January 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: A God In Every Stone: A Novel
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London (2014) / Atavist Books
ISBN: 978 1 9378 9430 6
The city of Peshawar is located in Pakistan, 59.1 kilometers (approximately 36 miles) from the Torkham-Border Crossing into Afghanistan. It is at the end of the Khyber Pass which cuts through the Spin Ghar mountain range and connects the two nations. Until 1947 it was a part of British India. Go back even farther, c. 515 B.C., and the Persian Empire claimed the city. Kamila Shamsie layers over two thousand years of Peshawar’s history into her novel: A God In Every Stone – by setting it in the period between WWI and the Partition of British India and by using the Persian Empire -(and the tale of Scylax, a hero who betrayed his king) to bookend her story.
It’s an ambitious novel. Vivian Rose Spencer is sent by her father to his old friend, Tahsin Bey, to take part in an archeological dig in the Labraunda region (located in modern day Turkey). It is 1914. For Vivian the trip is marked by a series of firsts – first adventure away from home, first taste of independence, first archeological discovery & first love. Tahsin Bey, the man who will be the great love of Vivian Rose’s life, tells her the story of Scylax of Caryanda. A sea Captain and Ancient Greek Historian, he is mentioned in Herodotus. In Tahsin Bey’s version of the tale the Persian King Darius I favored Scylax, the Greek explorer, and as a mark of his favor gave him a finely wrought silver crown of figs. But when Caryanda rose up against the Persians, Scylax betrayed his King and rebelled with his countrymen.* Tahsin Bey believes the crown exists and has spent his life searching for it.
And then WWI detonates and turns Labraunda into an idyllic interlude very different from everything that follows. Vivian Rose returns home to London to nurse the wounded soldiers and we are introduced to Qayyum Gul, a Pashtun soldier, who travels to France as a part of the Indian Army. He will eventually lose an eye in the Battle of Ypres and be sent home to Peshawar. Vivian Rose, traumatized by the carnage of war she sees in the army hospital escapes back to India and archeology. These two will be bound, completely unbeknownst to them, by their affection for an engaging and intelligent boy. Qayyum’s younger brother, Najeeb, who will become Vivian Rose’s student and protegé.
For the first time she gave him her full attention – a smiling boy with excellent but oddly pronounced English, as though most of his vocabulary came from books. He was dressed more formally than the day before in narrow black trousers, a white tunic, and a white turban with a grass stain which suggested he’d been standing on his head.
They turned into another lane and Najeeb said it was the Street of Partridge Lovers, and looked startled when she laughed.
– What else? Tell me all the street names!
– The Street of Dentists. The Street of Potters. The Street of Felt Caps. The Street of Silver. The Street of Money-Changers. The Street of Coppersmiths. The Street of Englishwomen.
– The Street of Englishwomen?
– They buy and sell Englishwomen there. We will avoid it.
– Take a detour through the Street of Inventive Guides if you must.
He looked delighted to be caught out, and she found she was delighted to have been teased.
All of which is only a very small part of a larger (and, in hindsight) messier plot that also includes the Khudai Khidmatgar or“Servants of God” – the Pashtun Liberation Movement with strong ties to Gandhi’s Indian Liberation Movement – led by Ghaffar Khan. Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan were good friends and shared a common philosophy of non-violence. Qayyum will become of follower of Ghaffar Khan and a member of the Khudai Khidmatgar and Pashtun Liberation.
Against this richly layered historical backdrop Shamsie uses her characters to take a hard, unsentimental look at the relationship of two cultures interacting under the social constructs of colonialism & Empire. She accurately describes the injustice, prejudice, and inequality that existed in British India without dismissing the complexity of that relationship. She also takes an honest look at both cultures’ treatment of women. Vivian Rose’s father raises her as if he were the son he never had: “a compact early agreed on between them that she would be son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect”. He seems remarkably enlightened until we learn how he “set her right” on women getting the vote by sending her to an Anti-Suffrage League meeting. “If all women were like Ms. Bell and you, men would fall over their feet in the haste to give you the vote”. “- Are you to spend the rest of your life making up for my womb’s insistence on killing his sons?” her mother asks at a pivotal point in the sorry.
A few months later, halfway across the world, Najeeb will find his four-year-old niece looking at one of his books.
- Do you want to learn how to read?
