Long before Ayatollah Khomeini hijacked the Iranian revolution in the name of Islam and silenced the country’s diverse socialist and nationalist voices, a group of poets, revolutionary activists, and other intellectuals—including Simin Daneshvar, Gholamhossein Saedi, Houshang Golshiri, and Mehdi Akhavan Sales—stirred up a collective crowd of sixty-two thousand people during an event now known as “Ten Nights of Poetry.” Their poems and speeches spoke directly to the concerns of a diverse, educated, and politically engaged population that had become increasingly furious with its dictatorial monarch. This revolutionary event was not reducible to a single ideology, whether Islam, secularism, Trotskyism, or Leninism. Defined instead by the sheer force of language itself, the polyphonic gathering was a critical factor leading to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s eventual departure and illustrates the influence and power Iranian artists, particularly writers, command to this day.
Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Ben Affleck’s Argo have popularized the misconception that a culturally-empty or “backwards” Iran burst from a void into the global community during the late 1970s. Too many non-Iranians and Iranians alike interpret the 1979 revolution as a duel between Khomeini and the Shah, pigeonholing the nation’s citizens and diaspora community as either “traditional” Islamists or fervently “modern.” Such myopic analyses, all of which depend on the reductive binary of “East” and “West,” erase the realities of a complex culture and history which, like every nation’s, is a dense and delicate web comprised of both contradictory and harmonious elements.
Perhaps most damaging of all, these views ignore a literary tradition thriving for a millennium, not least because Persian (unlike English, French, and countless other languages) has remained relatively unchanged for more than one thousand years. Schoolchildren and their grandparents alike read the Classical Persian poems of Rumi and Hafez just as easily as twentieth-century works by Nima Yushij and Forogh Farrokhzad. This wealth of literature continuously pulses through the minds of Iranians, the lines of Ferdowsi’s national epic Shahnameh and Ahmad Shamlu’s modernist verse foundational to their readers’ consciousness and key factors in shaping their moral, ethical, political, and religious convictions. To this point, Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi passionately argues in Iran: A People Interrupted that “what holds Iranians together is a literary humanism that by its very nature is diffused, disperse, disparate, and itinerant. The common denominator of Iranians is the literary sublimation of their deepest political differences.”
While naïve and blind in many respects, the Islamic Republic’s government understands the historic revolutionary potency of the nation’s writers. Though countless artists have ingeniously maneuvered their way around the censors during the past thirty-five years (director Jafar Panahi’s 2012 This Is Not a Film being a recent acclaimed example), it still comes as little surprise that Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Iran’s preeminent literary voice, awaits the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s approval for the publication of his novel, The Colonel.
But if this work, edited for nearly thirty years in concealment since its genesis as a nightmare the author experienced in 1983 during the Iran-Iraq war, remains unpublished in Iran (where Dowlatabadi still lives), how does it exist in an English translation? This incongruity illuminates just one of countless paradoxes involving The Colonel, which even three decades after its initial composition remains at once arresting, overwhelming, and an utterly captivating tour de force.
That Dowlatabadi has little resonance with an English readership is not exceptional. Aside from Rumi’s thirteenth-century Sufi-inspired poetry and Sadeq Hedayat’s 1937 phantasmagoric The Blind Owl (the most important work of Modernist Persian prose), Persian-to-English literary translations have gained little popular or critical attention and barely fill a small bookshelf.
One of these titles is Missing Soluch, currently Dowlatabadi’s only other long-form work translated into English. Written in 1979 and translated in 2007, this realist novel tells the story of Mergan and her children as they struggle to survive in a small village after the unexplained departure of the family’s patriarch. Raised in such a village himself, Dowlatabadi writes extensively about Iran’s rural communities, remaining intimate without romanticizing his characters:
[Mergan’s] jaws were prominent, and when she bit down, her teeth were visible beneath the skin. In essence, the flesh on Mergan’s face had melted away, and it was as if nothing lay beneath the skin itself. Taut skin drawn over rough, persistent bones, with visible inclines and peaks. Despite all this, her eyes were beautiful. Sorrowful and beautiful. Although deeply set, her gaze had a certain brilliance. And although her bones seemed poured into her skin, her stature was not broken. She stood straight and tall.
