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Mahmoud Dowlatabadi: زوالِ کلنل (The Colonel)

The colonel of the title is a former military colonel in the Iranian army. He has, by his own admission, committed two mortal sins. The first was refusing to participate in the suppression of the Dhofar Rebellion and the other was for killing his wife. He now lives in his house with his son, Amir. The action of the novel takes place over the period of one day but, of course, we learn a lot about what went before. He and his wife had five children – three sons, Mohammad-Taqi, Masoud and Amir, and two daughters, Farzaneh and Parvaneh. The Colonel and his wife have left them to determine their own path in life, with, as he now admits, possibly disastrous consequences. Mohammad-Taqi had been a member of the People’s Fedaian which had fought against the Shah and had been killed in the uprising but later condemned as a dissident since he was not only against the Shah but against the Islamists who ultimately took power. Masoud had supported the Ayatollah Khomeini and had been killed in the Iran-Iraq War and is therefore considered a martyr. The Colonel’s son-in-law, Qorbani Hajjaj, who arranges for the funeral of Masoud and who is very much part of the current regime, tells the Colonel that Masoud is the only one of his family who is worthwhile. Amir was a member of the Communist Tudeh party. He had been arrested and tortured under the old regime and now is in a state of depression, living in the basement of his father’s house and never going out. Parvaneh is not quite fourteen but has been a member of the People’s Mujahedin which is in opposition to the Islamist government. She has been arrested and, as we will soon learn, has been tortured and killed. Her elder sister, Farzaneh, is married to Qorbani Hajjaj, though not happily. She visits her father, though Qorbani Hajjaj condemns her for doing so.

The novel starts with a visit to the Colonel from two army officials who come to take him to the prosecutor’s office. He knows that that means bad news. He finds out that Parvaneh has been killed and he is there to collect her body for burial. He has to pay them for the body, which he does without a fuss, knowing that any protest would be futile. He is accompanied by the two officials who had taken him before and they drive him and Parvaneh’s body to the cemetery. When they get there, they realise that they have no shovels and no woman to wash Parvaneh’s body, as is customary. They agree to wait, while he goes to find both. He goes to Farzaneh’s house where he borrows the tools but cannot bring himself to tell her that her sister is dead. But all of this takes a long time as the Colonel is reminiscing about his life, about his children and about the situation in Iran. It seems to me to be a bit far-fetched to assume that all five children would not only follow different paths from one another but also a different path from their father’s. Whether this is accurate or not, it does give Dowlatabadi the artistic licence to give us a portrait of life in Iran, particularly over the past sixty years (but with references to early periods). He is clearly not enamoured with either the Shah or the Islamists, with only Mossadegh and Colonel Pesyan escaping his condemnation. Indeed, Colonel Pesyan is a key figure here. Our colonel named his eldest son after him, he has a picture of him on his wall and, in his fantasy talks, Colonel Pesyan features quite highly.

The strength of the book is through the Colonel’s ramblings, fantasies and discussions with others, living and dead. It is in this way that Dowlatabadi gives us a brutal picture of what life has been like in Iran and none of it is pleasant. We follow Amir’s life in prison, where he is tortured. His torturer, Khezr Javid, will turn up later, after the Shah has been overthrown, and will foist himself on the household and then try and ingratiate himself with the Islamists. Amir has now turned completely in on himself and is barely able to function. The Colonel himself, as well as refusing to participate in the Dhofar incident, has also killed his wife, as she had been having affairs, yet this, surprisingly to Westerners, is seen as more or less having been the right thing to do and seems to have been more or less supported by his children. Meanwhile, the Colonel ruminates on his now sad existence, on his children, on his responsibilities and on the sad fate of his country. It is not a pretty picture but gives us a superb portrait of a country that has gone sadly wrong and, with it, a portrait of a life that has gone sadly wrong.

Publishing history

First published 2009 in German by Zürich Unionsverlag
First English translation by Haus in 2011
Translated by Tom Patterdale