Najeeb sat down beside her as he spoke, both of them small enough to occupy a single chair. The child nodded her head, placed her hand on the page and said, Alif, Bey, Pay. Qayyum lifted her up in his arms, away from the book, away from Najeeb’s questioning gaze, and placed her on her grandmother’s lap.
– Play with your doll, little one.
A God In Every Stone is a lush, sweeping novel; ping-ponging between Britain and India; with a larger than average cast of characters. Shamsie paints every one of them (no matter how tertiary) so vividly as to confuse her readers into believing she is writing non-fiction. Preconceptions, projection & misunderstandings shape events. From the early chapters, where a young British woman and a wounded Pashtun soldier find themselves sharing a train compartment, to the final pages in which a single Pashtun man finds himself on a rooftop with a young Pashtun lady to whom he is not related – characters misinterpret and misjudge each others intentions. Shifting, third person narratives provide an array of perspectives – men and women who understand surprisingly little about themselves or each other. Sometimes with tragic, sometimes glorious, results.
I wrote earlier that this was a messy novel. Let me clarify: A God In Every Stone is messy like a Charles Dicken’s novel is messy – crammed full of plot, description and people. Its character’s are imperfect, like those favored by E.M. Forester – committing multiple mistakes before reaching the end. So yes – I still hold Kamila Shamsie has written a messy, imperfect masterpiece. But a masterpiece nonetheless.
*Carian Heraclides of Mylasa is a work attributed to the real life Scylax. In it Heraclides revolts against the Persians (during a Carian revolt c. 492 B.C. which was supported by the Greeks).
January 2, 2015 § 2 Comments
The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature announced their shortlist on November 27th.
- The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bengali)
- The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (Indian)
- The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer (Pakistani)
- A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie (Pakistani)
- Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera (Sri Lankan born British writer)
The DSC Prize is not one I usually follow. At least not closely. Most of the books involved are written in English (as is the case with this year’s shortlist) and I’ve been focusing on translations to the exclusion of almost everything else these days. But Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog & Lisa from the ANZ LitLovers LitBlog invited me to join their 2015 Shadow Jury and I accepted, of course. They’re two of my favorites and I was honored they thought of me. It was only afterwards that I realized that I had three weeks to read five books. Then, on the week of January 15th, we will meet in a three person MMA bare knuckle cage match to determine the winner. Three bloggers and five books will enter. Only one will leave.
(Well, one blogger and one book – so that’s technically two. Only two will leave. Not as dramatic. And I probably should mention the whole MMA cage fight aspect to Stu & Lisa. I’m not sure they read the official DSC rules and guidelines for setting up shadow juries).
I’m three books in and working on a review of A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie for the weekend – and so far I am pleasantly surprised. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, it’s doubtful that I would have gotten to any of these novels without the Shadow Jury incentive. A God in Every Stone was lovely and became one of my best novels read in 2014. A gorgeous World War I tale set in England & Peshawar (now a city in Pakistan, but during the period the novel is set still a part of British India) that works on multiple levels. Beautiful writing, vivid character portraits, evocative of a sense of place and historical urgency – overall as close to flawless as it gets.
The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer was initially less satisfying because it felt disjointed, but became one of those books that brilliantly pulls itself together at the end. Described as a collection of short stories, the last fits in so neatly with the overall theme that it must have been intentional on Tanweer’s part. I just finished today and am still processing my relationship to it.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is next on deck. She’s an author I’ve been meaning to get to for years (like Zadie Smith) but never actually got to. I imagine her as someone whose work a reader either connects with or does not – without purchase between. We’ll soon see if that’s true.
The official winner of the 2015 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature will be announced on January 22nd.
December 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
Translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely
Published by Pushkin Press, London (2014)
Historical fiction is strange. We approach it with the understanding that what we are reading is and is not true. We contract with the writer to accept his (or her) interpretation of events without requiring he take on the burden of proof. The situation become even more convoluted when we deal with historical figures, versus fictional characters placed in historical settings. For better or worse, Philippa Gregory’s Boleyn sisters have supplanted the historical Ann & Mary in her reader’s minds. Personally, I prefer Hilary Mantel’s versions – but the point is that both portraits are flawed and filled with inaccuracies due to the limits of the historical records. The facts that are represented – dates, portraits, whatever written documentation remains – are true. The mannerisms, the inflections of the voice, the emotions and motivations, events that took place behind closed doors – all this information is fabricated by the author to add depth to the narrative. But it raises the question: if history is, as Voltaire said, “fables that have been agreed upon” what then, are historical fictions?
