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 Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch, which was one of our Top 10 Best Translations of 2007.
Despite the fact that Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is considered one of Iran’s greatest writers (according to his Wikipedia entry, “He wrote Kalidar novel which is one of the most important significant of Iranian culture.”), it seems like Missing Soluch slipped through the reviewing cracks when Melville House brought it out a few months ago. Ben Lytal of the New York Sun praised it, claiming that after The Savage Detectives and Out Stealing Horses this was the book from 2007 that he most wanted to recommend.
Maybe it’s because of the understated cover, or the deceptive length of the book, but along with a positive write-up in PW Lytal’s recommendation seems to be it. Which is really quite unfortunate, since this is a powerful and strangely compelling book.
I say “strangely compelling” because I’m having a hard time explaining why I was so engrossed in reading this. The story is pretty straightforward—the book opens with Mergan waking to find her husband Soluch missing. Apparently he’s just taken off, leaving her and their two sons (Abbas and Abrau) and their daughter (Hajer) to fend for themselves. He may have left to find work, or possibly to go to the city . . . this uncertainty is one of the undercurrents running throughout the book. That and the constant desire for various characters to try and find enough work to sustain them for the next day.
The village where Mergan and her family lives is a small, rural, remote place, where a small cadre of landowners are scheming to take over “God’s Land” (where the poorest of the poor farm) in order to raise pistachios. How this land is acquired, and the way this impacts and divides Mergan’s family makes up the major plot line of the book.
Although the translation is clunky at times, and characters occasionally speak in an oddly wooden fashion, there is something captivating in the deceptively simple prose.
As long as you still have your eyes, everything looks normal. But if somehow suddenly you’re blinded—say, by a hot iron or by a beast’s cold claw—all at once you can no longer see the fire int he fireplace that you had stoked for all your life. For the first time, you realize what you’ve given up, what a dear thing it is you’ve lost: Soluch.
Contrasting the more lyrical, metaphorical elements of the prose are unrelenting descriptions of violence: the two boys beating up another man in the village, Hajer’s soon-to-be husband nearly beating his wife to death after his mother is crushed by her collapsing house, Hajer’s disturbing first sexual encounter with her husband, Abrau attacking his mother with a tractor . . . the list goes on and on. (The scene in which an insane camel attacks Abbas will haunt me forever.)
Echoing Ben Lytal’s comment, I don’t know enough about Persian literature to place this within a particular tradition, but generally speaking it’s a pretty conventional, realistic novel. Dowlatabadi does capture the feel of the village, of it’s diverse inhabitants (the sections about Hajj Salem and his son Moslem are especially funny and energetic), and of the struggles these people face just trying to survive.
There are some flaws in the book—the pacing is slow at points, some of the speeches about the tractor and modernization of the farmlands are quite pedantic—but on the whole, it’s an interesting book that’s an interesting contrast to the more self-conscious, overly structured novels that came out last year.
by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
Translated from the Persian by Kamran Rastegar
507 pgs, $16.95
From Ben Lytal’s column in the New York Sun
But the book that, this year, I have most wanted to recommend is almost totally unknown. “Missing Soluch” (Melville House, 507 pages, $16.95) is Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s first novel translated into English, and it has hardly been reviewed at all. I’ve found references to Mr. Dowlatabadi in articles about Iranian censorship, but that’s all. “Missing Soluch” is an Iranian book, and I don’t know how to place it in that national literature. It has stayed with me because I don’t know where to leave it; it remains a question mark.
“Missing Soluch” is not a perfect book, but it makes a deep impression. It reads like an ancient thing. Its characters could not be called mythic or epic, but they inhabit a village in pre-revolutionary Iran that belongs to a genre other than that of the bourgeois novel. To see them come alive in Mr. Dowlatabadi’s book is to see how the novel works, and how reliable a medium it can be. His heroine, the stoic Mergan, would never guess that a novel is being written about her.
Does sound fascinating, and did make our best translations list.
Thankfully, Ben Lytal of the New York Sun somewhat rectified the situation.
The book sounds pretty interesting in and of itself—according to Melville House, it’s “the first [Iranian novel] ever written in the everyday language of the Iranian people”—but what caught my eye was that the Association of American Publishers’ Freedom to Publish Committee “joined in launching this book to support the publication of voices censored by the State Department’s ban of books from the ‘Axis of Evil.’ “
As always, Melville House deserves praise for the political edge to their publishing mission, and I hope this sentiment catches on. More publishers out there should be out there discovering and promoting great books from “our” ideological enemies.
The historian John Lukacs observed, “Fictitious characters may represent characteristic tendencies and potentialities that existed in the past” and thus “may serve the historian under certain circumstances—when, for example, these are prototypical representations of certain contemporary realities.” Eugen Ruge’s In. . .
Gustavo Faverón Patriau’s The Antiquarian, translated by Joseph Mulligan, is a genre-blending novel, a complete immersion that delves into a lesser-used niche of genre: horror, gothic, the weird. There are visual horrors, psychological ones, and dark corners with threats lurking.. . .
What a wonderful, idiosyncratic book Weinberger has written. I say book, but the closest comparison I could make to other works being published right now are from Sylph Edition’s “Cahiers Series“—short pamphlet-like meditations by notable writers such as Ann Carson,. . .
Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released. . .
When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of. . .
Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no. . .
Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.
The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider. . .