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Négar Djavadi: Désorientale (Disoriental

Piurely by coincidence, the book I read prior to reading this book – Khaled Khalifa‘s لا سكاكين في مطابخ هذه المدينة (No Knives in the Kitchens of This City) – a Syrian novel, is remarkably similar to this one in many ways. Both tell the story of an extended family in a Middle Eastern country which sees much turmoil. Both novels see a violent revolution overthrow the government, with both families being opposed to the revolution and suffering under the new regime. Both families come from a well-to-do background. Members of both families travel abroad. Both novels are narrated by a younger member of the family. Both families struggle with life, partially because of the political upheavals in their countries. Both families have a homosexual character (bisexual in this novel) with homosexuality definitely not approved of in their country.

Kimiâ Sadr, the narrator of this novel tells us early on These pages won’t be linear.Talking about the present means I have to go deep into the past, to cross borders and scale mountains and go back to that lake so enormous they call it a sea. I have to let myself be guided by the flow of images and free associations. Both books continually jump backwards and forwards in time and move around in location which, in both cases, can at times be frankly annoying. She also tells us that she has to speak: the average Iranian feels trapped in a daily existential dilemma: speak, or die. Telling and retelling, embellishing, and lying.

Kimiâ gives an explanation for her name : From the Arabic Al-kimiya, alchemy, itself derived from the Greek khêmia, or black magic, which was in turn derived from the Egyptian kêm, black. Hence, Kimiâ. The Art that consists of purifying the Impure, of transforming Metal into Gold, the Ugly into the Beautiful. And, in the semi-darkness of Sara’s mind, the Boy into a Girl. Sara is her mother, Darius her father and the children tend to use the first names of their parents. She has two older sisters – Mina, Leïli. She also has six paternal uncles, merely known by their number, i.e. Uncle Number One, Number Two, etc. and though one – Saddeq – has a name. All of these characters play a role in this book.

The book starts with Kimiâ going (on her own) to a fertility clinic in Paris and much of the book is recounted from her memories while she sits in the clinic. We are slowly updated on why she is there with huge narrative sections interspersed, telling the back story of both Kimiâ and her extended family. She is on her own as, contrary to what she tells the doctor, she is not married and has no plans to marry. ( Medically-assisted reproduction is only available to married couples in France.) However she has a sperm donor, Pierre who is HIV-positive. Yes, she is bisexual and we will get a sort of explanation later in the book. Her parents, fully expected her to be a boy as they already had two daughters. Her father, in particular, brings her up as the son he never had.

We learn that her family are descended from a powerful potentate who had a huge harem. A fifteen year old girl in the harem gives birth and to a girl and dies as a result. The family know nothing about her. The baby survives though, as a favourite of the potentate, she is given a hard time by the other women. The new born will be our narrator’s grandmother, Nour who dies the day Kimiâ is born. The child had blue eyes, apparently not common, and this issue of the blue eyes being transmitted down the generations is also key to this book.

As mentioned, the novel jumps backwards and forwards in time. Kimiâ’s parents are Darius and Sara Sadr. Their daughters call them by their first name, Mother being reserved for Nour. Darius is a journalist, who is always escaping somewhere from someone, even his wife’s dinner parties (starting with his father with whom he did not get on and whom he very nearly shoots later on ). Sara is a teacher. Both are opposed to the two main regimes we see, i.e. that of Shah Reza and his successor Ruhollah Khomeini. They had supported Mohammad Mosaddegh , who had been forced out by the treacherous British and Americans, who wanted control of Iranian oil. We lrearn a lot about Iranian history, which I found fascinating, and the treachery of the British and Americans plays a key role. (Nelson Rockefeller assured Eisenhower that: “We have total control of Iranian oil. Now, the Shah can’t make a decision without consulting our ambassador.).

During the Shah’s reign, the SAVAK, the Iranian secret police and we will see lots of violent actions committed by them, including a raid on our family’s flat in Tehran. Darius will eventually have to hide from them.

Eventually we know that they will flee to France – their flight is a huge and colourful adventure in itself . We will of course follow what they do in France as the three daughters grow up.

The book is divided into two parts which she calls Side A and Side B (for younger readers this refers to the two sides of a pre-CD record.). Side B recounts her life after the family had fled Iran. The main problem is that the Iranians do not forgive and forget and, like other nasty regimes, send out hit squads to eliminate their enemies in Europe. Darius therefore feels that he is always at risk.

Kimiâ has her own life. She argues with her parents and leaves the family home. She recognises that she is bisexual and meets a Belgian, Anna but also has relationship with a man. (Kimiâ is a girl, yes, but only in appearance. Inside, Kimiâ is a boy, the boy she would have been if Nour hadn’t taken her last breath just as Kimiâ was trying to take her first.) She gets into contemporary music, starting with U2 and moving on to British punk and New Wave. I bet this is the first and last Iranian novel to reference Ari Up. She travels to various countries in Europe and, as we know frim the beginning, wants to be a mother.

it is a long and complex. Once you have got into it and have an idea of what is going on – which takes some time – it is a fascinating read, mixing fairly contemporary Iranian history with an extended family very much caught up in that history.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 byLiana Levi
First published in English in 2018 by Europa Editions
Translated by Tina Kover