Laurent Seksik’s The Last Days attempts to understand the last days of the author Stefan Zweig and his young wife Lotte, who will kill themselves at the end of the novel.
During his lifetime Stefan Zweig was one of the most celebrated and translated authors in the world. But while he was commercially successful, he is considered by critics to have been a minor author at best. It was an opinion he accepted, perhaps even shared, showing extraordinary humility. When his books were burned by the Nazis in 1933 he is reported to have called it an honor to see them thrown into the same bonfires as the works of great men like Einstein, Freud and Mann.
The Last Days skips over most of Zweig’s life and goes straight to the year 1942. Stefan & Lotte are attempting to make a home in Petrópolis, Brazil after fleeing from Austria to England, then England to New York. Zweig is presented as a man dealing with middle age (he was 61) and – a bit like the varsity football player who peaked in high school – obsessed with the golden days of a Vienna that no longer existed.* Lotte, half his age and in awe of his celebrity, finds herself living a life of exile and self-imposed isolation that is very different from the glamorous existence she fantasized. The Last Days is a complicated novel – contemplative & thoughtfully written in a way that is uniquely French.
Andre Naffis-Sahely’s translation moves readers towards the couple’s death gently – the cadence of the writing slow and sad and achingly beautiful. Zweig seems aged past his actual years and is actively disengaging from the world. Many of his friends are dead. Those who managed to escape are pressuring him to take a political stand condemning Germany.** His world is shrinking – geographically and intellectually. Something those around him are beginning to recognize.
“It’s funny to notice how the choices you made as a writers reveal your true inner nature. Mann opted to write about Goethe, while you chose to focus on Kleist and Nietzsche. You look for a path through the darkness and wander from country to country, with neither children nor a fixed address, and now you’ve buried yourself in this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere, Meanwhile, Mann proceeds full steam ahead. Mann surrounds himself with people and protects himself. He has placed himself at the crossroads so as to watch all comings and goings, he’s the sun around which everyone else revolves. Whereas you have escaped to a place where nothing happens and have reached a point of no return. Mann is planning his reconquest of the literary world. Mann is busy building a statue to himself, while concealing his true nature. Mann will never own up to his pederastic inclinations. Mann conceals anything that might compromise his public image. Mann sees himself as peerless. Mann looks for light and finds it in Thomas Mann. On the other hand, here you are doing your utmost to disappear.”
Seksik uses Ernst Feder, as he uses everything in his novel, as an opportunity to psychoanalyze these two people. He has a hypothesis that he is working through on the page. It is fascinating to watch – though I couldn’t help wondering if reality wasn’t as tidy as he would like us to believe. Zweig’s suicide was, in fact. not entirely surprising when viewed in retrospect. He had a history of depression (something his first wife, Friderike Maria von Winternitz, confirmed in her memoir about their life together after his death) and something Seksik only alludes to.*** Lotte, in my opinion, provides much more complicated subject matter. She was hired by Friderike to act as Zweig’s secretary. They began an affair. Zweig eventually convinced Friderike to divorce him, and he and Lotte were married. She was completely devoted to the both the man and the world famous author. But Seksik is insightful enough to understand that a young wife might not have been entirely content with their life in Petrópolis. Seksik’s portrait of Lotte, his interpretation of her psyche, is fascinating and troubling at the same time. She’s a pathetic creature willing to diminish herself in return for his love, and yet there are sparks of rebellion. They amount to nothing, but their brief existence prevents the character from becoming two-dimensional.
On the whole neither Stefan or Lotte Zweig are sympathetic. They are isolated, from society and each other, by the fog of depression. Yet Seksik manages to channel that depression into a semblance of life. His characters are made of blood and bone. When husband & wife venture out with friends to celebrate Carnival Lotte wears a new red dress. In the crowds Stefan loses sight of her and Seksik describes his initial panic and his reaction when he finds her again.
