If anyone is interested in the history or modern Iran, then this is the book for you. The second Dowlatabadi novel I’ve read (the first was Missing Soloch - the only two available in English translation as far as I’m aware of) and like “Soloch”, it delves into the life of a single family in a remote region of Iran - this time in Rasht, the capital of the Gilan province near the Caspian Sea. This is a region that was once sanctuary for many Marxists after the 1979 revolution. This novel is steeped in Iranian history - from the ancient Persian texts to the Russian incursions in the 1800s to the British and American imperial projects during the cold war (including the CIA orchestrated overthrow of Mossedeq in the 1950s), through the Islamic revolution and beyond. It helps that the reader have a wide knowledge of Iranian history - and many American readers do not (including myself) - so thank God the novel is peppered with footnotes to put into perspective all the historical and literary references throughout.
The setting of this novel is at the tail end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. The main protagonist is an unnamed colonel, a military man who dedicated his life to serving his country, first fighting against the British, then fighting for the Shah, and eventually for the Ayatollah. The majority of the action is set on a single dark, rainy and muddy night where the colonel is to bury is 14 year old daughter, one of his five children. His other children, two other sons and an elder daughter - were all taught by the colonel to live their lives freely and to think independently, a mentoring that eventually had a dark fate for each of them. His eldest son, Amir (who is also the second narrator of the novel) is a Marxist revolutionary who toed the Moscow line for a while before eventually collaborating closely with the new Islamic regime - that is until that regime had no more use for these Marxist troublemakers. His second son, Mohammad-Taqi is a member of the communist leaning “People’s Fedayan” and is killed during an uprising, first praised as a fighter, then later condemned as a dissident. The youngest son, Masoud, is a supporter of the Khomeini regime and is himself killed in the Iran-Iraq war and hailed as a “martyr”. His two daughters - Parvaneh - is a member of the “People’s Mujahedin”, whose roots are firmly in the Islamic camp but more left-leaning than the clergy, and during the Iran-Iraq war, took the side of the Iraqis. She is condemned as a traitor for handing out leaflets for the organization and is tortured and killed. She is only 14 years old; and his eldest daughter - Farzaneh - is married to someone in the security services.
The action takes place on the single night that the colonel is to bury his 14 year old daughter but Dowlatabadi uses a Faulkner-esque technique by weaving the past and present in and out of one another, encompassing a wide swath of Iranian history; and like Faulkner, the character’s inner thoughts sometimes take center stage, peering into the troubled minds and souls of the main characters. There are also hallucinatory passages where the colonel fantasizes that he is speaking to his heroes from the past, mainly his military hero Colonel Mohammed-Taqi Khan Pesyan who was the Khorasan gendarmerie of North East Iran with the rank of “Colonel” (a nickname given to him as a nod to his European training). Our protagonist colonel constantly speaks to him and even has a shrine to him set up on the mantle in his home. These digressions and flashbacks often refer to the brutal treatment and torture the characters received at the hands of whatever opposing regime happens to be in power. He also reflects on his own imprisonment, though it is unclear as to whether it was for his political activities or for murdering his philandering wife in a drunken rage, a killing witnessed by his youngest and most troubled son, Amir. There is a constant tension between tradition and modernity - much like Iranian society in its current state. On one hand the colonel is more liberal minded yet the murder of his wife is attributed as an “honor killing” for “defaming his honor”. The present is often metaphorically contrasted to the past via an Iranian national epic called the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) in which the 60,000 word epic closely parallels the current story being told. All in all, this is a very dark, very disturbing read and it will take some patience to get through all the digressions and footnotes which place the story in its proper historical perspective for the Western reader. It’s well worth the effort because the novel is simply wonderful - the story, the language, and especially its historical context.
“We’re obliged to dig our own children’s graves” thinks the colonel, “but what’s even more shocking is that these crimes are creating a future in which there is no place for truth and human decency. Nobody dares speak the truth anymore. Oh, my poor children...we’re burying you, but you should realize that we are also digging a grave for our future. Can you hear me?”
This - in essence - is the meaning behind this wonderful novel. Highly recommended.