A Subversive Classic
1 July 2011
At nearly 73 years of age, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is one of the most famous Iranian novelists. Some critics have even praised him as Iran’s Tolstoy, Balzac, or Kafka. In truth, every writer holds his own special position in the literary world, contrary to the tense world of politics to which only a few are invited. Everyone can build a mansion in this boundless realm—in the eternal land of literature. A mansion where the basic component is words—the most glorious phenomenon that human being created and God spoke with: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). And every mansion is constructed by the demanding distress, thought and art of an artist. It is like scraping out Cafcuh Mountain with a needle in order to erect a tall building that “the wind and the rain cannot harm.”
Once, I was talking to Tayeb Salih in a café on the fifth floor of Waterstones in Piccadilly, London. I asked him why he had not written another novel as great as his Season of Migration to the North? Or why was he not going to write one? “Actually, let me tell you the truth,” he replied as his wide black eyes glittered as velvet. “I couldn’t and I can’t. Every writer in the world of literature can have one everlasting mansion. Mine is Season of Migration to the North. The mansion of Khayyam is his Rubaiyat. It’s barely ten pages long; but it’s a mansion made of diamonds built on a pinnacle.”
In the realm of Persian language and literature, Dowlatabadi has built up many mansions, including his ever-streaming, 10-volume novel, Kelidar. Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel has a different color and scent though. It is a vivid demonstration of a petrifying or fearsome realism—precisely like how Mo Yan’s realistic approach was construed by the Nobel Foundation that granted him the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel was originally written in Persian between the years of 1983 and 1985 under the title of The Downfall of Colonel. Those years in Iran had two determining characteristics: the Iran-Iraq War, and suppression of various political parties, including the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MKO), the Tudeh Party, the Iranian People’s Fadaian, the National Front, the Freedom Movement, and many others—a milieu of suppression, terror and distress. This feeling of fear and distress would be heightened for anyone willing to be a social or political activist.
During those years, Dowlatabadi did not submit The Colonel to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to obtain a publishing permit. He did not send it even when I was in office there. I never knew the existence of such a novel. In the last month of my term as the minister, Dowlatabadi called and told me he was not sure if he should submit The Aged People: Volume III for a publishing permit. He had some concerns that his new book might cause me new troubles and would give them a pretext to fuel another controversy against me. “Send it quickly. I’m about to finish my term. I’ll be out within the next two or three weeks,” I suggested to him. He submitted the novel, and the publishing permit was granted.
But The Colonel was still unpublished—and remained so for years. Within Soviet literature there are a few similar cases. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote his masterpiece novel, The Master and Margarita, discreetly and kept it secret for life; it was published posthumously.
The protagonist of The Colonel has a strange catch phrase. He constantly tells himself never to be surprised by anything: “I have been trying for a while not to become surprised by seeing any incident and hearing anything. I must not wonder.” (The Decline of Colonel, typed, unpublished manuscript)
This theme is elaborated later again in the novel; but the next time it is the narrator who recounts the Colonel’s denial of surprise:
That way the Colonel wondered how he had seen and understood the possibility that the most bizarre surprises could happen; that human being has been created to fulfill a life with such bizarre experiences, and then die with surprised, opened eyes, and be proud of never being surprised by any incident during his whole life.”
That The Colonel has been published in three European languages—German, English and French—and continues to be banned from being published in its original language in Iran, I would argue, is a wonder one should not be too surprised by.
Traditionally, Persian literature has been known to conceal words and be concerned about the consequences of disseminating them. The famous Persian national epic poet Ferdowsi says, “I have concealed the words,” and, “I have reserved the words for 20 years.”
As did Dowlatabadi. The Colonel, in the author’s own words, was left in Dowlatabadi’s desk drawer, saved for a future chance to breathe. As Hafez said:
O heart! It may be that the door of the wine-houses, they will open
The knot (of difficulty) of our entangled work they will open
If, for the sake of the Zahid’s heart, self-seeing, they closed the door
Strong, keep the heart; for, for the sake of God, they will open.
This opening is yet to come for The Colonel, which has been waiting five years to be published. When I was reading the English translation, based on our old friendship and my acquaintance with the works and art of Dowlatabadi, my ears were relentlessly seeking the novel’s original voice in Persian. Exactly like when one reads Quranic verses in English, and then you remember and whisper the original ones in Arabic. When I was reading the novel in English, I realized that nonstop doubts and equivocality casted upon my mind: that the intention of Dowlatabadi has to be something else. I was avidly waiting to read the original text.
Dowlatabadi arrived in London in October and lectured the readers and admirers of The Colonel at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He did not have the original text with him. He was going to Germany to meet his son Siavash. I told him I would come to Dusseldorf and read the novel there. I went and read the novel twice. An opportunity to have a dialogue with Dowlatabadi also arose: one of those unforgettable opportunities that hardly come by.
