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The Colonel


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Shortlisted for the International Literary Award 2009 of Haus der Kulturen Berlin

About the Author

Born in 1940 in the Khurasan village of Dowlatabad, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is one of the most prominent Iranian novelists since the 1980s. Self-educated and forced to work from childhood on a farm, he later went to Tehran to become an actor. He started writing in the 1960s and has published numerous novels, plays and essays.


'This novel has what it takes to become a strong and irresistible window into Iran' - Die Zeit Die Zeit StartFragment The colonel's problem with his wits was that he had got used toliving in the past and thinking about nothing else. The past had such a hold onhim that he had grown afraid of dealing with what was happening under his nose.This fear of the present and living in the past had become a habit. Perhaps itwas just an instinctive retreat, a defence against events. Iranian author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi's The Colonel opens late at night with a knock on the colonel'sdoor. The colonel has already smoked twenty cigarettes, is old andguilt-ridden, and has become weighed down over the years by memories of thesins he has committed and the mistakes he has made. The colonel is told thathis daughter has been killed and he must pay the necessary fees and assist inher burial. Dowlatabadi makes it clear from the outset that The Colonel is a novel of violenceand guilt, concerned with Iran's long struggle against itself while outsideinfluences (primarily the US through the machinations of the CIA) seek to pushthe country in directions favourable to them and not the citizens. As thecolonel travels to bury his daughter the narrative fractures, splitting firstinto two distinct yet commingled sections - the "present" (the 1980s) in whichthe colonel attempts to bury his daughter, and the thoughts of the colonel,which anchor around significant events of the past (including but not limitedto the coups in the 1950s and the wars in the 1970s). But soon the novelfragments further, following the colonel's family members as they, too, engagein and become victims of the relentless violence of Iran's troubled history. 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 gotused to it. Yet, woe betide us if we do. The irony is that, if you really wantto be seen as a good Iranian, and especially if you aspire to high office inthis country, you first have to be a foreigner, someone who wasn't born here atall. On the other hand, if you were born and bred here and try to remain trueto yourself, your country and your people, then alienation is the most lenientpunishment you can expect. At times, The Colonel'sback-and-forth narrative, which shifts from the present to the past and fromcharacter to character, can be difficult to follow, particularly when coupledwith the novel's tight focus on Iranian military and political history, whichis perhaps unfamiliar to many readers. Happily, translator Tom Patterdaleprovides useful and not too intrusive footnotes to explain various culturalreferences, as well as including a reasonably lengthy essay on Dowlatabadi'stime, nation and career. The Colonel avoids- both within and without the narrative - becoming a dressed-up historicalsurvey of Iran, but the cursory introduction is welcome. The narrative itself becomes progressively nightmarish, culminatingin several vicious torture scenes which, Patterdale informs us, were takendirectly from testimonies supplied by people Dowlatabadi knew. The colonelhimself is no stranger to the low menace of Iran's history: he has committedtwo grave mistakes, the first being his refusal to participate in the DhofarRebellion, the second being that he murdered his wife for cheating on him. Bothmistakes have furthered his ostracisation, both professionally and personallyand, it seems, his daughter's murder is perhaps the last straw. He can nolonger function properly in the present and instead mulls over the mistakes he- and Iran - have made of the past. One of the most curious aspects of Dowlatabadi's novel is that,while the CIA and America are mentioned, their role is presented as somethingfar in the distance, important to Iran's recent history but not the entirecause of its problems. Instead, Dowlatabadi places the responsibility of thehope of the early 1950s fading into the violence of the intervening decades asan error to lay at the feet of the Iranians - all the dreams, all the promises,all the lives, all the possibilities - these were broken by Iranians. It is too easy to blameAmerica (or, earlier, the British; or, at times, the Soviets) for the woes thenation has inflicted upon itself, and as long as the young in their outrage andthe old