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
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