Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is one of, if not the, most revered of Iran’s contemporary novelists, so much so that his revered status has protected him from death threats and persecution. He is a major supporter of social and artistic freedom and it is said that this novel was written in seventy days while he was in prison, mostly from memory. It is also the first Persian novel to be written in the every day speech of the Iranian people.
This 1979 novel was released before the time of the revolution in Iran and one is tempted to look for parallels or perhaps social commentary from that time woven within the text. This novel isn’t so much about the contemporary revolution as it is about the end of one way of life and the birth of another. My knowledge of Iranian history is limited at best but I knew enough for this novel to resonate with me on a certain level. Naturally, some other things were probably lost due to my general ignorance on the subject the book addresses.
What we have here is a historical novel in a sense, set sometime in the 1960s, when the rural populations of Iran began to migrate from the countryside into the cities. The entire novel is infused with a sense of loss and death, not so much physical as it is social and traditional. It revolves around a rural family living in abject poverty. The family’s patriarch, Soluch, one day gets up and disappears without any word to anyone as to where he had gone. The matriarch of the family, Mergen, a woman of about forty, now has to face the prospect of raising the family on her own, with no visible means of support. Her children do what they must in order to earn what little money there is in order to support themselves and they do this by harvesting the fields around the small rural village in which they live. The social dynamic within this village is harsh, mostly living with its old feudal, social and religious traditions, making life even more difficult for the now apparently single mother trying to keep her family together.
There are other changes taking place. The old ways of doing things by hand were falling by the wayside and the first glimpses of modernity arrives in the village in the form of a tractor, which would effectively “modernize” their way of life. Add to this the selling off of what was locally known as “God’s Land” - open to everyone in the village - to private hands and government officials, the arrival of the tractor signals the death knell to an old way of life. At this point in time, many of the rural residents left the countryside and moved into the cities and the novel seems to imply how this population transfer opens the door to the contemporary political movements which will lead to the Iran we all know today. Throughout it all, Soluch's disappearance and the effect it has on not only the family but the village as a whole, is clearly felt.
The story is something akin to the old “Socialist Realist” novels but I wouldn’t quite put this in the same category as those - but there is a kinship here. It is a story about the conflict between tradition and modernity and in a way, a story about Iran, with it’s rich five-thousand plus year history, in conflict with itself. It is a rich, dense, novel, one that you won’t read quickly and the Western reader may not get all the nuances woven throughout but there is enough here to satisfy the reader. Dowlatabadi writes in a very “literary” style, akin to Kundera, in my view and there are some beautiful passages here. It’s well worth the read but it’s one you’ll have to spend some time with. Recommended.