in their calculation continue to blame an external source, then thereal problems will never be fixed and the cycle will continue. Dowlatabadi's novel examines the consequences of revolutions andthe unexpected (and unexpectedly violent) paths they usually take once theeuphoria of the coup has faded. Revolutions have a habit of eating the verypeople who created them, and virtually always devolve into a cycle of killing,violence and secrecy that can last generations. The colonel, while wrapped inhis own guilt, functions as a kind of witness to these horrors, both throughhis own recollections but also through the lives of his children who, asPatterdale's essay informs us, act as stand-ins for the different types ofideologies that arose out of the turmoil of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It isno accident that each of the colonel's children end up dead, just as it is noacciden that even to this day the novel remains unavailable within Iran andunpublished in the original Persian. Dowlatabadi's criticism is sharp,unsparing, and directed against everyone: you are all responsible, seems to be his message. I'm well aware that at every stage of history there have beencrimes against humanity, and they couldn't have happened without humans tocommit them. The crimes that have been visited on my children have beencommitted, and still are being committed, by young people just like them, bypeople stirring up their delusions, giving them delusions of grandeur. So whydo I imagine that people might improve? Mahmoud Dowlatabadi's TheColonel is one long argument to support the idea that a sufficientlybrutalised nation becomes a perpetual device of self-mutilation as onegeneration succeeds the next and the crimes, violence and death continues.There is no ideology or political party sufficiently coherent to withstand thepressure to commit violence in order to remain in power and, in the end, theblood of thousands stains the hands of every Iranian. The Colonel is a powerful and difficult text, brutal both inits fragmented composition and its unflinching examination of the consequencesof power and the ways in which those in power will act to keep it.EndFragment -- Damian Kelleher Damian Kelleher's Blog 20110914 A fable of the Iranian terror Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is best known in Iran for his 10-volume epic Kelidar, which at more than 3000 pages is perhaps for the moment unlikely to feature in any publisher's catalogue. We are, in the meantime, fortunate to have this passionate and informative fable of the Islamic revolution in our hands. The idealistic and relatively modernised "Colonel", a career officer in the Shah's army, has murdered his adulterous wife. Stripped of his rank, he finds himself in the same prison as his eldest son, Amir, a student who belongs to the Iranian Communist Party. Father and son are soon released in the weeks of mayhem following the Shah's departure into exile and Ayatollah Khomeini's return. Everyone's hopes are soon quashed, however, when the new regime outstrips its predecessor's brutality. Public executions follow, the universities are shut down and the new generations are "left struggling like newly-hatched chicks in this fist, which had turned into a vulture's talons". The Colonel is the tale, in the words of its translator, Tom Patterdale, of how "the revolution ate its own children". Four of the colonel's five children are executed or killed in action: three for belonging to various leftist factions, while another is "martyred" in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). No scenes are more telling of this senseless bloodshed than those involving Amir and his former interrogator Khezr Javid, whom Amir hides in his cellar when violent mobs take to the streets looking to lynch their jailers. It is an uncomfortable pairing that Dowlatabadi exploits to portray a society ravaged by a warped morality. For a fable, there is very little allegory about the novel: it is very historically accurate. The character of the Colonel draws on a historical figure, Mohammad Taqi Khan Pesyan (1892-1921), a hero even to current Iranian nationalists. This scrupulous reformer was probably the closest Iran ever got to its own Ataturk. In this novel he is a metaphor for the Iran that might have been. Patterdale is to be commended for his immaculate glossary, which does not omit a single reference in the text to Persian mythology, place-names or historical and political figures. His equally precious afterword informs us that The Colonel has "never appeared in its original language" in Iran. It was first published in Germany, after Dowlatabadi had deemed that decades of tinkering with the manuscript had come to an end. It's about time everyone even remotely interested in Iran read this novel. -- Andre Naffis-Sahely The Independent