Socialist Realism, Meet Magical Realism

As I procrastinate (and wait for books to arrive) on writing the next Substance of Style installment, I finished reading The Colonel by Iranian author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, just released in the U.S. by Melville House. It was first published in German in 2009, and so far has not been approved by the Iranian Ministry of Culture for release in its original language.

Dowlatabadi is definitely not a hip young writer. At age 72 with a dozen works under his belt, including a 10-volume, 3000-page epic, and touted as a “master” and “Iran’s greatest writer,” he isn’t starved for attention. But I hadn’t heard of him before, so maybe some of you haven’t either.

If hip young writing is marked by insolence, irreverence, and stylistic daredeviling, don’t expect any snot here. Dowlatabadi’s prose, translated by Tom Patterdale, is lucid and straight-forward. The issues are complicated, and the drive to make sense of them unyielding.

While only those invested in Iran or international relations with Iran might pick up the book, it’s worth looking into for anyone who is interested in revolutions, leftist movements, ideology, power, nationhood, and East-West relations. It might be a slog if you know nothing about modern Iranian history – I recommend first reading the brief historical background by Patterson in the appendix (p. 225) as a primer or refresher – very well-written and accessible.

The story is narrated in third person but frequently shifts into italicized first-person point of views from its characters, chiefly its protagonist, nicknamed “the colonel” after his military hero, the historic nationalist hero Colonel Mohammad-Taqi Khan Pesyan. As a liberal who raised his five children to follow their own pursuits and think for themselves, the colonel in his old age has also come to witness the consequences of those very values of freedom. His sons and daughters have each joined a different faction or independence movement and paid a price for it.

Much of the novel flashes back to events in the past. The chronology is not linear and at times evokes a dream-like state of unconsciousness. But these are old tricks in the bag of literary history. What is most noteworthy is the novel’s formal hybrid of socialist realism and magical realism. (Socialist realism, a movement in art and literature associated with output from socialist movements post-Bolshevik revolution, is doggedly representational and has “no need for veiled and round-about expressions, which are hard for the people to understand,” as Mao once put it. Magical realism, another modern movement, injects an element of the fantastic or surreal into realism and is most closely associated with Latin American writers.)

For all its fragmentation, Dowlatabadi’s book never slips out of the socialist realist determination that the masses be able to understand the language, relying much on allegory, a traditional mode in storytelling. It is not wary of repeating a point or spelling out a fairly obvious idea, though I find such moments weak and overly didactic.

The magical moments are the most delightful and chilling, and so understated you might not notice if you aren’t paying attention. The colonel’s dead wife and the historic Colonel Pesyan are among those who make apparitions, though you’ll never know when. There is also the surreal in simple descriptive turns.

In many ways the book reminds me of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in that much of it seems so straight-forward and even obvious, but it also has an unacknowledged surrealist element. It is both not of this world and so much of it, specifically and historically.

As mature and somber a novel as it is, it does not come with no surprises – plenty of details will catch you off guard for their jarringness.

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Melville House, 2012, 247pgs

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