He had lost hold of Lotte’s hand. He looked around frantically. The thought that she might have drowned in that human flood terrified him. Pushing his way through the pandemonium, he began screaming out her name, a cry that was lost in the midst of that racket. Everyone around him was lost in jubilation. A man wearing a skeleton costume and a skull mask roared in his face. He felt oppressed by the crowd and began thinking he’d lost her for good. A group of women wearing open bodices surrounded him, their bodies dripping with sweat as they shook in a sort of primitive dance. He saw himself as rather grotesque, lost in a ragged crowd wearing a white linen suit. A man wearing a fake beard jumped towards him and stole his Panama hat from his head. He stood motionless, petrified. Then, just as quickly as the crowd had assembled, it dispersed. All of a sudden, he caught sight of her, covered in ticker tape, swaying her hips in front of a man playing maracas. He lingered for a while observing the scene, in the middle of that frenzied outburst, keeping his gaze obstinately fixed on his wife. She appeared to be floating before his eyes as if in a dream. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
While Zweig’s popularity has waxed and waned in the decades since his death, European additions of his books have continued to be widely read. He is currently experiencing a revival – the beneficiary of the public’s nostalgia for the Edwardian period fueled by the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, as well as films like Atonement and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson’s film was, in fact, inspired by Zweig’s novels). The New York Review of Books & Pushkin Press have recently reissued, between them, almost his complete catalog of books – translated into English to moderate success. There have been reviews and articles in The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, The NY Times Book Review, to name a few. His suicide has been of particular interest, we humans are by our nature somewhat morbid. Seksik has managed to elevate the conversation, gleaning beauty from tragedy. Discovering truth in the absence of facts.
*The Youtube video below provides a sense of what that lost world was like.
**Fellow Jews who had fled the Third Reich took Zweig’s pascifism in life & eventual suicide to be an almost personal betrayal. Mann wrote after learning of Zweig’s death: “He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph, and had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.”
***I can’t help seeing parallels to Virginia Woolf’s suicide at the beginning of the war. Her nephew, Quentin Bell, in his amazing biography tells how the Woolfs planned to commit suicide should there be a German invasion. Leonard Woolf was Jewish, and rumors had already begun to spread on the fate of the Jews under Hitler. Bell attributes the stress of a possible invasion, along with the loss of their London home and the Hogarth Press offices during a Blitz as contributing to her final breakdown.
November 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Factory Novels by Derek Raymond (published by Melville House)
The Devil’s Home On Leave
How the Dead Live
I Was Dora Suarez
Sweeney Todd, the notorious barber of Fleet Street, first appeared in an 1846 Victorian Penny Dreadful entitled “The String of Pearls: A Romance”. Dreadfuls were cheap chapbooks, sold for a penny a piece (later reduced to half-pence, or Half Penny Dreadfuls) which churned out sensationalist serialized fiction for London’s newly literate mobs.
In that first incarnation the Demon Barber of Fleet Street sent his victims to their deaths through a trapdoor rigged behind and beneath his barber chair. Usually cause of death was from the broken neck or skull which occurred upon landing. It was only the survivors of the fall who Todd would “polish off” – slitting their throats with his straight razor. The remains were then taken to a Mrs. Lovett, the proprietress of a nearby meat pie shop, by means of a connecting tunnel. The bodies were ground up and used as pie-filling in pastries sold to an unsuspecting public.
History has shown that what is sensational and lurid to one generation becomes humdrum to the next. Over time Sweeney Todd went from being a villain to the hero or, more accurately, anti-hero. The violence escalated and he began slitting all his victims’ jugulars, the trap door merely an expedient means of conveying the bodies into the basement. Originally tried and hanged for his crimes, in later versions (notably Sondheim’s 1979 musical adaptation) Todd is killed by his own razor. Even Mrs. Lovett’s fate became more violent – poison is replaced by being burned alive.
Perhaps the most disturbing escalation is that of Todd’s assistant Toby Ragg. In “The String of Pearls” Toby is a young man banished to an asylum by Todd & Mrs. Lovett when he begins to feel remorse for the his part in the murders. He appears at the end to testify against Todd and then goes on to lead a peaceful life as a domestic servant. Skip forward 161 years to Tim Burton’s 2007 film adaptation and Ragg has evolved into a young orphan boy who loves Mrs. Lovett as a mother – making her betrayal all the more horrifying when she conspires with Todd to kill the child. Ragg escapes and returns in the final scene to slit Todd’s throat as revenge for Todd’s murdering Mrs. Lovett.
