The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

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The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: Harrowing account of the repercussions of the 1979 Iranian Revolution examined through the widely various political allegiances of one family. Graphic and tragic.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 220 Date: July 2011
Publisher: Haus Publishing Ltd
ISBN: 978-1906598891

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The novel opens at dead of night in a house in Rasht in Gilan province, Iran. It is pouring with rain and the colonel of the title is in the grip of extreme melancholia. Two policemen are knocking on the door. They are bringing news of his youngest daughter. This triggers a night of misery in which the colonel recalls his own past, and the tragic lives of his five children.

This book is about the ramifications of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 as it devours its participants and rolls over various sectors of society crushing them as it goes. Each character represents a different strand of thought or ideological belief. So the colonel is an old soldier of the Shah’s army who refused to take part in an anti-communist campaign; he models himself on the Colonel (differentiated by the capital letter), a legendary historical patriot from the 1950s; the colonel’s sons are each of a different political affiliation – Amir, the eldest is an orthodox communist; the second, Mohammad Taqi, is a member of the People’s Fedayan; Masoud is a Kohmeini supporter; Parvaneh is one of the People’s Mughedin and Farzaneh, the colonel’s elder daughter, is married to Quorbani Hajjaj, who will support whoever is in charge.

If you think that this seems confusing for the non-specialist, you’re right. It is difficult to truly comprehend the nuances of each character’s beliefs without foreknowledge of the political situation in Iran – and even if you have a degree of understanding of the country, the writing does not make it easy to untangle what each character represents, as it is never spelt out. Presumably it does not need to be, if you know the history well or are Iranian. So in the excellent afterword by the translator Tom Patterdale it is explained, for instance, that many in the orthodox communist Tudah party (Amir’s party) were rendered semi-catatonic by their party’s betrayal of its ideals at the beginning of the revolution. This explanation makes Amir’s state of mind far more comprehensible, and his character clearer. This is the same for the other characters, and also in terms of general background and the influences on the main character, the colonel. The political period that the novel covers is extremely complex, something that the novel well reflects.

However, even if you don’t understand precisely what the characters represent in Iranian society there is much to appreciate in this novel. It is a howl of protest against every political party. There are visceral scenes of torture drawn from the author’s own experiences and those of his friends. The arrival of the torturer at the home of his victim, with the tables turned against him, is emotionally powerful. The portrait of a father rendered near insensible by the death of his child is universal and the portrayal of his search for the wherewithal to conduct a burial in the middle of the stormy night is heartrending and completely comprehensible. This is a world where allegiances are reversed and friends become enemies overnight, where a parent’s advice can lead to unforeseen horrors and brothers can turn against sisters, fathers against daughters. It is about a society convulsed and even if you are not sure quite what is going on, it remains important and interesting.

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is described as a ‘colossus of contemporary Iranian literature’. His novels pioneered the use of the everyday language of Iranian people. He spent 25 years writing The Colonel – it is his response to the Revolution. He conceived of it in a dream, or a nightmare, which remained when he woke up. He saw the whole of contemporary Iranian history running like a time-lapse film in front of his eyes, and it is that that he has tried to capture in this work.

The Colonel is not an easy read. Stylistically, the author grapples with time-lapses and flashbacks, which can be challenging. For those unfamiliar with Iran the work needs explanation, so I would advise reading the Afterword first. However, for those who are interested in literature from the non-English speaking world, and for anyone who is interested in the universal consequences of revolution, it is definitely rewarding.

For further reading we can recommend:

Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour
Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah's Beard by Nicholas Jubber
The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny by Shirin Ebadi

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Buy The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi at


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