Why This Book Should Win: "The Colonel" by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi [BTBA 2013]
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale and published by Melville House Books
This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, one of the foremost Iranian authors of his generation, has so far been unrepresented in English translation due to the political nature of his works—all credit, then, to both Haus Publishing (and Melville House Books) and English PEN for their support in making The Colonel available. Credit must also be given to translator Tom Patterdale, whose avoidance of Latinate English vocabulary in preference for words with Anglo-Saxon roots is a valiant attempt to reproduce some of the convention-shattering effects of what he describes as Dowlatabadi’s “rough and ready” Persian.
The action unfolds over the course of one rainy night in a small Iranian town, a few years into the violent aftermath of the 1979 revolution, though Dowlatabadi reaches even further back into the recent history of his country, for example to the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, to demonstrate the ways in which the past constantly impinges upon the present. At the very start of the book is the eponymous Colonel, an officer in the shah’s army, receives a knock at the door
Every knock at the door broke the caressing silence of the rain. There was nothing but the sound of unremitting rain drumming on the rusty tin roof, so unceasing that it amounted to silence.
They have come to inform him of the death of his youngest daughter, Parwaneh, who has died while being tortured by the regime. The rest of the book concerns the Colonel’s increasingly desperate attempts to retrieve Parwaneh’s body and ensure that she is buried, with at least some sense of propriety, before the night is over.
It is ironic that while the story concerns the attempts at burial, what actually results over the course of the book is a great deal of unearthing, specifically of the Colonel’s guilt over past mistakes, both private and professional, and of the various fates of his five children, none of which have escaped unscathed from the violence and political upheaval. While in the main body of the text, the Colonel is allowed the luxury of reminiscing over his younger, stronger days, his italicized thoughts, with their burden of past guilt, constantly threaten to destabilise the narrative which the Colonel has constructed to quell his conscience.
The Colonel is undoubtedly a dark read, with not much in the way of hope to alleviate the bleakness. Nevertheless, its ‘alternative history’ of the revolution is passionately, powerfully nightmarish, a great literary achievement in addition to being a brave and important window onto a world of which English-readers are still all too ignorant.