This long and convoluted introduction has a point. Derek Raymond, author of the five novels that make up The Factory series, is by many considered the father of British crime noir. But Raymond is also very much a descendant of those penny dreadful authors of the 19th century. His writing relies on the same formula of sensationalism, horror and mawkish sentiment. He explores the same genres – detective stories, gothic horror and gore – which made the dreadfuls popular among young boys. Yes, he was heavily influenced by Raymond Chandler and the noir films and novels of the 40’s & 50’s – but Derrick Raymond cast a wider net than some give him credit for. Not just quoting (and the books contain a surprising amount of literary quotes), but in a sense paying homage to Dickens and a host of lesser known authors from the Victorian period.
Each Factory novel describes a case solved by the unnamed, maverick detective in A14, the Unexplained Deaths department of a London police station nicknamed the Factory. They feature a cast of reoccurring characters: the unnamed detective (of course), his superior “the Voice” and his nemesis Inspector Bowman in Important Crimes. On the whole, the unnamed detective is a loner in the tradition of hard-boiled literature, but manages to find a few allies who share his desire to find justice for the dead. The Devil’s Home On Leave, How the Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez are the middle three books of the series. The Devil’s Home On Leave, the most conventional and least interesting of the three, investigates a contract killing and delves into the criminal underworld of 1980’s London. How the Dead Live is a gothic love story complete with a decaying mansion, lovers tragically separated. The plot (tweaked for the 20th century) and prose style are in the vein of Mary Shelley or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The fourth book – the last to be published during the author’s lifetime – is the most contemporary in that the major plot points rely most heavily on current events. The victim, the titular Dora Suerez, is dying of AIDS at the time of her murder.
These novels – romances if we call them what they are – were intended for male consumption. Like Chandler’s LA noir novels and the Westerns of Louis L’Amour there exists a clean line between good and evil. The villains have no redeeming qualities. The women are madonna’s or whores. The heroes are seldom rewarded, or even respected, for doing what is right. There is a certain amount of fantasy fulfillment involved. Male readers relate to the protagonists because they want to be like them: honorable and good. Modern knights-errant looking to protect the vulnerable. The fact that these heroes are imperfect and damaged only makes them more identifiable, and the fantasy more attainable.
Raymond also trades in darker fantasies. One of his many careers before settling on writing was as a pornographer. The graphic nature of the physical and sexual violence increases with each book, becomes more literal and less literary, so that by the time we’ve reached the opening scenes of I Was Dora Suarez (the fourth book in the series) the descriptions of the murders convey the disturbing lurid voyeuristic fetishism of a snuff film or torture porn. In those first few pages the killer brutally dismembers his victim, ejaculates into her wounds and licks up her blood. He defecates in the corner of the room.
Bowman said:’Why do so many of them feel they have to do that?’
‘It’s egoism and overexcitement,’ I sad. ‘It’s part of a very complicated way of getting your rocks off it’s also like someone illiterate signing some document with an X.’
He stirred the stool with the tip of his Regent Street boot. ‘What chance do you think you’ve got, catching him?’
I said, ‘I’ll get him.’
‘We think so, too, said Bowman. ‘but don’t think we’re going to do you any out-of-the-way favours.’
‘I’ll find my own way of getting any help I need,’ I said, ‘and as for favours, you may find htat by putting me on this you won’t have done yourself any.’ I added: ‘Just fuck off now, Charlie, will you? I want to be on my own.’
No detail is left to the imagination. As each layer of the mystery is peeled back events become more and more sordid. It starts to feel as if a line is being crossed, the one that Val McDermid discussed in a 2010 interview. “Murder is not a parlour game; it’s not a cheap thrill, and some people write about it like ‘Let’s get onto the next victim and have a cheap thrill’. I don’t like the kind of writing that glories in violence, that treats victims as disposable objects.”
The author redeems himself, barely. Readers, through the detective, come to know the victims intimately. And while the perpetrators of violence have motives – those motives are stated rather than explored. It is how the victims came under the purview of Unexplained Deaths that Raymond truly cares about. How the timeline of their lives came to converge with their murderer’s at the moments of their deaths. In How the Dead Live we gather information through conversations the unnamed detective has with the victim’s husband; in I Was Dora Suarez we read excerpts from Dora’s journal. The dead are treated with respect, empathy and kindness despite the violent circumstances of their deaths.