Newspaper 20111004 The author sets the scene: a pitch-black, rainy night in a small Iranian town. Inside his house, the Colonel is immersed in memories of his wife, of the great patriots of the past, all of them assassinated or executed, of his children, who had joined the different factions of the 1979 revolution.There is a knock on the door. Two young policemen have come to summon the Colonel to collect the body of his youngest daughter and bury her before sunrise. The Islamic Revolution, like every other revolution, is devouring its own children. And whose fault is that?Mahmoud Dowlatabadi does not leave one taboo unbroken in this diatribe against the failures of the Iranian left. ... The story begins with the old colonel roused in the middle of the night to come and deal with his fourteen-year-old daughter's body. As he stumbles around in confusion, guilt and dismay, his actions and interpretations of events show that the ordinary has become extraordinary in Iran, and vice versa. This death of his youngest daughter has taken place under a fundamentalist Islamic regime and yet he is being told by the authorities to bury her in the middle of the night, something we learn much later in the book is against Islamic law. The body should be laid out by women, but this can't be done either. Piecing these elements together, and discovering the betrayal that lies behind her death, however, is no easy task because past and present are muddled in the colonel's thoughts and actions, and the dead from his past come back to life and not (it seems) just in the old man's memories... ... The central theme of this work seems to be that Iran is beyond hope. The rain pours down incessantly, symbolising tears of unquenchable grief, and the (male) characters smoke incessantly, representing self-destructive behaviour. Everyone is at cross-purposes, and families are riven by political conflict. A rare moment when she isn't weeping allows Amir (on the verge of suicide) to confront his sister Farzaneh with her alienation from the family (because her husband is on the political Right, while the other siblings are on variations of the Left)... ... A while ago, round about the time that Iran was labelled part of the 'axis of evil' I saw a documentary about Iran which featured interviews with young people in their twenties. Although necessarily guarded as they spoke to journalists from the West, these English-speaking and well-travelled young people were acutely aware that reforms were needed, but they seemed optimistic. I hope they were right, and that Dowlatabadi is wrong... -- Lisa Hill ANZ LitLovers LitBlog 20111127 Key journalists and experts on Iran gathered in London on 6th September to discuss the difficulties and importance of publishing authors like Mahmoud Dowlatabadi and the role of literature at moments of revolution. This dark book, like many others, continues to be banned from publication in Iran, although it has been translated into English, French and German. Dowlatabadi, with a distinguished career that spans the 80s to the present is self taught and began life working on a farm, he remains one of the most famous realist writers in Iran today. One of those intriguing novels that cover the action of only one day while giving the reader an insight into more than one lifetime, looks at modern Iran and the personal toll politics and history have taken on one man. Surreal and Kafkaesque, the structure of the novel is reminiscent of Hedayat's The Blind Owl and the controversial nature of its critical look at several points in Iranian history: "THE ISLAMIC REVOLUTION, LIKE EVERY OTHER REVOLUTION IN HISTORY, IS DEVOURING ITS OWN CHILDREN. AND WHOSE FAULT IS THAT? THIS SHOCKING DIATRIBE AGAINST THE FAILURES OF THE IRANIAN LEFT OVER THE LAST FIFTY YEARS DOES NOT LEAVE ONE TABOO UNBROKEN." " 6 Pillars 20110901 A page-turning panorama of Iranian mental anguish, producing visions and nightmares like dark exotic blossoms. -- A Schader Neue Zurcher Zeitung 20110901 Mahmud Doulatabadi is one of the most preeminent novelists of Iran. I discovered Dowlatabadi * when I was 17. I knew Kelidar ( ) was an important book to read. My younger sister who was always richer than I, spent all of her summer savings to buy this 5-volume novel: the love story of Maral and Gol-Mohammad; in the turbulent history of their tribes of Iran's north east province, Khorasan. I remember living with the book, reading it nonstop for 10 days, hardly eating or sleeping. I was perhaps too young for it then; but I couldn't put it down. Maral reminded me of my own grandmother; and the story taught me about the intricacies of individuality, honor, loyalty, love, passion and the cost of breaking from conformity. I read his other books later, but to date, and to author's admission, Kelidar remains his most "perfect" book! Dolatabadi * is 69, he