The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (trans Tom Patterdale). $17.95, 256 pp. Melville House Press.
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel (translated by Tom Patterdale (Melville House 2012)), is obviously the story/history of an Iranian colonel and his family, but it is not just theirs. Their story becomes a gateway into reading/living a slice of a time in the life of a nation. The book delves into a time in transit, that of the beginning years of the Islamic Republic, which came to power following the 1979 revolution and the toppling of the Pahlavi monarchy. In this time of turmoil, each and every character in the novel has her or his personal demons to fight, trying to redefine life and the self, hoping for the betterment of the private and the public.
The colonel has honor-killed his wife, and each of his children have chosen to join one of the factions of the revolution, following different and often opposing destinies: one daughter is killed in prison; another marries an opportunist flourishing in the Islamic government; one son is killed during the revolution upheavals; another is martyred in the Iran-Iraq war; and yet another (freed from a prison run by the Savak, the Pahlavi regime’s secret police) confines himself to the basement of the father’s house.
Past and future, death and life, prisoner and interrogator, exterior and interior, mind and body, intimacy and distance, affections and atrocities, glory and shame . . . all sit together to create a world that belongs not just to fiction, memory, and hallucinations but also to history and reality.
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pain. As I mentioned before somewhere, I felt that if I did not write The Colonel, I would probably end up in a mad house,” he noted in email correspondence last spring.
At the time Dowlatabadi put the manuscript away and returned to it periodically to revise and edit. The revisions did not lead to any change in the contextual elements, he explains, but helped him save what he had written “with strong emotions and under the influence of its own era” from sentimentalism and polish it with the help of creative decisions that are not “intentional” but “unavoidable,” what could be called “birth born out of birth.”
He finally handed the work to his publisher a few years ago. It was then submitted to the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (the censorship apparatus that needs to preapprove all books before publication) but has so far been denied a permit, its destiny still under debate. Translations of The Colonel into German, Hebrew, Norwegian, and English have been published outside of Iran, and samizdat copies of the Persian original, along with re-translations from its English version into Persian, disapproved of by the author, have begun to appear in Iran’s black market.
Shadows Hovering Around
The novel’s “colonel” (lower case) identifies with its Colonel (upper case) Pesyan, the Qajar military office whose portrait hangs over the colonel’s room’s fireplace (a portrait that is often referred to only by Pesyan’s boots). The colonel constantly speaks to the Colonel, more than to Amir, the son living in the basement; his mind is more shaped by the portrait’s presence than by any of the events or people around him.
Amir, on the other hand, spends his days building a statue of his namesake, Amir Kabir, the assassinated prime minister of Naser ed-din Shah, the Qajar King. The statue is eventually placed on the pool in the middle of the colonel’s garden and stares into the window of the old man’s room, the window that he stands at to stare outside at the world.
The past follows the colonel incessantly, lives inside of him. For one, Colonel Pesyan’s ghost follows the colonel around, as on the night of the burial of his daughter, Parvaneh. The ghost of the colonel’s wife follows him around as well. The woman whom he killed because he suspected she had affairs now stands next to him in the mortuary to wash her daughter’s body with “tears of blood.” He lives the present through the filter of the past.
He, however, is not merely followed by the dead. At the height of the revolution’s chaos, Amir’s Savak interrogator hides in the colonel’s house, in Amir’s sanctuary. Farzaneh, the husband of the living colonel’s daughter, who has amassed wealth and powers in the Islamic regime, follows everything in the colonel’s life, including his children’s deaths, to use them for his own benefit. And in the cemetery to bury his daughter, it is soldiers, and not family members, who accompany the old man around. The today of the man who was once in control of all is not in his own hands anymore; rather it is in those of other men who have overtaken the throne.
The shadows are meanwhile not just outside of him but nested inside of him too. Carrying the weight of what has gone to him and his children, to his land and to his people, the colonel is stuck between realities and hallucinations. Concerned about the mental health and future of his son Amir, he gradually sees no borders between what is really happening and what he is imagining. And in the end even he himself seems to become a hallucination in the reality of others, a shadow hovering in the alleys of the city, playing tar and reciting poems.
The women of the novel are all condemned to silence, but this silence is only the façade, since the women are one of the main elements shaping the story. The novel begins with two soldiers showing up at the colonel’s house to take him to the police station to collect and bury his daughter, Parvaneh’s, body. She is dead, yes, but it is her corpse and her burial that sets the narrative in motion, defining the present of her father and the other men in the story. Now that she is gone, the colonel grows more lost than ever, disconnected from himself and others, unable to find his way back.