‘…However, my dead remarry in the air I breathe, invisible yet solid, reliving their situations in this wet house – a calm, upright spirit is the one response to evil, and that is our fight.
‘At least I know now what I have lost here I can never lose again.
‘Oh God, if I had been born stupid I would have gone to my death like an ox and been eaten for my meat by my tormentors without ever knowing or caring why.’
Empathy and some interesting stylistic innovations are the marks of this author’s work. One of the most unusual and effective trick is the way Raymond incorporates cockney rhyming or “Geezer” slang into his characters’ dialogue. Criminals “do bird” in prison. Snitches are “grasses”. The “Factory” is another name for the police station. To an American reader it’s like a foreign language – completely disarming. The story could just as easily exist in the recent past or a distant and gritty dystopian future. The novels are, in fact, set during Margaret Thatcher’s London – something not immediately apparent based on, nor particularly relevant to, most of what takes place.
The choice to leave the two central characters (the unnamed detective and his superior, the Voice), nameless adds to the feeling of being outside of time. It reminded me of Philippe Claudel’s novel The Investigation. Perhaps the anonymity is meant, as it was in Claudel’s novel, to express some kind of post-modern nihilism on the part of the author? Or maybe Raymond was just bad at coming up with names?
Most likely the latter. For as enjoyable as they are, the Factory novels are every bit as campy, sentimental and contrived as those early 19th century Dreadfuls. The unnamed detective, in particular, can only be described as emotionally overwrought – his thoughts and dialogue expressed in deep purple prose. The tragedy in his back story is extravagant: a mentally deranged wife in an asylum for killing their only daughter; a partner who, wounded in the line of duty, is now paralyzed and sidelined; regular conflicts with fellow officers more concerned with personal glory and career advancement than justice for the dead.
I haven’t picked up the final book of the series, Dead Man Upright, yet. And I’m not sure if I will. It was published posthumously, and so like all posthumous works you can’t help but wonder what level of completion it was left in by the author. I’m also more worried about what Raymond and fate have in store for the detective than I like to admit. I don’t hold out much hope for his making a good end. He’s too emotionally raw for the work he does. Too isolated from society. He doesn’t seem to have the sense to buffer himself with alcohol and dames and wisecracks like his American counterparts. No, I don’t believe this series will end well for anyone. In fact I’d wager complete scorched-earth devastation taking place in the final chapter. Emotional subtlety – subtlety of any kind if we are being honest – is not Derek Raymond’s strong suit.
October 29, 2014 § 1 Comment
Author: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
Translator: Martin E. Weir
Publisher: Melville House, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 61219 300 7
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s novel The Colonel, translated in 2013, assumes the reader has a basic understanding of Iranian history. Thirst, his third book to be translated into English, goes a step further and assumes a cultural awareness as well. Dowlatabadi remains a modern anomaly in that he does not cater to an American – or even a Western – audience. His novels are written in Persian and, with the exception of The Colonel, published to be read by his countrymen. The resulting aesthetic is very different from what many of us are accustomed to.
Thirst, like The Colonel, is set during the Iran-Iraq War. An Iraqi author is being pressured by an army Major to write a propaganda piece. (What that entails isn’t entirely clear, but seems to involve a report about a fabricated murder committed by POW’s meant to somehow demoralize the Iranians and inspire the Iraqi army). When the author fails to produce the Major threatens his family. The author begins telling the Major a fable set in the desert. Writing it has distracted him from the Major’s commission.
Any number of shells have rained down. But the water tank still remains standing in one of the valleys between the hills up ahead. In all likelihood, it has shuddered several times from near misses, causing the water inside to spill over and run down the outside of the tank, but it’s still standing in the same gulley, seemingly immune to all gunfire. The tank should be safe for the time being, as it’s not in the enemy’s direct line of sight; unless, that is, their troops crawl out of their trenches, charge down the hill and happen upon it. But it seems that they have not yet been given the order to do so; if they d id advance down the hill, they might find themselves trapped in the same gulley as the water tank, in plain sight and within range. Which would mean that anyone who opened fire could kill as many of them as he had bullets. So the hope is that, at least until this intense bombardment is over, the water tank will remain unscathed, while those soldiers who have fallen on the path leading from the tank to the trenches will also stay where they are, dead or alive. In the distance, between the bow of the hill and the water tank, some enemy soldiers have fallen dead or dropped to the ground: some of them before reaching the tank and some on their way back with full water bottles, some of which may still be intact, dangling from their necks and shoulders. But we can also assume that many of those flasks will be mangled and riddled with bullet holes. Now anyone who tries to fetch water will first have the difficult task of finding and quickly gathering up any empty, intact flasks before dashing down to the tank to get water.
