Portrait of a Nation: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel

May 11, 2012 | 1 4 min read

In Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel, a novel banned in Iran but just recently published in the U.S., rain falls constantly, “mercilessly,” across the days and years. It is not a cleansing rain, but rather a bleak torrent of erosion and decomposition, agitating a festering wound simply incapable of healing because the cause of the problem never lets up. In this muddy, clouded-over, small town near the Caspian Sea, a family comes undone as it copes with the decisions made by its patriarch, “the colonel,” as well as the erratic and conflicting policies and actions of those in power during various historical eras.

The novel opens in the middle of the night, during a downpour, “so unceasing that it amounted to silence,” as the colonel is roused by two soldiers who take him to claim the body of his youngest daughter, Parvaneh, so he can prepare the corpse for burial. From this starting point, Dowlatabadi’s nonlinear episodes jump in time and perspective, a puzzle as fragmented whole as when it is in pieces, an appropriate quality for a book about the shattering of individuals and national identity.

Parvaneh is not the colonel’s only deceased child. Two of his sons have also fallen, one during the 1979 revolution and another during the Iraq war. Two of his children are still alive, though not much better off. His eldest son, Amir, has suffered a mental breakdown after serving time in prison, a victim of the Shah’s regime; his other daughter, Farzaneh, is married to an unprincipled man who makes his way by standing behind those in power at any given moment, regardless of the ideology that props up that power.

The fates of the colonel’s children result from his actions as both an officer in the Shah’s army and as a father and husband. Dowlatabadi’s nuanced treatment of his characters permits readers to understand and empathize with their choices, though they hardly understand one another, or see the world in the same ways. This is due in great part to the colonel, a man who considers himself an independent thinker, but is also beholden to cultural traditions, so much so that he eviscerated his adulterous wife.

For all of the death contained in the book, the only one to appear on the page is this murder, for which the colonel spends time in the same prison as Amir. But death is not the story. The dead are the lucky ones, freed from the burdens of history. Life in Iran today, as Dowlatabadi makes all too clear, spares no one. He performs an autopsy on Iranian national identity, ravaged by generations of war and conflict, which can be made “responsible for anything, except for the lives of the people caught up in it.” There is not a single victor in the novel and this fact brings into harsh focus the cultural complexity that plagues Iran and Iranians.

Because outside influences, working overtly and covertly to push their agendas, shaped Iran’s 20th century, the plight of the colonel and his family mirrors that of the entire nation, baited and divided by false promises for which men and women made ultimate sacrifices and suffered countless humiliations “only to discover that the truth they have found is nothing but specious doctrine and bogus ideology.”

As a soldier, the colonel was also one of these dutiful followers, until his core belief in Persian history led him to disobey an order to fight for the British and instilled in his children the pride of living by your own code. But the contortions of Iranian history leave no individual free from group influence and so the colonel’s children disband in the name of their individual beliefs, joining competing factions, leaving the colonel with nothing to do but watch it all happen, knowing they are as helpless as him.

Through the colonel filters the confusion and contradictions that menace Iranians, but it is Amir who offers some of the most acute insight. Knowing his siblings’ fates, freighted with the belief that his own actions somehow abetted their downfalls, he lives a self-imposed exile in the basement of the family home. As the political tides once again shift, Khezr, a man who interrogated and tortured Amir, appears. He spends a night in Amir’s room, eating the family’s food, drinking their arack. Amir posits that his situation is a result of his “lack of certainty about anything.”

The disorienting shifts in perspective utilized by Dowlatabadi do take some getting used to, but this is of course intentional. Foreign influences and interests have merged with and co-opted thousands of years of tradition in Iran and what has at times been a faction’s weakness later becomes its strength, or least the fulcrum used to leverage control of the national dialogue. Steeped in historical references and crafted with a degree of heightened realism that comes off like a documentary, The Colonel offers a portrait of a nation that has grappled with the same problems for so long without being able to remedy them. As outsiders looking in, we can never comprehend fully this reality. But, as an insider who has remained in Iran through these tumultuous decades, been imprisoned and censured while recognized widely as Iran’s greatest novelist, Dowlatabadi’s message leaves no doubt that the greatest victim is an Iran that continues to incubate these problematic relationships.

As Amir tells Farzaneh: “The tragedy of our whole country is the same: we are all alienated, strangers in our own land. It’s tragic. The odd thing is that we have never got used to it.”

is the co-author of the recently released Camera Crazy and he is currently working on a 33 1/3 about the Grateful Dead album Workingman's Dead. Keep up with him @buzzpoole.

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