The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

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Somewhere in an anonymous functionary’s desk drawer or a filing cabinet in a fluorescent-lit office or a cardboard box in a dusty basement sits the Persian-language manuscript of Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel. Whatever the Iranian government does with books that challenge the official history, that so incisively delineate the many facets of Iranian politics and culture and so tragically describe the many places where those divergent forces meet and attempt to destroy each other, whatever the government does with those sorts of books does not include allowing their publication in Iran.

 Twenty-five years in the making, The Colonel follows a former colonel in the Shah’s army through the ending of the Shah’s reign, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Those historical events and all the more personal upheavals that accompanied them hover as ominously over the colonel and his family as the rain clouds; and in Dowlatabadi’s rendering of the small town near the Caspian Sea where much of the novel takes place, it seems almost always to be raining.

Of course that is no mistake. The colonel has five children, and they are all undone, in one way or another, by revolution and war. The novel was originally written around the time that its primary narrative takes place, the early 1980s, in the midst of a crackdown on Iranian intellectuals. The air of impending doom—amorphous, imprecise, and perhaps more threatening for being so—that Dowlatabadi must have felt at the time pervades it. As the colonel muses: “Because you fear being spied upon, you end up believing that you really are being spied upon. But if this turns out not to be so, you still have to ask yourself why you can’t stop imagining that it’s happening. Where does this corrosive and exhausting feeling that constantly tells you that every eye is watching you come from?”

In the colonel’s case, his unsettled feeling comes from experience. He finds his eldest son, Amir, in prison, arrested by the Shah’s secret police for involvement with a Communist movement and left, ultimately, utterly broken by prolonged and vicious torture. Both of his other sons are killed, one “martyred” in the war against Iraq and the other dies during the revolution. One of his daughters gets by through a marriage with a deeply unscrupulous man who has no respect for his father-in-law and is all too adept at adjusting his political allegiances to maintain a position of provincial authority. And the novel begins with the colonel’s notification of his youngest daughter’s death, when two soldiers appear at his door and whisk him away in the middle of the night to claim and bury the body.

In the face of all of these grave events, what makes Dowlatabadi’s work shine is the complexity of his characters. The colonel is a study in contrasts. He prides himself on being fair-minded, having, for example, refused to carry out certain orders while an officer in the Shah’s military, and allowing his children to pursue their own interests and lead their own lives. Yet, we learn very early on, he has killed his wife in response to her adultery, which is what lands him in prison with Amir. His children’s choices, however reasonable and identifiable, are overwhelmed by the course of events that overtake them, and ultimately it is the colonel’s willingness to let them find their own paths (they pursue an array of different political and cultural allegiances) that leads to their ends.

The colonel himself is modeled after a historical figure, Mohammad Taqi Khan Pessian, a reformer with an inflexible moral code who led (and died at the conclusion of) a brief coup in 1921 (He is referred to frequently in the novel as The Colonel, with a capital “C”).  The novel is not, however, a simple retelling of Pessian’s story, although it is not without parallels. Instead, the narrative is fragmented, nonlinear, and often disorienting, but far from being off-putting, this approach seems to replicate disarmingly well the experience of so much upheaval—the disassociation and confusion, the gradual piecing together of the new order and the new rules which must be followed in order to navigate it.

The allegorical nature of the novel naturally invokes a great deal of Iranian history and culture, which translator Tom Patterdale handles deftly through an informative afterward and thorough footnotes. Patterdale’s decision to parallel Dowlatabadi’s removal of Arab vocabulary from the Persian prose by avoiding Latinate words in the translation may detract a bit from the lyricism of the novel, but the English rendition is nonetheless a pleasure to read.

That the regime in Tehran is unwilling to allow the novel’s release in Iran is unsurprising, but unfortunately it is also very fitting. The nature of authoritarians is not to learn from mistakes but to attempt to erase them. The Colonel is a very thorough accounting of those mistakes, and of their cost, and a demonstration of the necessity, for humanity’s sake, of overcoming them. Dowlatabadi is heralded as one of, if not the, greatest Iranian novelists, and The Colonel bears that out. That Dowlatabadi persists, despite having been at various times imprisoned, tortured, and censored, is a testament to the Iran that could be, and that can still be.

Ed Winstead is pursuing an MFA in fiction at NYU and is currently at work on his first novel. He lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →