“Welcome on this glorious summer evening to another match in the 2014 World Cup of Literature! We’re here in beautiful Brazil, where Bosnia and Herzegovina faces off against Iran. I’m Chaz Flippo, here with the lovely Cindy Mignon on point to call the match for readers tonight.” “That’s right Chaz, we’ll be taking you through the pregame here momentarily as both countries get ready to square off with their strongest recent books: Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone for Bosnia and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel for Iran.” “The books are in the tunnel now, getting their covers’ straight, stretching those sentences and phrases and prepping for any and all narrative turns.” “Chaz, what would you say is the goal for each team in this matchup today?” “Well, to put it bluntly, Cindy: goals! Ha ha!” “Ha ha! Indeed, Chaz, and when you get one strong chapter to the back of the net it only takes another to really help conclude the whole thing.” “That’s right Cindy, the key will be control, pacing, and, if we’re lucky, a little twist thrown in for good measure.” “I’ve heard that the Iranian book has a particularly nasty little turn set up for the start of the match, with the Colonel’s wife getting executed by his own—” “Tut tut, Cindy! We don’t want to get ahead of our readers here. That would be like jumping to the Bosnian war section of How the Soldier, where Aleksandar deliberately changes the name of—” “Chaz, please! Look at us here, giving all the spoilers away.” “We’ll be more careful, dear readers! It’s a wonderful day for a match, the field glowing green under the hot jungle sun, beating down on your head like you just spent all night in the jungle talking to god!” “That’s, uhmm, that’s right, Chaz!“And here come the books now! The Colonel is hand in hand with the youth escorts.” “My are those some spritely future football players accompanying The Colonel.” “Yes yes, to be sure, but I have to admit to you, Cindy, the Iranian looks a little old for this match—just a little too wrinkled walking out there hand in hand with the children.” “There was some talk in the WCoL’s Governing Powers about the The Colonel’s age, but apparently it slipped right through. One wonders, with these things, how much of this might have to do with a briefcase or two.” “Tut tut, my girl, let’s not jump to any conclusions. Conclusions make the head pound, and, to be frank, I had quite a long night last night. You see, I had something of and adven—” “Not now, Chaz, not right during coverage.” “Oh and how marvelous! Here comes How the Soldier, walking tall and proud as ever. You know, this Bosnian book really might have what it takes to make it deep into the later rounds. It has the playfulness, the rigor, the complexity to really mix things up here tonight and come out ahead.” “If it can manage to handle The Colonel’s dense, elliptical style, well, sure, but I wouldn’t count on it. The Iranians are lucky enough to be represented by a book that was banned in their own country, so you can imagine what a feat of writing it must be.” “It’s a dark book, to be sure, but one wonders, watching it warm up before the match, if it’s perhaps a little too relentless, a little too brooding. But really, last night was the most marvelous night of all my years.” “Don’t you think it can wait?” “Tut tut, Cindy! Always business first! Oh, and would you look at that! One of the Bosnian escorts is doing pirouettes right there on the pitch! How fun!” “He’s all hands and feet, isn’t he Chaz? All hands and feet, that one. My what a lovely cultural moment this all is. That’s really the only way you can put it, a lovely cultural moment.” “Cindy, I’ve been milling around the stadiums, and I’ve seen the beaches and the beautiful people and the architecture and all that’s peachy, but last night I saw something more.” “Yes, let’s just say peachy and end it there, Chaz.” “I’ve taken to spending lots of time outside the heavily guarded, fenced off areas of the cities, and Cindy, let me tell you about a friend I made last night named Mr. Huasca.” “Chaz I don’t think that’s very appropriate for our readers.” “No no, that’s alright, everything is alright now. It was all like the dream of the breath from a god playing a flute.” “. . .” “I awoke this morning with birds all a flutter in my head, deep in the jungle, ready for the game, and ready to tell my story.” “Well we’re just a few minutes away from kicking off the next exciting match in the World Cup of Literature, and—” “And, if you’d excuse me for one moment, I can tell you what it feels like to squirm around in football’s primordial soup.” “Chaz, please, not ag—“ “No no no, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s topical. You see, I was staying over at my grandparents house, the ones that grew up right around Kent—this was, say, forty years ago, in the vision of course—and, and this is all in my head, you see, because my grandma and papa are long since dead, but here I found myself, lying on my back under their kitchen table watching all of their feet stir by, their loafers and slippers speeding past, keeping to the rhythm of the music coming from the gramophone, the kind you hear in a dream, sleigh bells and clarinets and French horns—oh yes, the French horns!—filling up the space like a vapor, my grandparent’s making laps around the—” “Chaz, I really thi—” “kitchen shuttling plates from counter to counter, and I can hear my parents in the other room drinking cocktails with my auntie and uncle, prattling on about my marks—or lack thereof ha ha!—in voices that seem almost to well up from inside my own head and pop out and around a little hale from ear to ear and then slip right back inside, breaking apart into a million pieces, these voices, and out of nowhere—and this was really out of nowhere, you see, like out of some void right there at the room’s edge—comes a giant black dog, skulking low and sniffing—” “It’s really not appro—” “at every surface, pushing his giant maw under every shoe, every chair, the table cloth, the placemats, everything, coming closer and closer, the size of a pony, smelling of meat and sweat and garbage, and he’s coming closer and closer, pushing the chairs out the way now to put his giant nose right in front of me, right over my head, and then he’s opening his mouth, he’s baring his teeth, his tongue dangling loosely over my hair like the floppy flaps in a car wash, and I hear a rumbling coming from the pit of his stomach, and then a heaving, a heavy, hollow, heaving pushing right up out of from his belly and through his chest, and my hands are bound by my sides with some invisible force—I was a worm, in fact, my hands and feet were no longer separate dangles but all one body, one worm-body, so I’m totally helpless beneath this table, this music, these people, this dog, and just as I’m sure he’s going to vomit all over my head, what comes out of his mouth, but a giant football. And I knew right then and there just what I had to—” “CHAZ! Chaz, listen to me here. Are you okay? You look faint. Would you like me to get you a doctor?” “I ate it.” “Ate what? You really should drink some water and maybe get some sleep. You look as white as a—” “The vomit football.” “. . .” “In the vision, I wiggled up like a worm and ate it.” “Chaz, this is hardly the time.” “I used my tongue to scoop it up and once it was in my throat it just dissolved—” “We’re just seconds away from the start of this round’s match—” “and I felt a great calm.” “—between the Bosnians and the Iranians for the chance to take on Honduras in the semi—” “I was like a child again.” “—finals, the chance of a lifetime to play for country—” “Like a little boy hiding.” “—people—” “Like a little coward, ha ha!” “—and literature.” “There I was, a worm under a dog beneath a table inside a dream, munching on a football!” “And the match starts, with The Colonel taking possess—“ “Let me just get down here on the ground and replay the scene. Would you kindly hold my pants?” “Chaz, no!”
Bosnia-Herzegovina: 1 — Iran: 0
Hal Hlavinka recently moved from Chicago to New York to take over as the events coordinator at Powerhouse Arena. As a result, he sends out approximately 500 email announcements a day.
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.
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