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.
Our latest review is of Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi.
Niloufar is an extremely talented translator and performer, and runs the very impressive Translation Project, which promotes contemporary Iranian literature through a variety of media. A great example of what they do is the Icarus/Rise performance, videos of which can be found on the site.
Peter Conners, the author of Of Whiskey & Winter and Emily Ate the Wind, as well as a forthcoming memoir entitled Growing up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead. He’s also an editor and marketing director at BOA Editions. More info about all his projects can be found on his website.
Peter’s review of Belonging is very enthusiastic:
Let’s start with a disclaimer. I am in no way qualified to discuss Iranian poetry as it relates to the country’s larger social, historical, or literary culture. The sad truth is that the number of critics in America who are qualified—fully, truly qualified—to critique a translation of Iranian poetry is miniscule. However, I was comforted when I came to this passage in the introduction to the new anthology, Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World: “In 2002, when I began my research for this book, my goal was to discover and explore Persian poetry created by Iranians living outside Iran who had left because of the 1979 revolution. Aware that the rich tradition of Persian literature can be intimidating and difficult to penetrate, I embarked on this journey with a sense that I was already behind.” [. . .]
After reading her introduction and the first few sections of Belonging, I realized that Talebi had accomplished perhaps the greatest service that a translator of Iranian poetry for American audiences can provide: she made the Iranian poetic landscape feel familiar. Not only familiar, but modern, full of laughter, rich with wonder, completely joyful and terrible and worthy of revisiting multiple times. [Click here for the rest.]
This past Sunday, the Guardian ran a very troubling article about a publishing crackdown in Iran:
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the government imposed strict rules on book publishing. Since then, the Ministry of Culture has been charged to vet all books before publication, mainly for erotic and religious transgressions. All books, including fiction, are required to conform to Islamic law. [. . .]
A new regime of censorship began when Ahmadinejad took office. The cultural ministry imposed rules requiring renewed permits for previously published books. As a result, many books have been deemed unsuitable for publication or reprinting.
Some of these books include Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and some books by Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras.
In addition, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi—whose Missing Soluch was reviewed here last week—is refusing to publish:
“They [the governmental authorities] have not only made the publishers stop working, but also have put writers in a situation in which they have no inclination to write,” says Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, author of the Persian 10-volume bestseller Kelydar, who refuses to give his next book to a publisher as a protest against the government’s clampdown.
The situation sounds pretty scary in fact, with authors being imprisoned, lengthy delays in getting books approved by the Ministry, etc. In a way, this article is everything one fears in terms of government intervention.
There is one glimmer of hope at the end for all technophiles:
Reza Ghassemi, an important Iranian novelist based in France, recently published his new novel, The Abracadabra Murmured by Lambs, on the internet in a free ebook PDF format instead of facing government censorship and the formal permission procedure. His enovel has been reviewed and welcomed by the huge Iranian blog community much more warmly than if it had been published on paper.
The current Quarterly Feature at ArteEast is It Deserves and Commands Your Attention, a fascinating collection of Persian fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.
Here’s editor Richard Jeffrey Newman summary of the contents:
I will not pretend that the poems, essays and stories gathered here represent anything other than the relatively small number of people who sent them to me or from whom I solicited them. Nonetheless, I do think they begin to sketch the outlines of the landscape my question was intended to uncover and begin to explore. Among the writers represented here are two women from Iran, one a young poet of 24, the other with an established career as a writer and editor, each of whom write poetry in English; there is an award-winning Iranian-American poet; a poet born in the year of the revolution who now writes, in Persian and Swedish, in Sweden; another poet published here in translation has been barred from entering Iran for more than two decades. There is a fiction writer from the United States who has made her career out of writing the Iranian immigrant experience. You will find translations of classical Persian literature, a fictionalized memoir by an academic from the United Kingdom and a short story by a man who is now a well-known Iranian director, but who began his career as a fiction writer deeply sympathetic to the Islamic Republic.
Seems to me that there’s a lot of interesting Iranian Persian writing out there, but that it’s sort of “under the radar,” at least from a mainstream perspective. (As if great literature from other countries/languages is getting tons of attention.)
In addition to this great publication, anyone interested in Iranian literature should definitely check out The Translation Project which is run by the amazing Niloufar Talebi. I’ll post more about this in the future, but as a taste, here’s what they list online as their Current Projects:
1. An Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Poetry Around the World, forthcoming summer 2008 (North Atlantic Books) edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi. It offers a comprehensive yet eclectic view of poetry generated outside Iran since the 1979 revolution by both established and emerging Iranian poets. Poetry IN diaspora, not OF diaspora, means that editorial decisions will not focus on the subject of exile, but on the quality and growth of each poet’s work during their time spent outside of Iran.
2. Multimedia Iranian Literary Arts Festival, November 13-17, 2007 in San Francisco. This multimedia festival will feature a new theatrical piece based on Iranian poetry, called ICARUS/RISE, panel presentations, readings, translator’s forum, film screenings and more.
3. Midnight Approaches…: DVD of short films. A multi-dimensional, evocative and entertaining DVD of short films based on contemporary Iranian poetry, it features an Introduction to Persian Poetry, 6 films based on contemporary Iranian Poetry translated, adapted and brought to life with music, performance and dance. Musical compositions by master musicians such as Ostaad Nejad, Hafez Modirzadeh, royal hartigan and David Molina, and more. Get you own copy now and support the organization.
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