BY Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
Translated from the Farsi by Kamran Rastegar
Melville House Press, 2007
Published during revolutionary times in Iran in 1979, Missing Soluch is a 500-page tribute to the socialist ideas that so enthused the Iranian intellectuals and writers of that period. Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, who comes from a village in the north-eastern province of Khorasan, has worked in agriculture, as a craftsman, and in theater in Tehran. Published about ten years after the revolution, his longest novel and perhaps the longest existing Persian novel, Kalidar (10 volumes), earned him a permanent place in the history of Persian literature. Kalidar, is about the simplicity, dignity and bravery of ordinary people in a village in Khorasan.
Like Kalidar, Missing Soluch takes place in a remote village in the province of Khorasan, the birthplace of the author. Mergan, the mother of Abbas, Abrau and Hajer, wakes up one morning in a remote village in Iran, to be confronted with her husband Soluch’s mysterious departure. His absence is yet another hardship his poverty-stricken sons, young daughter and dispirited wife have to endure. Mergan and his children gather corkwood, farm the land, herd camels, and clean people’s homes. When local landowners decide to modernize their agricultural methods with the help of the central government, Abrau gets to drive a tractor. Mergan resists giving up the piece of land she and her husband have been farming, land which for them is “God’s land,” belonging neither to the government nor to the village elders. In short and concise sentences translated beautifully by Rastegar, Dowlatabadi allows the readers to get a glimpse of Mergan’s thoughts:
“God’s Land was where the sands gathered together; it was a sloping, sandy piece of earth. Smooth and soft as the belly of a mare. A fallow, windy place. Uncared for, abandoned. Perhaps this was why they called it God’s Land. Soluch’s plot was bordered by those of Morad, of Ghodrat’s father, and that of Ali Genav. To the left of God’s Land, the fallow lands continued on, while to its right a stream cut into the earth. Its upper limits bordered on the Kolghar valley, below which, as far as the eye could see, was land, land, land, and more land. This was God’s Land.” (p. 218)
In a frightening scene, Abrau ferociously confronts his mother. Driving the tractor towards her, he tries to force her to give up her hold on the land. The young man’s rage, fueled by his peers’ shaming him over his mother’s unbending stand, reads like a universal tale of youth’s rebellion against the parents. Dowlatabadi’s powerful writing allows the reader to feel Abrau’s pain and recklessness at the same time that we are gripped by the mother’s steadfast resistance.
For Dowlatabadi, human beings are always subject to nature. The setting of the village is one where land and animals can break or make their masters. Mergan’s second son’s, Abbas’s, entanglement with a crazed camel leaves an enduring effect on the reader:
“…The camel grabbed at his shoulder. He shook his body in defense, but the camel’s teeth continued gripping his shirt and jacket. The flag of death was rising. Abbas sent the last of his strength to his knees, but it was already too late. The crazed animal was like a tent above him. Now he grabbed at Abbas’ head. The crazed scream of a human echoed across the fields.” (p. 313)
Abbas throws himself into an empty well and knocks himself out. Upon regaining consciousness, Abbas realizes that the wounded camel has covered the opening of the well and snakes are moving on his body as drops of camel’s blood cover his face:
“In some situations, it seems as if some people must die and be reborn a thousand times. That was Abbas’ experience. He was circled by snakes. Desert snakes. If one was to breathe the fire of its breath at you, you’d be ashes.” (p. 320)
Kamran Rastegar does a commendable job of translating the narrator’s simple yet eloquent language. Fear of death in its most natural setting creeps into the reader’s mind. It is precisely when reading such episodes that the reader realizes that Dowlatabadi has created a masterpiece; a story of poverty-stricken villagers whose feelings and fears leave us anguished because their fears capture our imagination, our existential doubts about the meaning of life and death.
Women in this novel are, for the most part, destitute creatures who are subject to men’s unilaterally exercised power in the village. In a heart-breaking scene, Mergan marries off thirteen-year old Hajer to Ali Genav, a much older man whose first wife has become crippled but who continues to live in the same home. When Ali Genav beats his young bride harshly on the first day of their marriage, Mergan curses herself. Ali Genav’s first wife curses Mergan too as they have both fallen prey to the same old traditions. But life must go on. Mergan feels lust and desire but it is not clear whether she would feel this way had Soluch not gone missing. It is this recurrent, ambivalent theme of loss and uncertainty that keeps the reader captivated.
Inspired by ideas of social equality, Dowlatabadi is no fool when it comes to describing the nature of the inequalities that beset the village. Karbalai Doshanbh enjoys great renown and influence in the village because he was once imprisoned and is therefore admired for having stood up to the authorities. Yet the narrator makes us aware that there are others who know the real story behind his arrest, that his was a case of mistaken identity, thus a “point of disgrace for him.” (p. 377) Dowlatabadi makes a subtle point here. A man–not just in Iran, but everywhere, can manipulate those who see the world in black and white. Only when completely unacknowledged, can an awkward act that resembles defiance become a source of pride and power which can then be used to justify domination over others.
While the reader can see how poverty and deprivation are related to the power of religion and tradition, Dowlatabadi’s serene narrator gives little indication that the villagers have deeply held religious beliefs. The sound of prayers creeps into the story here and there, but none of the characters are devout Muslims motivated mainly by belief. The chance to read a novel written on the eve of the revolution that nonetheless defies stereotypical images of angry Iranians, following a religious leader, punching their fists in the air, is itself good reason to take great pleasure in this marvelous book.
Elham Gheytanchi teaches sociology at Santa Monica College (CA, USA) and writes about Iranian politics and culture. This review was first published in Words Without Borders.