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The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

The Colonel

by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This summer the Iranian government issued a postage stamp on the novelist Dowlatabadi’s 74th birthday commemorating his lifetime of work. Despite the regime’s professed respect for the art of the novelist, Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel is still not published in his own country. It was first published in Germany, where it was shortlisted for the 2009 Haus der Kulturen Berlin International Literary Award. After publication in Britain, the novel was longlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize and it won the 2013 Jan Michalski Prize for Literature based in Switzerland.

This novel was begun by Dowlatabadi in the 1980’s and periodically added to and amended until the author declared it ready for publication in 2008. It relates the story of a man, a military man of discipline and principles, who appears torn asunder by the change sweeping his country and his family in light of the 1979 revolution against the Shah which was the end of a 2,500-year history of monarchies. His wife is dead by his own hand for her adultery, and three of his children have been killed, two for their anti-Islamic tendencies, and one as a martyr for the cause of the new Islamic state under Khomeini. Two children remain, but the eldest son is sunk in an unresponsive nihilism as a result of the failure of the Communist faction he supported, and his daughter Farzaneh is married to an opportunist who shifts his allegiances with the changing political leadership.

One of Dowlatabadi’s great skills as a novelist is reputedly to use language in an earthy yet lyrical way. We cannot enjoy the original Persian, but we can see the straightforward way in which he draws his characters, exposing their weaknesses and failures while at the same time acknowledging that one could not have done differently. "The colonel had always let his children find their own way in life...But now he could not help but wonder whether the dreadful fate that had overtaken every one of his children was in fact due to his laissez-faire approach. But no, this did not really provide the old man with an easy answer, either. He firmly believed that he had bequeathed to his children only the most natural of rights, namely the right to determine what they wanted to do with their lives...In the end, perhaps the colonel's wish that his children lead independent lives was a reaction on his part against a life which he felt had been imposed upon him. He felt that he had been short-changed by never having had the freedom to live his own life. This made him feel like some sort of cripple...At least one of you should look out for himself. It's not as though you were carrying the weight of all history on your shoulders! I'm not as strong as you think I am. That's what he really wanted to tell his children."
Dowlatabadi describes an interrogation session, torture, and what jail is like. He describes the total confusion and uncertainty among family members and the general populace for years after the revolution when the political winds shifted to and fro. He describes the agony of a parent who is despised by his children and who has to bury his tortured 14-year-old daughter on a rainy night without help from his family. He describes the guilt and desperation of educated and serious patriots who no longer believed in god or goodness as a result of what they have seen and how their understanding of their most basic rights as humans felt violated. Even though I have not had much opportunity to read Persian literature, there can be little doubt about how such an open and painful account of despair would be received by a sitting government."The colonel felt guilt, too--guilty for the very existence of his children, or lack of it, as the case may be."
Apparently the present government in Iran would be willing to publish this novel in Persian if the author would make some changes, which he has refused to do. And yet, for his other work which is widely hailed in Iran as unique and masterful, Dowlatabadi is respected and honored by the postage stamp in his honor."One would think that boys were born coy, but there lurks within them a dreadful, perverse force that can, in the blink of an eye, turn them into savage beasts, beasts that since the beginning of history have been easily drawn into committing the most appalling of crimes, just to prove themselves. They follow orders to the letter and call what they do acts of heroism. Can we blame them? What about us, the people who send these unformed lumps of soft putty out onto the street, where they fall into the arms of the first merchants of villainy they come across? And we just sit back and wait for them to be turned into rods to beat our own backs..."
This book is an important addition to the literature coming from the Middle East, and one hopes that one will never have read its like again.

