The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

Gosh, this book is grim. It starts with the colonel being summoned from his house in the middle of a rainy night to collect the tortured body of his daughter from the secret police, and he is told to bury her before daybreak to avoid any kind of attention.

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The story of that night and the following day is combined with flashbacks, and we learn of one child after another lost to violence: being tortured by the Shah’s regime or the Islamic Republic, or dying in the Iran/Iraq War. Each of his children belongs to, and represents, a different political movement: different flavours of communism and Islamism. But they all fall foul of the government sooner or later, as the political tides change. Except, I guess, for the one who dies in the war, who is celebrated as a martyr — but is no less dead.

I don’t know enough about the politics of Iran in the 70s and 80s, so the historically specific detail is lost on me, but it still works as a portrayal of a country suffering political turmoil and violent repression. Certainly an effective novel, if not an enjoyable one.

» The photo is of ‘the acoustic ceiling of the rooftop music room of the Ali Qapu Palace in Isfahan, Iran’. Not particularly thematically apt, but it’s a nice picture. © David Stanley and used under a CC-by licence.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel* about growing up in Iran. I think it might be the first graphic novel I’ve read — certainly the first critically acclaimed one. So I’ve sort of been wondering what it does or doesn’t gain from being drawn as well as written… and haven’t really reached a conclusion.

So first things first: it certainly does work. It’s a vivid portrayal of day-to-day experience, initially under the Shah but mainly after the Islamic revolution, and including a period of living away from her family in Europe. Politics and religion are inescapable and a constant presence, but it is full of the intimate details of everyday life: the music, the clothes, family, flirtation, and all the little ways that they try to accommodate or avoid the regime. The narrative is unsurprisingly full of tragic events, but it is also funny and honest.

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But what the format brings to it; well, this book has a kind of directness. The pictures are very simple, cartoonish rather than any attempt at visual realism, and the quantity of text is relatively limited compared to what you would have in a prose memoir. So the overall effect is a very direct, stripped-down quality. I guess you might call it a naive style. Of course, that’s a quality of this book in particular rather than due to the graphic format.

Anyway, well worth reading.

* i.e. it’s an autobiography in comic strip form. I suppose by the logic of the terminology, that makes it a graphic autobiography. But that sounds confusing as well. *shrug*

My Father’s Notebook by Kader Abdolah

Kader Abdolah left Iran as a political refugee, having been part of a leftist political party that opposed first the Shah and then the ayatollahs. He has lived in the Netherlands since 1988 and My Father’s Notebook is actually a translation (by Susan Massotty) from Dutch. Despite that, I’m counting it for Iran for the Read The World challenge.

The story is narrated by a Iranian political refugee living in the Netherlands, who tells the story of his father, a deaf-mute carpet mender, over the period that includes the coming of the Shahs and the Islamic revolution. I guess we have to assume that there is an element of autobiography here, but I have no idea how much. The book combines a nostalgia for an apparently simpler time, before the politics of Iran got so messy, with a portrayal of a family, and particularly a father-son relationship, caught up in dangerous politics.

I found it weirdly insubstantial. I whipped through it in a couple of days, and found it likeable enough, but not much more than that. Easy to read, easy to forget. It has a kind of sub-magical realism thing going on: not much actual magic, but a certain dwelling on the colourful and peculiar. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t particularly grab me. Or perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood.

» The image, ‘Some Iranian patterns…’, is © François Bouchet and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

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