Sunday, January 18, 2015

On Sacrifice, Slaughter, and War: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Thirst

Author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (Photo by Chris Higgins/NYTimes)
When a person who is smitten by words is given a pen, he will not stop writing even if threatened by a blade.  – from Thirst, by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi.
The world is inundated with bad news.  For the most part, we specialize (professionally or personally) in one or two conflicts (perhaps in addition to what is trending on Twitter). More than that and we become overloaded. The Syrian Revolution and its evolution with ISIS, recent events in France and its contexts of both racism and secularism, not to mention the Ukraine, Kurdish movements, the Columbia FARC treaty, Tibet, Boko Haram, and Hindu nationalism… we only, albeit to our shame, have attention for so much. As conflicts move into the past, we retain a few impressions about what happened, but our engagement in the conflict (and its aftermath) becomes more distanced, and we become less invested. The more such conflicts appear firmly in the past, the less likely it is that we will know anything about them at all. How many people can simply call up an interesting or relevant fact about the Crimean War (1853-1856) or the Thirty-Years War (1618-1648)? A more recent example of a conflict that has quickly passed of concern for many (particularly in North America) is the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq. This is the setting of Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s most recent book, Thirst (Melville House, 2014). At minimum it will make the reader stumble over the indifference with which we dismiss any of the wars in our world. 

Dowlatabadi is perhaps most famous in Iran for his monumental Kelidar, a saga that took him fifteen years to write (and by monumental, I mean that it may be the longest Persian novel in history: it is roughly 3,000 pages and is published as ten books). Unfortunately, Kelidar is not available in English, though it has been partially translated into German. The Colonel (written in the early 80s, published in English in 2012 and never published in Iran) has begun to garner him attention recently, and it is attention that is well deserved. Born in Iran in 1940, Dowlatabadi’s acting and writing attracted the attention of the Shah’s secret police in the 70s (Dowlatabadi had been acting in Brecht and Arthur Miller plays, as well as publishing). Famously, he reports that when he asked what crime he had committed, the police told him, “None, but everyone we arrest seems to have copies of your novels, so that makes you provocative to revolutionaries."

In Thirst, Dowlatabadi tackles the subject of the Iran-Iraq War, a conflict that many in North America may be unaware of but whose scars are still very visible today. Though history can provide centuries of conflict between Baghdad and Persia, the causes of the more contemporary conflict are (at least somewhat) more clearly identifiable. In the seventies Saddam Hussein had come to power, and things were proceeding well economically in Iraq at the same time the power of the Shah in Iran was weakening and Iran was moving towards revolution. On the border between Iran and Iraq is a waterway, the Shatt al-Arab; under the terms of a 1937 treaty, Iraq and Iran ostensibly shared the waterway, but the terms of the agreement heavily favored Iraq. As Iranian power grew in the mid-20th century, Iran under the Shah exerted more influence, and in 1969 rejected the earlier treaty. After a period of intense tension that lasted more or less until 1980 (bolstered by concern about how the Iranian Revolution was affecting Iraq’s significant Shia minority), Saddam Hussein rejected the most recent agreements on the waterway. Iraq invaded Iran on 22 September, 1980, beginning a disastrous eight-year war. The Iran-Iraq war saw the bombing of Tehran, roughly one million deaths (more or less equally distributed between combatants and civilians) and the extensive use of chemical weapons. It is in the middle of this conflict that Dowlatabadi has set him most recent novel.

A caution: Thirst may not be a style that appeals to all readers. Drawing on the tradition of Arabic literature (also demonstrated in a more accessible form in Samar Yazbek’s recent novel Cinnamon), Thirst is often impressionistic and highly magical in its realism. The focus of the novel is not a narrative per se, but a moment and its enunciation. Opening on a site of stalemated battle in the desert, that battle is the first reference to the title of the book, as the survivors, pinned down, attempt to manage their wounds, their fear, and most of all the deadly thirst that they know is slowly killing them. In Dowlatabadi’s text, the precise ‘reality’ of this moment is not in question, though it may be unclear to the reader; a battle like this is also the subject of a writer’s work, work that is being interrupted by the relentless pressure of government propagandists. Dowlatabadi’s complex prose style can feel fractured, but the disparate streams of events that give the novel an initially abstract feel weave themselves more and more tightly together as the book goes on (albeit without providing ultimate narrative clarity). Though I cannot speak to the original text, Marion E. Weir’s translation has resulted in an impressive book that retains the flavor of a foreign text – the decision to provide carefully chosen and relevant footnotes is very effective. 

Iranian soldier saying goodbye to his children (an undated photo of the Iran-Iraq war).

Thirst leaves no quarter for war, and it is unflinching in its description of what war does to the human body and the human soul. And there is, with one exception, little reference to the greater political context of the war. Dowlatabadi’s war is one that does not topple governments (on the contrary) but which peels the flesh from the faces of stranded and dying soldiers and strips them of their memory as they dissolve. In one of the more stand-alone moments of the book, a woman describes trying to clean her husband’s clothes and equipment when he comes in from the field for a visit; though the process is described largely in relationship to texture and consistency – with no gratuitous blood or guts – it is deeply nauseating. By contrast, the tableau in which one soldier feeds another his blood to stave off dehydration mania is imbued with a sense of care and even love that renders it far more marvelous than disturbing. At moments, the characters so occupied in their own way with surviving the war speak with a kind of basic honesty that is breathtaking. At one point a solider is asked why he did not kill an enemy solider. He responds that he “can’t kill a human.” The interrogating officer is shocked, and the soldier explains:
It’s quite simple, sir. Soldiers are different from human beings. You can’t see a soldier’s face from far away. They usually move in groups, as enemy units. You kill a nameless opponent. A soldiers or soldiers are killed with your weapon and they fall to the ground. But a human being… No! That morning, the small of my prisoner’s back was drenched in sweat, which left a trail of perspiration on that part of his jacket…
But in another vignette we see the moment when a soldier chooses not to kill his prisoner, a moment of screaming in the desert when self seems utterly lost. The characters in Thirst swing between these poles in the most human way imaginable, between the almost prophetically lucid and the speechless and screaming. Most of the reader’s time is spent with one or another of the men that populate the book – in fact, it is often unclear when the characters are speaking to one another and when they are attempting to understand and react and survive in their own heads. Their uniqueness as individuals pervades all the interactions in Thirst, whether it is between soldiers, or between a writer and his government ‘handler.’ By the end of the book, most are destroyed.

And that is what this book says, if nothing else, about war: that there is no way out for the people who are lost inside of it. Whether it is the physicality of war or the government that makes and uses and builds upon that war for its own purposes that is so toxic, Dowlatabadi’s final words ring, multivalent, by the time the reader arrives at them: “there were many who were lost in the desert. Once lost, very few managed to escape the wasteland.”

– Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on. 

1 comment:

  1. Great review, loved the book, even if it was kind of a mindfuck at times.