was born in the village of Dolatabad in Khorasan. Before he became a writer, he earned life from labouring in farming, shoe making, barbering, bicycle repair, herding sheep, slaughter house, print shops, cinema projections--all range of works that are not customary for the "educated" or those with "to-be-educated-to-write" aspirations. His rural experiences set his books apart from the white-glove urban, or aristocratic settings of many of his contemporary literary figures of Iran. He paved his path to literature through theater, starting at the age of 22. His most recent book, Der Colonel, written simultaneously in Persian and German--a story awaiting 25 years to be told--has made it to German publication, and is suffering Persian censorship, thanks to Mr Ahmadinejad's Coup D'etat ... (Dolatabadi has been a vocal critic of Ahmadinejad) To German speakers, I recommend to listen to his interview Dolatabadi with Ilija Trojanow on Arte.TV about Der Colonel. He talks about his urge to write this novel, and also explains somethings about Iran's literary traditions--especially referring to legendary Ferdowsi (10th century AD), to whom he wishes to have been a devout follower; and Sa'di (12th century AD) and Naser khosrow (11th century Ad) who were globe-trotters to whom he attributes the humanitarian nature of Persian literature. Despite the fact that Dolatabadi's novels root deeply in folk, telling the most obscure of rural stories, his talent is in portraying man in the complex dynamics of his interaction with the world, thus Doulatabadi * considers literature to be a universal entity, one belonging to humanity and not to geography. He ends his interview with a message of hope: "The art of we Iranians, is to transit through death and destruction towards light; this is our entire history, and we are still a living nation ..." * The writer of this review has spelled Dowlatabadi in all possible phonetic forms. Inconsistencies are intentional. -- Naj Neo-Resistance blog 20111017 'Iranian novelist Dowlatabadi (Missing Soluch, 1979, etc.) re-imagines the life of a fabled Persian patriot against the bloody backdrop of the Islamic Revolution. We see the revolution through the eyes of the Colonel, an officer in the Shah's army, a figure largely based on Mohammad Taqi Khan Pesyan, who led a partially successful Persian revolution in 1921 and was lionized after his assassination. As the novel opens, the Colonel is taken in the dead of night to collect his daughter's body from the prosecutor's office. From there, the book jumps back and forth to show the Colonel at his height and the struggles of the officer and his son Amir as the Ayatollah returns and the Shah is forced into exile. The military man's five children represent different factions within Iranian society, and nearly all come to tortuous or violent ends. Patterdale offers up a fine translation of Dowlatabadi's book, gently guiding Western readers through its complex maze of political intrigue and moral failings with restrained footnotes, a rich glossary and a thoughtful afterword. At its core, the book is about the inherent corruption that power inspires and the toll it takes on the people under its long shadow. A demanding and richly composed book by a novelist who stands apart.' KIRKUS Book Reviews 20120319 After being arrested in 1974 by the Savak, the shah's secret police, the Iranian writer Mahmoud Dowlatabadi asked his interrogators just what crime he had committed. "None," he recalled them responding, "but everyone we arrest seems to have copies of your novels, so that makes you provocative to revolutionaries." ... "The Colonel," a novel about the 1979 revolution and its violent aftermath, is a case in point. The five children of the title character, an officer in the shah's army, have all taken different political paths and paid a heavy price. The story unfolds on one rainy night as the colonel is trying to retrieve and bury the body of his youngest daughter, who has been tortured to death for handing out leaflets criticizing the new regime. "It's about time everyone even remotely interested in Iran read this novel," The Independent of London said in a review when "The Colonel" was published in Britain last fall, describing it as a powerful portrayal of "a society ravaged by a warped morality." ... "The Colonel," though available in English and German, does not yet exist in an authorized Persian-language version. Mr. Dowlatabadi said he finally submitted the manuscript three years ago to censors at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which must approve all books before publication in Iran, but received no response until Iranian readers heard about the book and began clamoring for access to it. "Mahmoud has always had a commitment to social issues, but couldn't accept the simplistic moralistic framework