The other dead woman in the book is Forouz, colonel’s wife, whom, when she kept coming home late in the evenings, he murdered out of his manly pride. But Forouz is not gone. As a mother she is present at her dead daughter’s side, living beyond the power of the husband and the wrong he has done her. Amir, who on the night of the murder helplessly watched his father angrily drink and get ready to kill his mother, now watches the old man going to claim the body of his sister, who has been killed by other men in power. Amir is so weak and hopeless that he does not want to be part of this burial and stays behind in the basement. He has long been mourning another loss as well, that of his wife. After she went missing, he kept looking for her even in prison and under torture, and it isn’t until his ex-interrogator shows up in the basement, that he finds out she too is killed, lost forever.
The only female character alive in the story is Farzaneh, colonel’s other daughter. But her words and actions seem to be of little influence over the life of the men around her. She is married to a man who bans her from visiting her family, while using that same family to consolidate his own position of power. Farzaneh tries to talk to and help Amir, sitting at the top of the basement staircase and crying, but her words don’t go beyond those of a simple, ordinary woman, oppressed by the husband, worried for the father and brother. It is the voice and spirit of the women whose physical bodies are removed from the book that define where the narrative goes.
Dowlatabadi explains when asked about how he created the women of the novel: “I didn’t really think consciously about any of the characters, including the women. [However,] what I hold in my emotional memory is great sympathy for women. This sympathy can be felt all throughout the story; especially at the moment of the hallucinatory presence of colonel’s wife in the cemetery and her complaint about why he did not let her know about Parvaneh’s wedding.”
Fluid Interwoven Identities
The narrative begins from the point of view of the colonel, but it gradually becomes tied to Amir’s. The reader delves into the lives and minds of the two men both in the third-person singular point of view and the first-person singular, while the narrative constantly moves between external realities and internal monologues, monologues that are sometimes for a specific audience (the reader or another character) and other times are mere contemplations.
The colonel’s identity is forever in conversation with that of Colonel Pesyan, with the two constantly becoming one and splitting again and again. Amir’s identity seems to be under the shadow of Amir Kabir’s. The martyr son has Mohammad Taghi Khan Pesyan as his namesake, and Pesyan’s ghost seems to come to life with his birth, only to die again with the young man’s death in the battlefield. Amir’s Savak interrogator, who later on joins the Komite, the moral police of the Islamic Republic (in effect continuing to do what he used to do, only under a new mask and title), is named after Prophet Khezr, known for his eternal life. It is as if the characters in the novel carry within them the burden of the history behind their names, as if they are the reincarnations of lives once lived; or perhaps it is their names that define their identities and destinies.
What complicates the coexistence of these characters further is how their ideologies, beliefs, and aspirations, diverging and contradicting, become snarled beyond hope. The colonel’s family, with children who have gone their own way and could be taken as a symbol of a lost generation, is a representation of a grey reality; of a people and relations that cannot, and should not, be categorized into good and bad, friends and enemies; of disappearing borders and impossible separations; of the persistence of life under such conditions.
The main time frame of the story is the night when the colonel receives the news of Parvaneh’s death and has to go bury her. In the beginning years of the Islamic government, it is a time when all voices are raised only to be gradually muted, when hope and hopelessness joggle with each other nonstop. It is a time of numerous, unexpected changes that overwhelm people and leaves them at a loss. An in-between reality, it is inherently floating and unsettling, but Dowlatabadi does not stop here and goes for even further toward destabilization.
The present is tightly interwoven with different pasts and the future. We are taken to the time when Amir was a kid and the colonel killed his wife; to when the old man witnessed his martyr’s son funeral; and farther away into the history, to the time of the men who for the colonel’s children are merely part of the history, but for colonel himself are so significant that he does all to keep them alive in memory. These pasts tie, through the present, to a future that the colonel often worries about, a future in which a nation will once again look back, with concerns perhaps not much different from those of its predecessors.
When asked about the time frame, Dowlatabdi says, “To tell the truth, I see the whole, not the separate parts. In my opinion and in my experience, the whole of the story comes to life in the mind/spirit/conscience or whatever you call it, keeps growing, and at the moment it ripens, the writer must sit and keep himself bound to its creation, until whenever he is free from the work. The mingling of time and place and subject and their fluidity etc. etc. . . . It all depends on the work the writer is afflicted with. It is the story itself that gives birth. So one story can have broken and tangled time and place, and another can be needless of such qualities and have its own influence.”