( )
1 vote bowedbookshelf | Oct 6, 2014 |
This powerful novel is set in a town in Iran in the late 1980s, toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war, and roughly a decade after the overthrow of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the accession to power of Islamic fundamentalists, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The main character is 'the colonel', an unnamed disgraced former member of the Shah's army, who is so named because of his former title, but also because he reveres Mohammad-Taqi Khan Pesyan, or 'The Colonel', who is considered to be a hero by Iranian secular nationalists (but not Islamic fundamentalists) because of his sacrifice in attempting to free the country from foreign influences in the early 20th century. the colonel frequently speaks to and confides in the portrait of The Colonel in his home, as he lives in fear of what will happen to him, to his children who are missing under separate circumstances, and to his eldest son Amir, who refuses to emerge from the basement and seems to be descending into madness.

On a rainy night two young police officers come to the colonel's door, to inform him that he is wanted by the local prosecutor. He follows them, and receives tragic news: his youngest daughter, who is not yet 14, has been murdered. He and the two policemen proceed to the local mortuary to claim the body, as it must be washed and buried before the dawn call to prayers.

The night, like the rainfall, is seemingly unending. the colonel is plagued by fear and uncertainty, as he recalls and regrets his past actions and decisions, while reality merges into often nightmarish scenarios that make him question his own sanity. The lives of his children, his wife, a roguish son-in-law, and an 'immortal' former intelligence officer of the deposed Shah's feared secret police are weaved throughout the novel, along with frequent references to important figures throughout Iranian history. The individual stories merge in the manner of a tornado that forms and strengthens, as chaos and a foreboding sense of doom becomes ever present.

The Colonel was published in 2008, after Dowlatabadi had worked on it for 25 years, and it has been published worldwide to critical acclaim. However, it remains in the hands of censors in Iran, as the author, who still lives in Teheran, continues to refuse to allow it to be edited to meet the demands of the current regime. It is a beautifully written but challenging read, due to its references to Persian history, although the translator, Tom Patterdale, does a superb job in providing brief footnotes throughout the book, along with an excellent afterword and glossary that is invaluable to the average reader. My comments don't do justice to the complexity and richness of this superb and highly instructive novel about a country that is important to the Western world, but one that continues to be a worrisome enigma to most of us. ( )
8 vote kidzdoc | May 7, 2014 |
Ostensively, this is a tale about one family, but it's really an epic narrative about Iran and the way its recent past carries echoes of its older legends. At times hallucinatory, the story contains nightmares, multiple viewpoints, and the inner dialogue of two men who have seen and experienced too much. I wish that the 'Afterword' had been a 'Forward' as I would have understood what was going on much better. Similarly, if I was more familiar with Iranian history, I am sure that I would have had an even greater appreciation for the book. As it was, I kept having to interrupt my reading to consult the endnotes. Nevertheless, it is a breathtaking book. ( )
  eachurch | Apr 13, 2013 |
My first M. Dowlatabadi book was Missing Soluch, a very vivid, human story of poverty, hunger, strong minded women in 1940's rural Iran. This book is a nightmare. It feel and reads like a nightmare, confusing, disturbing, hard to take, impossible to escape. It is very vivid, very sad, gives you a feeling for torture and black hole prisons, and may be best read in bits when you are feeling strong and happy. It can drown you and leave you feeling very very bad yourself. I recommend, if only to appreciate why torture is immoral, criminal, and corrosive to humanity on all sides. It is powerful writing, like James Joyce, but should be taken in small doses. ( )
  grheault | Aug 26, 2012 |
It is raining in a northern Iranian city, and the aging colonel hears that knock on the door in the middle of the night that never means anything good. So begins this complex and bleak novel that, with memories, nightmares, and ghosts, interweaves the story of the colonel and his five children with 20th century Iranian history and millennia of Persian literary tradition.

The colonel was in the Shah's army, but was kicked out either for his principled refusal to follow a particular order or for a personal crime, or both. He is an admirer of an earlier Iranian colonel, a hero to secular nationalists, referred to as The Colonel (with capital letters); a portrait of The Colonel hangs in the colonel's home, with photos of his dead children tucked into the frame. At the outset of the novel, which takes place during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, the colonel's oldest son, Amir, released from imprisonment and torture as a revolutionary, is living in the basement, talking to nobody. He has mysterious visits from Khezr Javid, a secret policeman who conducted his "interrogations." The colonel's second son was killed as a revolutionary; his youngest son has just been killed in the war and thus is a "martyr." His older daughter is married to a man who bends with the wind, and the current wind is the Ayatollah; he tries to prevent his wife from visiting her father and brother. And his younger daughter, just 14, has vanished.

