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.
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