The Colonel, by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, is a masterpiece. But reader beware, it is a dark one and doesn’t offer even a tiny droplet of hope. From its very beginning to its very end, it rains incessantly. Blood is spilled, children are buried in the darkness of the night, people betray themselves and one another, ghosts roam.
In the opening scene, a few years after the success of the 1979 Iranian revolution, the colonel, who is the main character and had been an officer in the Shah’s army prior to 1979, is going to the prosecutor’s office in a small town to collect the body of his 14-year-old daughter, Parvaneh, who has been executed for her “sins” against the new regime.
On the colonel’s mantelpiece, there is a photo of Colonel Mohammad-Taqi Khan Pesyan, a heroic nationalist who led a failed revolution in Iran in 1921 and was assassinated and beheaded. The colonel has regular conversations with this photo in a world that is trapped somewhere between life and death where reality and nightmare have become one.
The colonel has murdered his adulterous wife and has spent some time in prison. His five children embody the factions that exist within Iranian society. Amir, the eldest son, was a member of the Iranian Communist Party, Hezb-eh Toudeh, was in prison during the time of the Shah, and is now hiding in his father’s basement, traumatized and paralyzed by guilt. Many of his friends are dead, including his wife, who committed suicide after being released from prison, and he believes that, hand in hand, his actions and inactions helped pave the way for the tragic deaths of his loved ones.
Farzaneh, the eldest daughter, has married a man who became part of the regime, is “an agent of death,” and cares only about money and power. Farzaneh lives with her husband and attends to her daily chores, even though he despises all but one member of her family, Masoud, martyred in the Iran-Iraq war.
Mohammad-Taqi, the colonel’s other son, was a leftist killed in an armed conflict with the regime.
Maybe the most interesting presence in the book is that of Khezr Javid, an interrogator and torturer who worked for SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police. As his name, Javid (meaning eternal), implies, he is the Eternal Secret Police, and the survival of every dictatorship depends on him. He had interrogated Amir in the prison and shows up at the colonel’s doorstep one day.
When I was about 13, I began reading Dowlatabadi. The Islamic revolution of 1979 had just succeeded and there was a great deal of hope and optimism for the future. Freedom and democracy had evaded us for as long as anyone could remember, and we hoped that the new system would bring about a change for the better – but it did not.
I never finished reading Dowlatabadi’s 3,000-page book, titled Kelidar. My reading was disrupted by my arrest in 1982 at the age of 16 for outspokenness against the Iranian government. I did not read Dowlatabadi again until I was recently asked to review The Colonel, which the massive censorship machine of the Islamic Republic of Iran has deemed unfit to be published in that country, where the 72-year-old author lives to this day.
I tried to find the book in its original language, Farsi (it was published in Farsi in Europe), as I was curious about the quality of the translation, but Persian bookshops in Toronto don’t seem to carry it at the moment. Tom Patterdale’s translation reads well most of the time, but I found some paragraphs quite difficult to follow because of messy grammar, which could easily have been fixed by a good editor. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you whether the original text is plagued by the same problems.
Nevertheless, The Colonel is a remarkable and important book, and it feels like drowning in darkness, which has been the fate of the people of Iran for the past 33 years.