It’s easy to forget, struck as we are with so many debates about national identity and international relations, that many of the world’s nations are relatively young. Many are also, as the 21st century continues to teach us, inherently violent impositions. This violence is the main theme of Laleh Khadivi’s first novel, The Age of Orphans. Opening in a recently established Iran, the novel spans the reigns of the Shahs, from the modernizing and “unifying” reign of Reza Khan in the 1920s to the eventual demise of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Khadivi begins The Age of Orphans by stressing unity. The central character is a young Kurdish boy who is obsessed with his mother and longs, always, almost pathologically, to breastfeed. Beyond this, we have the unified Kurdish tribe, who “sing one song… with one voice.” Unity is a persistent theme—later, “the distinction between everything and everything else dissolves;” later still, “all faces meld into one,” and “the men rise in unison.”
In The Age of Orphans, however, myths of unity are always violently undermined. We follow the Kurdish tribe into battle against the Shah’s army, only to read Khadivi’s brutal descriptions of their slaughter. The young boy watches the murder of his father by Iran’s modern soldiers, “already part man and part machine.” Khadivi’s horrifying repetitions describe him being brutally kicked to death, “boot to head… boot to head.” The boy, now an orphan, is conscripted into government service and a bureaucrat renames him “Reza,” after the Shah himself.
As a teenager, Reza is slowly indoctrinated into the ideology of the new Iran. Modernity is embraced, his language is forgotten, and he thrives as a soldier. At fifteen, he moves with his garrison to help quell the Kurdish insurgency. In a Kurdish village, he beats a boy who suggests they look alike; later, with three friends, he takes the young women of the village to a mountain cave, where he rapes them. These exploits gain him a reputation for brutality, and he is quickly promoted. By eighteen, he is living in Tehran, visiting brothels and smoking opium. An illiterate, Reza meets his future wife, Meena, the daughter of a bookseller. She is dedicated to the Shah and the new Iran, and imagines their marriage as an allegory of the nation itself—the sophisticated city dweller uniting with the ignorant Kurd. But this fantasy slowly dismantles—posted to Kurdish territory, Meena grows racist, while Reza becomes violent toward her—and midway through the book, they are broken people.
While the movement of the plot is always clear, Khadivi’s semi-experimental instincts tend toward lyrical strangeness. Reza’s captain “manipulates the guns like he would an injured bird.” Before he dies, Reza’s father says, “We follow the choruses sung to us by the wings of birds, the tick of rain.” As with Michael Ondaatje’s prose, Khadivi’s rhythmic, musical style is sometimes remarkably beautiful, but elsewhere comes off as bombastic and overly rhetorical. “The boy lives through a night forgotten by history,” she writes after the murder of Reza’s father, “the precise choreography of flesh puppets, strung to a thousand stars and pulled as sparring lovers.” Elsewhere we read of “their beating hearts like magnets charged to the opposite pull of victory and death.”
It’s when Khadivi gives voice to the people Reza meets—the woman he rapes, the boy he beats, his superior officer, his wife—that The Age of Orphans is at its best. The novel is full of intimate testimonies, brief snatches of alternative worlds that stand as small protests against the nationalist “we” of the modern state, making of Khadivi’s story a cry against the violence of drawing borders, of map-making, of the distortions and exclusions of the nation. We see this in Reza’s eventual nostalgia for pre-modern life, for the essential identity of the tribal Kurd who lives a life untouched by bureaucratic force. “He can give them streets and citizenship,” Khadivi writes of the young captain, “but never the freedom to travel the borderless land or the stable sensation of home.”
There is a violence, Khadivi suggests, to all unities, all communities. Her stance is similar to that of anthroplogists like Arjun Appadurai and Phillip Gourevitch, who point out that “Genocide, after all, is an exercise in community-building.” Named after the Shah, we are always reminded that Reza’s despicable acts are the direct result of the Shah’s project: the building of a nation. As did the Shah’s reign, The Age of Orphans ends with the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. The novel is the first of a trilogy, and Khadivi, we can assume, has not exhausted her theme.