Born in 1940 in Iran’s northeastern province of Khorasan, Dowlatabadi’s experiences throughout his youth were wide-ranging: shoemaker, cotton picker, nail-straightener, cinema-ticket taker; the list goes on. During this time, his literary voice matured under the combined influence of his father’s speech, infused with the language of Khorasani Classical poets like Ferdowsi and Attar (author of The Conference of the Birds), and a myriad of books, translations from Russian in particular, that he devoured at school. Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gogol, and Tolstoy, in addition to translations of American and British literature, were paramount to his artistic growth, a process which only intensified after he became a prominent member of Tehran’s theater community.
During the 1960s and ’70s, he performed works by Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, Brecht, and numerous Iranian playwrights, even procuring a role in a film pivotal to Iran’s rich cinematic history: Daryush Mehrju’i’s The Cow (1969). His writing never ceased though, and over the course of fifteen years, he produced his magnum opus: a three-thousand-page, ten-volume novel entitled Klidar. This epic saga of a Kurdish family, as well as his other pieces, inevitably caught the attention of SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, who threw him in jail (for reasons even they had trouble explaining to him at the time) from 1977 to 1979. Immediately after prison, he penned Missing Soluch, which he says came to him all at once during his incarceration. Four years later, The Colonel emerged in a similar, though more distressing, manner.
Unlike the majority of Dowlatabadi’s oeuvre, The Colonel has no explicit interest in rural life. Reminiscent of Hamlet’s haunting opening line—“Who’s there?”—its origin was the image of someone knocking at the door in the middle of the night. This very real concern no doubt arose, at least in part, from the author’s imprisonment as well as the collective trauma of the ongoing Iran-Iraq war. That the leftist-nationalist Dowlatabadi had recently become deeply pessimistic regarding the oppressive aftermath of the 1979 revolution could only have made matters worse.
The door in question opens into the house of an unnamed colonel; the uninvited guests are two policemen who will accompany this officer to collect and bury his recently executed daughter.
Knock away, knock, keep on knocking, whoever you are! It’s been years since I’ve heard any good news and I’m certainly not expecting any now, at this ungodly hour of the night. Let’s see now, if this old clock is right, it must be about half past three in the morning, and just look at all the fog on that cracked old window . . . Knock, knock, my friends. Knock hard enough to wake the dead in their graves. But I am not going to take a single step out in to the yard before I’ve put my raincoat over my head and my galoshes on my feet. You can see for yourself that the rain is coming down in buckets.
The dead, in many ways, do indeed awaken throughout the course of a narrative which takes place over one rain-filled evening interrupted by a disorienting series of flashbacks, hellish nightmares, and horrific visions. And even from the very beginning, the colonel’s unflinching stubbornness shines, this character trait his flawed emulation of the work’s other, equally important, colonel: Muhammad-Taqi Khan Pessyan.
Translator Tom Patterdale (whose impeccable notes fill this edition) writes that “the Persian for ‘colonel’ is sarhang, but there was one colonel who [Iranians have] always known as Kolonel” (likely spelled here with a K to indicate the nickname’s French pronunciation in Iran). Given this appellation because of his military training in Germany, Pessyan led Iranian forces during World War I, after which he became the leader of Khorasan’s gendarmerie. In 1921, his firm nationalist sentiments clashed with prime minister Ahmad Qavam’s policies, but all attempts to organize a coup against Tehran’s government failed. Eventually, Qavam and then-minister of war Reza Khan (later Reza Shah Pahlavi) captured and beheaded Pessyan, making him a nationalist hero to this day. With a photograph of Pessyan on the unnamed colonel’s mantle bearing witness to the latter’s every move, Dowlatabadi creates a narrative space in which the two men mirror each other constantly. So we read of one victim of a tumultuous period in Iranian history bursting into and haunting another soldier plagued by violence and confusion.
The agonizing chaos occurring outside Dowlatabadi’s own door finds its formal manifestation in the novel’s fragmentary structure. Amidst constant textual breaks between flashbacks and hallucinations, time periods can only be ascertained by determining which characters are alive or dead within a particular section. That being said, this complex form holds together a relatively simple plot: a father, tormented by his and his country’s past, buries two of his children; struggling to cope with the suffering that consumes the living members of his family, he spirals steadily into deeper depths of despair.
