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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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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. ( )
  eapalmer | 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.
10 vote rebeccanyc | Aug 19, 2012 |
Originally posted at: A Girl that Likes Books

On July this year I read a piece in the New York Times, and it led me to really want to read this book. I have a couple of Iranian friends, and one of them told me that the author was really known for his work. So I bought it, and I read it, and here I am having mixed feelings about this book. Deep down I think it was a really good book…but…well, let me tell you about it.

The book starts in a third person’s voice: an old Iranian colonel is in his house, is a dark rainy night and someone is at this door. He is afraid, but knows he has to answer. Then it changes to his own voice, he remembers, he wonders, he is afraid for his son who is hiding in the basement. We will follow the colonel for a couple of days (I think it is supposed to be 2 or 3 at most) and we will learn about how the revolution dismembered his family. Although the colonel is supposed to be the main character, his son Amir and a secret police officer, Khezr Javid will have a very important role through the whole story.

My first problem with the book is the fact that the change of voice is not only from third to first with the colonel. All of the sudden someone else is talking in first person, maybe Amir, maybe someone else, but there is no transition, so a lot of times I kept going back in the pages to try to understand who was speaking to me.

There is also a lot of notes. Although this is not a problem, sometimes this would just cut the flow of the story even more, especially when in a single page you have to go to the back of the book 4 times to understand the meaning behind the sentence you are reading. My friend tells me this is typical of Iranian writing, a lot of hidden meaning in the words, and I think is a beautiful idea, is just that it made it even harder for me to see the whole story.

But there were a couple of parts that I was able to grasp the beauty of the sentence without any notes:

The colonel had begun to think that the strangest things could happen in life, and that mankind had been created to go through life in a string of bizarre experiences, then to die with its eyes wide open in amazement, proud of never having shocked by anything.

Personally, I think that’s a beautiful description of how unpredictable life can be. On how people confront their problems:

People who are drowning in a sea of problems and have lost all sense of self-worth often grasp at egotism and alienation from everything outside themselves as their only point of fixity and this can help anchor and fortify them.

And finally on young minds:
But no-one has the right to undermine or obstruct the hopes and aspirations of the young on the basis of one’s own experience.

So, you see, the book did make me think. It did give me a different view of the Iranian revolution, so deep down I know is a good book. But I fear so much was lost in translation for me, although the translator adds a lot of explanations and context at the end of the book. Is one of those books that you know you could like…but it just didn’t happen. ( )
  CaroPg | Aug 8, 2012 |
I loved this book, a superb book, but definitely one for people who know something about Iran. Its a harrowing story primarily set during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, but cuts over several time periods prior. I love the structure and the way it switches not only between third person and first person, but also between different first person narrators.
Whilst on one level the book deals with the impact on Iranians, both individually and on families, of the revolution, it also poignantly captures the bitter arc of Iranian history from the brief flowering of democracy under Mossadeq, cruelly crushed by the CIA in collaboration with the British in 1953, through the installation of a Western friendly dictator, the Shah, through to the revolution and the implementation of a theocracy.
In the survival of the secret police character (Khezr Javid) from the era of SAVAK into the post revolution era, we are reminded that oppressive regimes need a secret security apparatus to ensure survival.
For me, the major theme of the book is a lament, often expressed by Iranians, for freedom and democracy. For 18 months or so (1952-3), it looked as if it would be realised under the leadership of Prime Minister Mossadeq (the Shah had left Iran at this time). However, since the CIA's intervention, all Iran has known is the opposite.
The revolution of 1979 that swept away the dictatorship of the Shah inspired hope in Iranians that they could once more move down the path of freedom and democracy. Sadly, the clerics, and in particular, Khomeini, had other ideas. The clerics had for many decades believed in the centrality of religion in the affairs of State. This belief was compounded by the desire for revenge long harboured since the 1920s when clerics were humiliated by the Shah's father. The various groups in the revolution believed that Khomeini would only be a figurehead and that once the Shah was gone, a democratic state could be established. But, a brutal period of blood letting saw the eventual near eradication of all the other revolutionary groups with the eventual result being a theocracy with the clergy firmly in control of all the institutions of the state.
All of this background is captured in the book together with references to other icons of Iranian history and culture. Iranians believe that had the West not thrown out their elected government in 1953, Iran would today be a fully functioning democracy and they would be a free people. By installing and supporting a vile dictator, the West sowed the seeds for rise of theocracy.
At 220 pages, The Colonel, is not a long book, but it does require constant attention. Narrators change, time periods change and ghosts appear. Persian literature has a tradition of a kind of magic realism, so it comes as no surprise that Dowlatabadi blends reality and fantasy at certain points. This also heightens the need for careful reading, but if the time is invested, the rewards of this outstanding book will be fully appreciated. ( )
2 vote jaipur1 | Dec 21, 2011 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mahmoud Dowlatabadiprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Patterdale, TomTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Patterdale, TomAfterwordsecondary 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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