Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th November, 2011
For a country that has been run by a puritanical Islamic government for the past 32 years, Iran has an astonishingly rich cultural output in many media, from cinema to poetry. Cemsorship means that some of the more sensitive literary production cannot be published in Tehran, which is why some Iranian writers have chosen to publish or even live abroad. Their work deserves much greater international recognition, so it is to be applauded that International PEN — the organisation that campaigns for imprisoned and persecuted writers — has formally recommended a new English translation of a novel by one of Iran’s most celebrated and controversial writers, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi: The Colonel (Haus Publishing, £9.99). The story oscillates between fact and fiction, reality and illusion, past and present, first and third person narrative, all set against a nightmare backdrop of oppression and powerlessness, to the constant gloomy accompaniment of rain. The main protagaonist or anti-hero is the eponymous colonel, a man destroyed by his failure to live up to his own high standards (epitomised by his alter ego The Colonel, a historical figure, whose picture dominates his living room); the colonel has killed his wife for besmirching the family’s honour with her drunken philandering, and he is unable to save his various children from terrible fates because of their differing political choices. The descriptions of political persecution and torture — both under the Shah’s regime and since the Revolution — are graphic and chilling. A reader unfamiliar with Persian history and literature would be likely to miss many of the references and allusions in the text, were it not for the helpful and unobtrusive footnotes by translator Tom Patterdale, the foreword and a glossary of names. Though the context is specific, many of the novel’s messages are universal — Man’s inhumanity to Man in the pursuit of political or religious purity, the helplessnss of the individual within a totalitarian system, and the powerful emotions within a family riven by ideology or personal betrayal, to mention but a few. The overall effect is numbing yet inspirational, depressing but also enraging the reader. This is not a book that could leave one indifferent.