What could I have done? What should I have done? There was nothing, nothing that I could have done . . . The revolution carried my children off and I have no idea at what point any of them got burned, or may still be burning, for that matter. We should feel sorry for our immediate neighbors, our fellow townsmen and fellow countrymen, if any of their young men should come back from the edge of immolation only half-burned, if they descend from that height only to discover the truth they have found is nothing but specious doctrine and bogus ideology . . . Then this glowing, molten wreck turns into a stream of raging fire.
The colonel’s relentless turmoil is detailed in these sporadic interior monologues, some of which break violently through the surrounding narration. But within this story of a father’s agony, Dowlatabadi deftly weaves many of Iran’s political clashes into the microcosm of his family. Its members serve as allegorical figures representing competing ideologies which, in many ways, have torn not just individuals but Iran itself asunder.
The oldest son, Amir, was an active member of the communist Tudeh Party (many members of which Khomeini viciously executed regardless of their alliance with him during the revolution) who now isolates himself in his father’s basement, “shriveling up and growing old in front of [the colonel’s] very eyes”; Muhammad-Taqi (named after Pessyan) died fighting for the revolutionary cause but is now shamed by many because of his membership in the anti-Islamist and leftist Fedayan-e Khalq; Masoud, a Khomeini supporter, is killed during the Iran-Iraq war and receives a martyr’s reception upon his body’s return; Parvaneh, whose death is announced at the novel’s opening, was hanged while still a young girl because she allied with the Iraq-supporting Islamist group Mojahedin-e Khalq; Farzaneh, the eldest daughter, remains alive, but like Amir, hers is a living-death in which she lies “already buried in her husband’s house,” trapped in a marriage to a convictionless man who flatters whichever regime holds power.
“A young mind hungers for new ideas and, as a father, I had no right not to respond to that perfectly reasonable need. What else keeps a nation alive?” This is what the colonel wonders while grappling with the tensions coursing through the fabric of his family. Horrific pain arises from his choices, but he ultimately has no regret for any of his actions, least of all those which facilitated the political divisions between himself and his five children. To him, their collective tragedy is an unintended but not condemnable consequence of freedom and education.
The centrality of trauma to the novel cannot be ignored. Born out of a historico-personal trauma of a writer released from prison into the midst of a revolutionary fervor that was quickly followed by a barbaric war, The Colonel is “an unwanted child” to Dowlatabadi. Without purging it, he says he could not continue writing. And so numerous traumas, past as much as present, experienced by the Iranian people emanate from every page and in turn make the work itself traumatic: the colonel sees his wife’s ghost, “her white hair and red eyes” resembling those of a demon from Gothic horror, “washing Parvaneh’s thin, frail body with tears of blood . . . her skinny arms and hands drenched in translucent blood, moving over the newly ripening body of their daughter”; Amir is plagued by visions of a madman “pissing blood into my eyes . . . [making me choke while] I was forced to look at his cock which he had sliced up with a razor blade”; a ghastly and ghostly procession of martyrs executed by their government takes place during which men like Amir Kabir (prime minister from 1848–1851 and “widely regarded and revered as the founder of modern Iran”) and Pessyan “[march] out of sight, each one holding his head under his arm. Their old field boots [gleaming] in the light of the street shrines erected in memory of their sons, and in the light of the flame that was The Colonel’s [Pessayn’s] head, held high above them all.” Such stark prose embedded in the novel’s knotted structure demands an unrelenting hyperawareness from the reader, each sentence raising tensions as the words and images become increasingly undigestible.
Despite my continued stress on Iranian literary and political history, addressing The Colonel’s “Iranianness” could so easily devolve into vapid Orientalist claims situating Dowlatabadi into a realm far away from any meaningful discussion of the text for what it primarily is: a literary object. Labeling The Colonel as “an Iranian novel” rather than simply “a novel written by an Iranian” more often than not belies a type of separation frequently performed when speaking about art (or anything, for that matter) from “elsewhere.” It absurdly suggests that art cannot be appreciated or understood without a specific set of knowledge, as if no work affects an emotional response outside the country or language in which it was originally produced.
The Colonel’s production history alone makes such othering preposterous. Though Dowlabatadi has authorized numerous translations (Patterdale’s included), he strongly supports the tradition that all literature published in Persian, including his own, should be published in Iran or not at all. As a result, few have read Dowlatabadi’s own prose. The rest of us, in the case of English, must remember that we can only speak about Tom Patterdale’s novel, a translation of Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Zaval-e Kolonel (the literal translation of which is “The Downfall of the Colonel”).
