How many of us know what happened in Iran after the 1979 Revolution?
For many Iranians, the conservative regime of the ayatollahs that replaced Mohamed Reza Shah Pahlavi’s regime proved even harsher. Everyday personal liberties disappeared. Economic hardship grew. A brutal war between Iran and its neighbor Iraq dragged on from 1980 to 1988 and claimed a million lives, among them boys barely into adolescence. Leaders sadly glorified their deaths as martyrdom.
Westerners know these general facts. Yet from outside Iran, just how much could even the most interested, the most concerned and the most empathetic among us really know of the true nature of life in Iran as years passed?
Iranian writer Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s novel The Colonel fills in the blank space.
Long-listed for the Man Asian prize and so far available only in English and German (Iranian authorities haven’t approved publication in Farsi), The Colonel takes place in the chaotic period just after the Shah’s exile from Iran and the triumphant return of Ayatollah Khomeini. Power quickly changed hands, as one oppressive regime rapidly replaced another. Darkness and brutality reigned.
We have accounts of post-revolutionary Iran, many written by Iranians who escaped the country before the revolution or immediately after it. Those who follow cinema will know of powerful movies (several banned in Iran) by top-caliber directors like Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami that offer insight into the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Dowlatabadi’s novel may well be the definitive written account to date of the terror and mayhem that existed in Iran just after the revolution and beyond into the war with Iraq.
The novel takes place on a dark and rainy night. An ex-army officer (the colonel), who once held high rank under the Shah, answers summons to identify and bury the body of his youngest daughter, Parvaneh. Just 14, Parvaneh was tortured and then executed for her opposition to the regime in power.
She’s neither the first nor the last of the colonel’s children to succumb to the powers-that-be. Two other children lie in their graves when the story opens. Another son, Amir, hides in the colonel’s cellar, traumatized by torture he endured for his own leftist views. A second daughter gets by only because she married an unscrupulous brute who takes sides wherever the bread is buttered.
The narrative takes place around Parvaneh’s burial, an act the colonel finds almost impossible to complete. (How easy can it be, after all, to dig your own child’s grave?) He struggles against the blinding darkness of the night, a pelting rain that chills him to the bone. He can’t find a shovel. Where can he locate the proper shroud to wrap her body?
Meandering between shroud and shovel, between graveyard and home, the colonel also struggles against his mind, torn between thoughts of the past, the present and a terrifying future. He anguishes over things that went wrong but could have gone right, between life as it was, as it is and as it possibly may be in a place where no one can be safe from incarceration, torture or death.
Dowlatabadi, one of Iran’s most prolific novelists, doesn’t spare the reader. He delivers prose as harsh as the historical time he chronicles. It makes The Colonel difficult to read, a work without any sugarcoating of heartless torture in extremis and brutal executions.
Stylistically, too, the dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality of The Colonel as it flips from present to past and back again makes it difficult to get a grip on the story. Who tells it? Voices and points of view rise schizophrenically, mix, then fade without warning. We hear the colonel, his children and another omnipresent character, The Colonel (with a capital C), presumably the namesake of the book.
This Colonel, we learn in the English forward by translator Tom Patterdale, may be Mohamed Taqi Khan Peysan, an important figure in Iranian history, an army man and a national hero. He commands the utmost respect in Iranian culture and serves as a frame of reference for our colonel.
Could The Colonel also symbolize a perfect Iranian state? A state that might have existed?
This allegorical novel gives no straight answer. Even if The Colonel represents an idyllic presence in Dowlatabadi’s story, much of the author’s diatribe against the failure of his country feels lost in translation (though Patterdale’s translation receives rave reviews). The book bristles with so many historical references and events specific to Iran that an average reader will be daunted and likely feel unwelcome.
Even so, this important novel offers at least some glimmer of insight into recent history that remains quite opaque to most of us … and perhaps even to many Iranians themselves.
As a review in the British newspaper The Independent stated: “It’s about time everyone even remotely interested in Iran read this novel.”
Savita Iyer-Ahrestani is a freelance writer based in State College, Pennsylvania. Her articles have appeared in Saveur, Vogue (Mumbai, India edition), CNN.com, Business Week and Dr. Oz’s Youbeauty.com, among others. She co-authored Brandstorm: Surviving and Thriving in the New Consumer-Led Marketplace (Palgrave Macmillan 2012) and is currently working on a novel.