But what it all the flasks are full of holes?
‘Al-atash, atash … atashaan.‘*
Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. As the soldiers lay hallucinating in the hot sun, cut off from their supplies, desperate for a drink – one by one they volunteer to crawl to the tank to fill the flasks with water. The volunteers are shot by soldiers in the opposing army and left (by necessity – those attempting to reach them will in turn be shot) to die in the scorching sun. An impasse – condemning the men in both armies to a slow, horrible death by dehydration.
There is a cinematic quality to Dowlatabadi’s books – influenced, perhaps, by his experiences as an actor. The book opens with a wide shot (see the passage above) that takes in the entire battlefield, and then slowly zooms into a master shot of three men. A Lieutenant attempting to inspire and save the single, remaining soldier under his command and their wounded prisoner. Cut to the author of this tableau who, in a post-modern cameo, “lights up his cigarette and writes: ‘Under no circumstances should prisoners be killed! They are your captives, and are completely in your charge.'” We (the readers) hear a knock at the door. Enter the Major, demanding his report. The writer doesn’t have it. He begins to talk about the fable he’s been writing instead. Cut back to the Lieutenant in the desert.
Thirst is written entirely in present tense, much like a screenplay and regardless of which character’s perspective we’re being given, making for what should be jarring transitions between the fable set in the desert and the writer’s confrontations with the Major. Instead, one scene shifts seamlessly into another in a way that can be momentarily confusing, but also very compelling. Without warning we’re pulled into the Lieutenant’s hallucinations. And then, suddenly, we’re back in the room with the Iraqi author as he attempts to distract the Major with his fable. Parallel narratives are created: one in which the author tells the fable and one in which the Lieutenant (within the fable) is experiencing those events. Realities merge, tear apart, and slowly merge again. Thirst is a sophisticated piece of literature that is a joy to read.
The things that make Thirst such an incredible book are the same reasons why it might not be for everyone. In addition to the complicated structure, readers contend with unfamiliar cultural references. The book’s original Persian title is Besmal, which is “the supplication required in Islam before the sacrifice of any animal”. The term would be familiar to Iranian readers, identifying the novel as an anti -war treatise. Besmal is a motif/theme that’s frequently repeated and referred to in the story. The translator includes a footnote (which is what is in the quotations), but how much can such a short explanation actually impart?
There are multiple references to a lioness suckling her cubs, or a man transforming into a dove, – the symbolism behind both is probably as obvious to Persian readers as references to the tortoise and the hare are to us. Antithetically, perhaps the lioness and dove have no culturally specific meanings at all. Lacking a frame of reference makes knowing the difference difficult. (For example: last year I spoke briefly with Sara Khalili, the translator of Censoring An Iranian Love Story. I asked her about the dwarf who appears and reappears throughout that novel. Is it a reference to Arabian Nights or some other Persian folk story? She laughed. No, it’s just Mandanipour playing a joke). Sometimes translated literature becomes a puzzle to solve. And not everyone wants that kind of complexity.
Thirst also abandons the more traditional plotting of Missing Soluch (Dowlatabadi’s first novel translated into English) and the breathtakingly evocative prose of Tom Patterdale’s translation of The Colonel. Martin Weir’s translation of Thirst is vibrant and fluid, but very different from Patterdale. A good thing in my opinion. The story itself is so strange, almost allegoric – there seems to be a progression towards more the experimental in the author’s writing – that here less is more when it comes to individual sentences. Weir’s plain, straightforward prose holds the book in balance.
I wouldn’t recommend Thirst to someone just discovering Dowlatabadi. Despite how much I enjoyed it, new readers would be better off starting with one of his other two novels. But for those of us who already know and love his work, and who recognize Mahmoud Dowlatabadi as one of Iran’s most important contemporary authors, Thirst is a challenging and exciting addition to the canon.