Whenever reading translated works, we tackle the paradox of communing with an author’s voice while remaining eternally separate from it; the (first) writer is both present and absent in this echo of the original. A good translation uniquely illuminates the language and consciousness of its own readership rather than attempting to copy the ephemeral essence of the original, as that goal will always end in failure.
The Colonel is not a platform through which Dowlatabadi explicitly tells his Iranian readers about their tumultuous history. Rather, the novel is a work of art born from within that very history. We must resist reading it as didactic; this translation is not an education lesson about Iran, its people, or the 1979 revolution precisely because such content never existed for Patterdale to translate in the first place.
Although martyrs of Iran’s past as well as allusions to Persian literature uniquely affect Iranian readers, those of us without a relationship to them would do better to focus on their other functions within the narrative. Like Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel is overstuffed with references to Persian myths (Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh in particular) but neither work requires that its readers know a thing about these stories. While these allusions always remain references to Persian culture, they also act as means by which fixed notions of identity and time unravel. Building on the flashbacks to both recent and distant historical periods, references to Ferdowsi’s epic introduce a mythic time into The Colonel’s structure. Amir, for example, mirrors his father and the historical figure Amir Kabir while also metaphorically reflecting the legendary prince Siyavash by virtue of his experiences. A similar triadic relationship can be made between the colonel, Pessyan, and Shaghad (another character in the Shahnameh). As the lines separating these figures blur, the distinctions between them collapse. Simultaneously, the linear concept of time evaporates due to this fusion of past, present, and mythic temporalities.
Only man’s mortality remains concrete within this narrative situated in a specific time and place and also no time and no place at all. In this way, Dowlatabadi and Beckett (whose Waiting for Godot has been popular in Tehran for decades) speak a similar language. The horrors of war left a lasting mark on both men, and in their writing, they don’t retreat from the viscera of reality. “Like a drowned rat,” the aging colonel resembles a Beckettian tramp pushing through torrential rain, “his coat tails sagg[ing] even further with the weight of water they had taken up” as he searches for a pick and shovel with which to dig his own daughter’s grave. Also crawling through the mud, the similarly unnamed narrator of Beckett’s How It Is echoes the colonel’s thoughts: “other certainties the mud the dark I recapitulate the sack the tins the mud the dark the silence the solitude nothing else for the moment.” For neither writer are these words suggestive of any metaphor; their cold and palpable meaning is present on the surface of the text. In Dowlatabadi’s case, descriptions of the smell of “blood and guts” emanating from Parvaneh’s coffin and Amir’s nightmare of “wounds gradually turn[ing] into pus-filled scabs, which grow larger and larger” are, quite simply, signs of the rotting flesh of children eaten by their own revolution.
Yet within this near-constant evisceration of post-revolutionary Iran, Dowlatabadi maintains hope for the future, an optimism which finds its most consistent and potent expression in the ellipses dotting nearly every page. As read in the colonel’s final thought—“Now, have I turned on all the lights in the house? Yes, I have . . .”—this punctuation mark is a radical emancipatory gesture that conveys the unsayable and untranslatable as well as words merely waiting for a voice to speak them; it allows us to glimpse the unknown, these dots a trace signaling what might one day appear. As an actor, Dowlatabadi undoubtedly appreciates the many textures of silence, and silence often reveals far more potent truths than any utterance. Unlike the violent caesura of a period, an ellipsis signals a decrescendo, its content perpetually fading deep into the recesses of a reader’s mind. Perhaps the government censors fear the silent and unstoppable content of these marks far more than any words surrounding them?
A bitter suicide note near the novel’s conclusion reads:
If those who are to come were to take the time to pass judgment on the past, in all likelihood they would say: ‘Our forefathers were powerful and impressive men, who sacrificed themselves to the great lie in which they fervently believed and which they spread. And the moment they began to doubt their beliefs, it was off with their heads!’
But unlike countless governments seem to believe, an idea never dies with the body. Like an ellipsis, it trails off into the future, waiting for a time in which it might sound again. Out of the rubble, Dowlatabadi looks forward to this possibility, and with three little dots, his novel, and the world in which it resides, open toward an unknowable future . . .
Charles Shafaieh is a freelance journalist specializing in cultural criticism. A graduate of Columbia University, he has written for Slate, The Daily Beast and Public Books.