“The Colonel” by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi – Truth to Power

“The Colonel” by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi  (2009) –  220 pages Translated by Tom Patterdale


This novel is about the Iran Revolution of 1979, a revolution in the words of translator Tom Patterdale that “ate its own children.”

As this novel begins, the Colonel in his sixties is sitting in a room in his house in Rasht, Iran.  The time is the late 1980s.  The Colonel had spent time in prison in the 1970s for killing his adulterous wife.  His son Amir was imprisoned for political reasons at that time and tortured by members of the Shah’s CIA-trained intelligence agency SAVAK.  Now the revolution has taken place, the Shah is gone, and Amir, the victim of a long-term mental breakdown, is living in his father’s house.

Two of the Colonel’s five children are dead, and tonight the Colonel will find out that his daughter Parvaneh was also murdered by the fanatical religionists who now rule Iran.  Her crime was distributing pamphlets critical of the Khomeini government.   In 1988 many of the people who took up arms against the Shah as resistance fighters were executed as “dissidents” by Iran’s new Islamic ruling government of Khomeini.  Even the Shah and his SAVAK did not murder so many

As you can tell from the above, this is not a fun read.  So why read this book?  First of all Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is a powerful and courageous writer who while telling the story of the Colonel relates much of the history of Iran.  Iran is the home of one of the world’s great civilizations, Persia.   There have been hopeful times, times of good government in Iran, but the presence of oil has caused other countries including the United States, Russia, Israel, and Great Britain to meddle and interfere in Iran’s internal affairs.   When Iran finally rid itself of the Shah and the hated and feared SAVAK, who could blame Iran for withdrawing into isolation and religious fanaticism?  It has been over 33 years.

 “Who am I trying to fool?  I’m well aware that at every stage of history there have been crimes against humanity, and they couldn’t have happened without humans to commit them.  The crimes that have been visited on my children have been committed and still are being committed, by young people just like them, by people stirring up their delusions, giving them delusions of grandeur.  So why do I imagine that people might improve?  Everything going on around us seems to indicate that the values our forbears passed down to us no longer apply, Instead, we have seen the seeds of mistrust, skepticism and resignation, which will grow into a world of nihilism and cynicism, a jungle in which you will never find the courage to even mention the names of goodness, truth, and common humanity, a crop that is now bearing fruit with remarkable speed.  We are obliged to dig our own children’s graves, but what’s even more shocking is that these crimes are creating a future in which there is no place for truth and human decency.  Nobody dares to speak the truth any more.  Oh my poor children…we’re burying you , but you should realize that we are also digging a grave for our future.  Can you hear me?”   

 “The Colonel”  is unique in that it has been translated into English and German while it still has not been approved for publication in Iran.   This is a novel that deals with life and death and makes most novels published in the western world seem trivial in comparison.



2 responses to this post.

  1. Tony, this sounds fascinating. I have never heard of it, and don’t know the literature of Iran (but it sounds like no one does!). What a find! I don’t object to colonels’ points of view, either. Not that this is like Garcia Marquez’s magic realism, but his colonels and military characters are among my favorite character.



    • Hi Kat,
      I found out about this book at the Complete Review who gave it an A- which is very high for the Complete Review. It is not like Magic Realism; I’d call it Intense Realism with the Colonel being somewhat of a King Lear figure who must bury most of his children before himself. He is not much of a military figure from what I read, I suppose Doestoyevsky would be the famous writer Dowlatabadi most resembles in personal intensity.



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