On the surface, the novel covers the few days in the colonel's life in which he discovers what has happened to his young daughter, attends the essentially state funeral of his youngest son and other "martyrs," and finally connects with Amir. But the surface, and the present, are only a thin veneer in the book. The reader travels back and forth in time, back and forth between the "real" and the memories, nightmares, and ghosts. It takes concentration to figure out what is happening, and when it is happening. Amir is as important in the colonel; while at times he appears "crazy," the reasons for his behavior gradually become clear.

And what of these memories? The colonel has political memories, of what happened under the Shah and before the Shah took power with US and British help, kicking out the democratic and nationalistic government under Mossadegh, as well as of the Islamic revolution under the Ayatollah in 1979. But he also has memories of his wife, and reflections on whether he raised his children right, given the toll of their involvement in revolutionary activity. Amir has nightmares of his experience in jail, the torture, his wife, the unanswered questions. At the same time, the author weaves in references to earlier Persian history and to Persian literature; the translator has provided invaluable explanatory notes, because otherwise these would go right by readers not well versed in Persian history and culture.

Ultimately, this is a very sad book, an elegy for a lost history of culture and freedom and a reflection on ideology and betrayal, love and loss, reality and the interior world. And it rains and rains and rains.
11 vote rebeccanyc | Aug 19, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
The Colonel, by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, is a masterpiece. But reader beware, it is a dark one and doesn’t offer even a tiny droplet of hope. From its very beginning to its very end, it rains incessantly. Blood is spilled, children are buried in the darkness of the night, people betray themselves and one another, ghosts roam.
Iranian novelist Dowlatabadi (Missing Soluch, 1979, etc.) re-imagines the life of a fabled Persian patriot against the bloody backdrop of the Islamic Revolution.

We see the revolution through the eyes of the Colonel, an officer in the Shah’s army, a figure largely based on Mohammad Taqi Khan Pesyan, who led a partially successful Persian revolution in 1921 and was lionized after his assassination. As the novel opens, the Colonel is taken in the dead of night to collect his daughter’s body from the prosecutor’s office. From there, the book jumps back and forth to show the Colonel at his height and the struggles of the officer and his son Amir as the Ayatollah returns and the Shah is forced into exile. The military man’s five children represent different factions within Iranian society, and nearly all come to tortuous or violent ends. Patterdale offers up a fine translation of Dowlatabadi’s book, gently guiding Western readers through its complex maze of political intrigue and moral failings with restrained footnotes, a rich glossary and a thoughtful afterword. At its core, the book is about the inherent corruption that power inspires and the toll it takes on the people under its long shadow.

A demanding and richly composed book by a novelist who stands apart.
added by kidzdoc | editKirkus Reviews (Apr 1, 2012)
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is best known in Iran for his 10-volume epic Kelidar, which at more than 3000 pages is perhaps for the moment unlikely to feature in any publisher's catalogue. We are, in the meantime, fortunate to have this passionate and informative fable of the Islamic revolution in our hands. The idealistic and relatively modernised "Colonel", a career officer in the Shah's army, has murdered his adulterous wife. Stripped of his rank, he finds himself in the same prison as his eldest son, Amir, a student who belongs to the Iranian Communist Party.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mahmoud Dowlatabadiprimary authorall editionscalculated
Patterdale, TomAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Patterdale, TomTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In a small Iranian town on a dark rain-soaked night, the Colonel paces back and forth waiting for the inevitable knock on the door. The secret police take him to the tortured body of his youngest daughter, for the Islamic revolution is devouring its own children. This shocking diatribe leaves no taboo unbroken.… (more)

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