predominant in socialist realism," said Kamran Rastegar, a professor of Middle Eastern languages and cultures at Tufts University who has translated some of Mr. Dowlatabadi's work. "Instead he tried to examine the complexities and moral ambiguities of the experience of the poor and forgotten, mixing the brutality of that world with the lyricism of the Persian language." ... To have "The Colonel" published in Persian, Mr. Dowlatabadi could theoretically turn to one of the emigre presses that flourish in Europe and California, or even, if he were so disposed, authorize a kind of samizdat edition for circulation in Iran. But he said he did not want to do that, preferring to adhere to legal channels, frustrating though that may be. "My philosophy, my way of working, is not by confrontation," he said. "I want to keep writing and keep being an Iranian novelist in Iran, so therefore I do not have confrontations." Yes, he continued, "I have written things that if you read them they create questions in your head," but he added: "I did not do it confrontationally, against the state. In fact it's a good thing for the regime - past, present and future - to have the experience of writers who work within the system. This has to be an established norm or practice in our country: that people who have different opinions can rationally disagree. It shouldn't be that I want to kill you, I want to confront you or I want to leave." -- Larry Rohter 20120701 Dowlatabadi (Missing Soluch) is regarded as one of Iran's greatest novelists, yet this work, 25 years in the making, is banned in his native country. This fact alone is evidence of the difficulties that have long plagued Iran, and this novel stands as a testament to that struggle. Set during the Iran-Iraq War, the book follows the colonel, a devout patriot and soldier, as he grapples with the fates of his children, all condemned in one way or another by the revolution and its aftermath. On a miserably wet night, the colonel is tasked with burying his youngest daughter, 14-year-old Parvaneh, killed for handing out anti-regime pamphlets on the street. As he wanders through town in search of a pick and shovel with which to bury her, his thoughts spiral to the downfall of his family, and he wonders to what extent he bears responsibility: "The colonel felt guilty, too--guilty for the very existence of his children, or lack of it, as the case may be. He bore the burden of the offences of each one of his offspring on his shoulders." Unfortunately, for unfamiliar with Iranian history, the book is a confusion of events, names, and historical figures entwined in the colonel's personal narrative. There is no clear arc, and Patterdale's explanatory notes do little to help solve the ambiguities of the plot. The novel may be a bold statement decrying a country's troubled past, but the message will be lost on the average reader. 20120625 'By the end of this book, you feel as though you're watching a horror movie set in Iran; a political zombie novel about the dead and the walking dead, the foolish, sometimes heroic, and always pathetic victims and survivors of the Ayatollah's ghoulish revolution.' -- Alan Cheuse 20120709 '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.' -- Marina Nemat 20120720 '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.' -- Buzz Poole 20120511 '[W]hat makes Dowlatabadi's work shine is the complexity of his characters... 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.' -- Ed Winstead 20120719 '[A]n affecting and beautiful novel.' 'A classic of Iranian literature.'

In this powerful novel, longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Award, Iranian writer/actor Dowlatabadi has created a vivid account of the changing political ideologies of Iran and their influence on the country's unceasingly oppressed citizens. The political and social history of Iran is depicted through the lives of the Colonel and his five children. This narrative technique allows Dowlatabadi to comment on the various regimes controlling the country and its people and to encompass a significant span of Iranian political history within the framework of his story. Through Dowlatabadi's skilled interweaving of cultural and historical references, events ranging from the Shah's regime to the 1979 revolution to the country's war with Iraq are portrayed through their impact on the family. The story of the Colonel's regrettable past unfolds alongside flashbacks detailing the disillusionment and suffering of his children. VERDICT An important and compelling novel that will unquestionably be appreciated by readers with an interest in the political history of Iran and its societal effect.-Catherine Tingelstad, Pitt Community Coll. Lib., Greenville, NC (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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