The theme of novel is the same distress and fear that persist after every revolution, in the midst of war, or during suppression. And a writer like Dowlatabadi has recorded this distress forever—like the distress that Mikhail Bulgakov put into his lasting account. Bulgakov even once burnt his first draft of the novel. He used to sit in seclusion and be distressed. Undoubtedly, his novel is the true identifier of Stalin’s era.
Dowlatabadi had reserved a room for me at the Reinacherhof Hotel near Siavash’s house. It was late at night when I arrived in my room and read the novel in its entirety by the next day. With the emerging distress in my mind, of course, my tongue became bitter. At times, being driven by the flames of a headache in the back of my head and above my eye, I would put the novel aside and close my eyes. But in a short while, I would be woken up suddenly with fear. A strange similarity exists between Dowlatabadi and Nobel Prize laureate Mo Yan. Both speak of petrifying realities inside and outside people’s lives.
The Colonel may be familiar for every Iranian reader: the youth being imprisoned and then tortured, a young girl that is executed, the intelligence and security officers who break into a house and even sleep there. The setting is very similar to Kafka’s The Trial and those officers who in the beginning of novel are first encountered standing beside Mr. K.’s bed. The feeling of fear never abandons the Colonel—it is a strong shadow that always follows him: “The feeling of fear; you fear that you are being watched. You feel that and you wonder how this exhausting feeling has shaped up in you – that you constantly feel a few feet and a few eyes are after you like that they have nothing to do but to follow you!”
This tiresome and destructive feeling is extremely close and tangible. You are no longer reading a novel for fun. You are the listener of an account that speaks of deep lives of people and yourself. The Iranian prominent poet Ahmad Shamloo composed a poem entitled Today’s Poem:
The subject of today’s poem
Is a different subject
Today’s poem is the battle of people
Because poets are themselves a branch of the people’s forest
And no longer the jasmine and hyacinth of that lord’s house.
In other words, The Colonel is not like Sadegh Hedayat’s Blind Owl, which was indeed written for highbrow intellectuals. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a similar, sophisticated novel of this type, one that is still a sealed secret and an unopened citadel for the masses.
The Colonel is an account of people living in a society under the pretense of heavy security. In fact, it cannot be called life, but rather a gradual death. The protagonist character, the Colonel, can be interpreted from three aspects: First, the Colonel’s hero in life is Colonel Mohammad Taghi Khan Pessian. His name is Colonel too. Shrewdly, no one else called Colonel can be found in the novel. It is this title that weighs upon him and identifies him. One of his sons is also named Mohammad Taghi. He is a revolutionary fighter, has previously fought against the Shah, was imprisoned, and was later freed on the eve of Iranian Revolution.
By choosing this name, in fact, the Colonel has shown his fidelity to the great Colonel (Pessian). The Colonel is also fond of the Qajar vizier Amir Kabir’s character. The name of his elder son is Amir, and he attempts to build a statue of Amir Kabir throughout the novel.
Second, the Colonel maintains a soldierly (sarbäzi in Persian) identity for himself: the honor of being soldier (sarbäz). Note the underlying structure of the word sarbäz: sar [head] + bäz [lose]. He is ready to hand in his head to defend his personal, family and national honor.
Incidentally, the very same interpretation of the soldierly honor has survived the 1979 Revolution with minor changes, in the Code of Conduct of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Army: “I give precedence to uphold the soldierly honor and esteem of and Islamic ethics in my life.” (Article 14, Clause D) It is to abide by this soldierly honor that the Colonel, who is emotionally devastated by events, blacks out and while drunk cuts his wife’s artery before Amir’s eyes.
Third, the Colonel’s attachments and symbols are three things: the large picture of Colonel Pessian on the heater in the dining room, a dagger he has hung on the wall, alluding to the dagger of Colonel Pessian in the picture, and a setar mounted on the wall and covered with years of dust.
Throughout the novel, we can observe the relation of the Colonel with these symbols, that his soldierly identity, and the bitter, terrifying finale involving his children. The Colonel observes family, home, honor and history—right up to his glorious suicide, resembling Ariobarzanes’s suicide. The Colonel kills himself, cutting his artery with the sharp blade of dagger; but in his suicide aims to defeat death and humiliation. The ending of the novel stands like an everlasting picture before us:
After that rainless night, in the darkness of the desolate narrow backstreets through which reverberated the repeated sound of a plectrum plucking an old setar, it was being tattled amongst the people of street and bazaar that a man had been seen roaming with a lantern in his hand, reciting in the dead of night:
If you see a chopped head on your way
That is reeling towards our ground freewheeling
From him, from him, ask how we are feeling
From him, you can hear our hidden secret revealing.