An Iranian Storyteller’s Personal Revolution
July 1, 2012
By LARRY ROHTER
After being arrested in 1974 by the Savak, the shah’s secret police, the Iranian writer Mahmoud Dowlatabadi asked his interrogators just what crime he had committed. “None,” he recalled them responding, “but everyone we arrest seems to have copies of your novels, so that makes you provocative to revolutionaries.”
Since then Iran has, of course, experienced an Islamic revolution and three decades of theocratic rule, and Mr. Dowlatabadi, now 71, has gone on to write numerous other books, including “The Colonel,” which has just been published in the United States. But one thing remains unchanged: Those in power in Iran continue to regard him and his work as subversive.
“As a writer I embarked on a path of creating epic narratives of my country, which necessarily contain a lot of history which has not been written,” Mr. Dowlatabadi said, weighing his words carefully in an interview during a visit to New York this spring for the PEN World Voices Festival of international literature. “But in doing that I have been required to have lots of patience, perseverance and very few expectations from life.”
“The Colonel,” a novel about the 1979 revolution and its violent aftermath, is a case in point. The five children of the title character, an officer in the shah’s army, have all taken different political paths and paid a heavy price. The story unfolds on one rainy night as the colonel is trying to retrieve and bury the body of his youngest daughter, who has been tortured to death for handing out leaflets criticizing the new regime.
“It’s about time everyone even remotely interested in Iran read this novel,” The Independent of London said in a review when “The Colonel” was published in Britain last fall, describing it as a powerful portrayal of “a society ravaged by a warped morality.”
The novel was written in the early 1980s, around the time of the events it describes, when prominent intellectuals were being executed, and Mr. Dowlatabadi was called in for questioning. “I hid it in a drawer when I finished,” said Mr. Dowlatabadi (pronounced dow-LOT-a-body), fearing it would lead to his being blacklisted, which would have interfered with other projects he had in mind, including what became a much-praised three-volume work called “Bygone Days of the Elderly.”
“I did not want even to have this on their radar,” he said, referring to “The Colonel.” “Either they would take me to prison or prevent me from working. They would have their ways. After I wrote this, but when they still didn’t know I had written it, they gave me a warning that I shouldn’t teach at the university anymore, that I should just sit at home and keep quiet. That was fine with me because I could start to write the other book, the three volumes.”
As a result “The Colonel,” though available in English and German, does not yet exist in an authorized Persian-language version. Mr. Dowlatabadi said he finally submitted the manuscript three years ago to censors at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which must approve all books before publication in Iran, but received no response until Iranian readers heard about the book and began clamoring for access to it.
“Finally the vice chairman of books in the ministry read it,” Mr. Dowlatabadi said, “and under pressure responded: ‘Yes, it’s a good book. But it’s a different account of the revolution.’ He said, ‘This is not our understanding of how the revolution occurred.’ So I said, ‘But it is my understanding of what occurred.’ In the meantime they didn’t say yes, and they didn’t say no. So it’s still stuck.”
Among Iranians Mr. Dowlatabadi is probably best known for “Kelidar,” a 10-book, 3,000-page saga about a nomadic Kurdish family. The authoritative Encyclopaedia Iranica has praised “Kelidar” for its “heroic, lyrical and sensual language” and attributed its “immense popularity” to Mr. Dowlatabadi’s detailed portrayal of political and social upheaval, his trademark as a novelist.
“Mahmoud has always had a commitment to social issues, but couldn’t accept the simplistic moralistic framework predominant in socialist realism,” said Kamran Rastegar, a professor of Middle Eastern languages and cultures at Tufts University who has translated some of Mr. Dowlatabadi’s work. “Instead he tried to examine the complexities and moral ambiguities of the experience of the poor and forgotten, mixing the brutality of that world with the lyricism of the Persian language.”
Despite Mr. Dowlatabadi’s renown at home “The Colonel” is only the second of his novels to appear in the United States. The first, “Missing Soluch,” conceived during the nearly three years he spent in prison under the shah and then written in a feverish 70-day burst after his release in 1976, was published in 2007. Like the bulk of his work before “The Colonel,” it is about country life — in this case a poor peasant woman in an isolated village who struggles to hold her family together after her husband mysteriously disappears.
That rural realm is one that Mr. Dowlatabadi, who has a steely gaze, a smoker’s cough and a prominent white mustache, knows intimately. He was born into a family of farmers in Khorasan, an arid northeastern province bordering Afghanistan, and as a youngster worked in the fields alongside his father, also chopping wood and hauling melons to market.
Even then he was an avid reader, curious about the outside world. “I would read on the roof of the house with a lamp,” he recalled. “I read ‘War and Peace’ that way.” At 14, with his father’s encouragement, he left for his province’s capital and ultimately for Tehran, working as a shoemaker, barber, bicycle repairman, street barker, cotton picker and cinema ticket taker before falling in with a theater troupe and becoming an actor.
Asked if he took menial jobs to gather material for the books he hoped to write, he said, “No, I was trying to earn a living.” In the end it was the theater work, along with some incursions into journalism, that pushed him into writing novels and screenplays. That experience also brought him to the attention of the secret police, since the troupe’s repertory included works by Brecht and Arthur Miller.
“He has an incredible memory of folklore, which might come from his days as an actor or might come from his origins, as somebody who didn’t have a formal education, who learned things by memorizing the local poetry and hearing the local stories,” said Nahid Mozaffari, who is an editor of “Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature” and has taught at New York University. “That’s an unusual trajectory for a writer in Iran, where most writers are middle-class urban educated people. He’s really different.”
To have “The Colonel” published in Persian, Mr. Dowlatabadi could theoretically turn to one of the émigré presses that flourish in Europe and California, or even, if he were so disposed, authorize a kind of samizdat edition for circulation in Iran. But he said he did not want to do that, preferring to adhere to legal channels, frustrating though that may be.
“My philosophy, my way of working, is not by confrontation,” he said. “I want to keep writing and keep being an Iranian novelist in Iran, so therefore I do not have confrontations.”
Yes, he continued, “I have written things that if you read them they create questions in your head,” but he added: “I did not do it confrontationally, against the state. In fact it’s a good thing for the regime — past, present and future — to have the experience of writers who work within the system. This has to be an established norm or practice in our country: that people who have different opinions can rationally disagree. It shouldn’t be that I want to kill you, I want to confront you or I want to leave.”
© 2011 The New York Times Company
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