Speaking or Not / Silence vs. Writing
In the world that surrounds the colonel, his voice cannot be any voice but a broken one, a voice that “was broken and changed, as if he were conversing with his bones.” The old man does not talk to his family, and when he does, it does not result in mutual understanding or growing intimacy. He instead constantly has internal conversations, with himself, with his children, and with the world, frustrated and wondering how “an entire nation [can] endure so many long silences and so many unspoken words?”
The broken, failed conversations do not only belong to the colonel. Amir faces the same difficulty—with his father, his brother, and his sister—and they too with each other. Every attempt at communication and closeness leads to disappointment. These estrangements make the burdens of these people more devastating. They are not just in conflict with others and what is going on around them, but have to carry the weight of the times each by himself/herself.
This does not result from merely the characters’ incapability for intimacy and/or the complexity of their relationships. The conditions the novel is set in pushes language to the precipice of failure, where, more than ever before, it falls short as the medium of expression and communication, leaving its users more helpless and frustrated. In such conditions, not just life shatters but also the image/narrative of life.
Disheartened by the failure of verbal communication, father and son eventually decide to write, but what they write is their wills, a document that is normally written not to open up one’s heart or to bring people closer to one another but to put things in order after one’s death. It is as if Dowlatabadi wants to tells us that the story of this generation is a story whose narrator’s death is an indispensable part of; it is not like stories of or by grandparents, to be told and heard in a warm family environment—it is one that needs to be written to remain as document and proof for posterity.
Content and Form
Dowlatabadi’s book does not become the masterpiece it is only because of its content (as it is not the first time an author has delved into such subjects). What is as important, if not more so, is the form and style he chooses for telling his story.
Memoirs and linear, realistic narratives do not make any demand on the reader other than that of the content. The reader merely reads the life story/history of the other. She/he is still at a distance from the other, not living his/her life, because the writer has organized the material and offered it to the reader in an orderly arrangement. Their effect is temporary, as that of looking into a nicely put-together museum exhibit of mementos from a lost people. They do not engage the viewer/reader in a dynamic relationship.
The way a writer chooses to engage us with the events and objects in the story is as significant as those events and objects. When reality is unnervingly fluid and our understanding of it is fractured, one cannot and should not put forth a clean, linear narrative. The narrative too needs to be fractured, and it is for this reason that the colonel’s story is continuously floating between exterior and interior, one and the other, past and present and future, memory and hallucination and reality.
Moreover, both experiencing pain and listening to the accounts of the pain of others are always accompanied by doubt. The first with the doubt of “How did this come to happen? How could they? How could I?” The second with a similar doubt along with the nagging question about the authenticity of what the other is recounting. In a time and place that everyone and everything is shrouded in uncertainty, the narrative too needs to keep its reader uncertain. This is what Dowlatabadi succeeds to do with his complex form, recreating life’s perplexities, demanding the reader to work to arrive at any stability and clarity.
In The Colonel the various layers are intricately woven to one another, and yet the dominant mood of the novel is that of a world rupturing. Even though death throws its shadow all over this world, we deeply feel the vitality and the resulting pain in the people populating it. It is a world of contradictions, and the style of the book mirrors the coexistence of these contradictions. “I don’t really have an explanation for how the layers of the story have been interwoven. I don’t know anything; I just know that The Colonel could not come to life in any other form. Yes, it is a right observation, the embracing—the challenge and the struggle—of death and life in this work, so closely that they are inseparable,” Dowlatabadi says in response to a question about the multi-layered style of the work.
It is with his choice of form that Dowlatabadi forces his reader to become an active participant in the experience of the story/history. Engaged with the text, she/he needs to work in order to follow the story and consequently the life within it, remember it, analyze it, sometimes tie the elements together, other times untie the knots. But she/he only rarely succeeds, and in the end is defeated, because eventually order and calm in such life, and consequently in such narrative and readings of it, are meaningless. The reader has no way other than experiencing the chaos with all her/his being. She/he is pushed under its weight and forced into suffocation, feeling that she/he needs to pause, to be able to breathe and take in some fresh air. But such reality doesn’t pause, neither do the text, neither can the reader. The only way to breathe anew is to leave the text, to leave the life. The only way out is to close the book. To die.
Raha Namy, a Persian-English translator and editor, is currently a Ph.D. candidate of fiction at the Creative Writing Program at the University of Denver. Her work has appeared in the Feminist Wire, Guernica, World Literature Today, Quarterly Conversation, Barcelona Review, and elsewhere.
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