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.
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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