Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

Book Summary (from the back of the book)

A pitch black, rainy night in a small Iranian town. Inside his house, the colonel stared at the portrait of the famous military hero –The Colonel, long executed. He thinks of his own children, one of whom died supporting the Shah, another of whom fought for the Ayatollah, another of whom -his fourteen-year old daughter- has been captured handing out leaflets against the regime. The Colonel has fought against the British…he fought for the Shah… he fought for the Ayatollah…he’s dedicated his life to his country…the house is quiet.

Could they really be coming…for him?

My Review

On July this year I read this piece in the New York Times, and it led me to really want to read this book. I have a couple of Iranian friends, and one of them told me that the author was really known for his work. So I bought it, and I read it, and here I am having mixed feelings about this book. Deep down I think it was a really good book…but…well, let me tell you about it.

The book starts in a third person’s voice: an old Iranian colonel is in his house, is a dark rainy night and someone is at this door. He is afraid, but knows he has to answer. Then it changes to his own voice, he remembers, he wonders, he is afraid for his son who is hiding in the basement. We will follow the colonel for a couple of days (I think it is supposed to be 2 or 3 at most) and we will learn about how the revolution dismembered his family. Although the colonel is supposed to be the main character, his son Amir and a secret police officer, Khezr Javid will have a very important role through the whole story. 

My first problem with the book is the fact that the change of voice is not only from third to first with the colonel. All of the sudden someone else is talking in first person, maybe Amir, maybe someone else, but there is no transition, so a lot of times I kept going back in the pages to try to understand who was speaking to me. 

There is also a lot of notes. Although this is not a problem, sometimes this would just cut the flow of the story even more, especially when in a single page you have to go to the back of the book 4 times to understand the meaning behind the sentence you are reading.  My friend tells me this is typical of Iranian writing, a lot of hidden meaning in the words, and I think is a beautiful idea, is just that it made it even harder for me to see the whole story.

But there were a couple of parts that I was able to grasp the beauty of the sentence without any notes:

               The colonel had begun 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 its eyes wide open in amazement, proud of never having shocked by anything.

Personally, I think that’s a beautiful description of how unpredictable life can be. On how people confront their problems:

               People who are drowning in a sea of problems and have lost all sense of self-worth often grasp at egotism and alienation from everything outside themselves as their only point of fixity and this can help anchor and fortify them.

And finally on young minds:
               But no-one has the right to undermine or obstruct the hopes and aspirations of the young on the basis of one’s own experience.

So, you see, the book did make me think. It did give me a different view of the Iranian revolution, so deep down I know is a good book. But I fear so much was lost in translation for me, although the translator adds a lot of explanations and context at the end of the book.  Is one of those books that you know you could like…but it just didn’t happen.  

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