowing how to ride a horse.  ‘I may not know how to ride a horse,’ she says, but I can drive a car.  I’d like to see how you get on in Tehran’s traffic’.  Their pride in their Persian heritage is undiminished by its recent history: Kemal Ataturk is derided for Romanising Turkish script, thus alienating his people from their ancient texts.

Most surprising of all is the transformation of Kimiâ into a punk, leather jacket and all (much to the dismay of her mother).  Kimiâ’s restlessness takes her to Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels and London, places depicted as less rigid than Paris.  English, for example, is spoken in such a variety of ways and in so many accents, that it symbolises in this novel an openness to foreigners that Paris doesn’t have. (The book predates Brexit).  Although she has completed her education, she chooses to work in a bar and gets to meet a fascinating variety of people (and readers who know anything about the punk scene will probably admire the author’s familiarity with bands and musicians and clothing styles).

Disoriental is a very readable book.  The narrator has a confiding, confessional style, but she’s also keen to ‘educate’ the readers that she addresses.  She assumes, probably quite rightly, that people don’t know much about Iran, so she tucks (just a few) footnotes into the text when necessary, but lightening the tone, for example, by concluding with a wry I’m sure you remember that (about the French giving Khomeini asylum in 1964 when the Shah was installed).  (And later repudiating him).  There’s also an ironic explanation of ‘B side’ (the title of Part 2), reminding those of us old enough to remember 45 rpm vinyl records that Side B was the ‘failed side’ of a hit record. The text then goes on with the mother Sara’s unfinished recount of the escape over the mountains, an attempt to record their history for posterity, but an attempt which fails because her daughters refuse to translate it.  Later, a footnote about the Iran-Iraq war begins with It’s difficult to avoid mentioning the longest war of the twentieth century!  Eight years that changed the face of the Middle East forever…

(Actually, I don’t think it was the longest war of the 20th century: that dubious honour belongs to Afghanistan, I think, because it’s been in a state of continuous armed conflict since the Russian invasion in 1978.  See Wikipedia, though my original source for that was a 12-year-old Afghani refugee in my ESL class who said her country had been at war for her entire life. It was she who gave me a crash course in Afghan history and culture last century, yes, before 9/11, well before the West paid any attention to the Taliban).

The blurb is right:

In this high-spirited multi-generational tale, key moments of Iranian history punctuate a story about motherhood, family, exile, rebellion, and love.  At the heart of this prize-winning international bestseller is the unforgettable Kimiâ Sadr—queer punk-rock aficionado and storyteller extraordinaire, a woman caught between the vibrant intricacies of her origins and the modern life she has made.

Author: Négar Djavadi
Title: Disoriental
Translated from the French by Tina Kover
Publisher: Europa Editions, 2016, 338 pages
ISBN: 9781609454517
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. I’m glad you picked this one up. I hope it encourages more people to give it a go as well.

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    • I’m so pleased you put me onto it. It really was good reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Roman Disoriental von Negar Djavadi wird von AnzLitLovers […]

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  3. The west financed the Taliban (to start at the bottom). I love the idea of Iran. We – the US-led (by the nose) west – have made such a mess of the one country in the middle east that might have been our friend (as distinct from ‘ ‘ally’). Now Trump is looking for excuses to drop an atom bomb on them. It is too much I suppose to hope that the west might stop being led by the US. And British imperialism was just as destructive. But if neo-liberalism can stop being a thing, might not people in general also one day embrace neutrality and non-interference.

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