Iran as his father lived it
Talk about underselling a story. Kader Abdolah first situates My Father's Notebook in the Iranian city of Senejan, a place that the narrator immediately informs us "is not beautiful and has no history to speak of."Skip to next paragraph
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Senejan, he continues, is known for no particular food or product; its only claim to fame - apart from a dried-up riverbed - is a long-ago poet who wrote about the way the wind dumps sand on the heads of the city's residents.
However, readers hoping for a bit more of the beautiful and sublime in Iran need not despair. Just two pages later the scene shifts to the narrator's father's birthplace, a delightful village "covered with almond blossoms in the spring and with almonds in the fall."
Such is the Iran created in this novel. In a narrative so clean and simple that it often has the feel of a fairy tale, the author gives us a country where myth and unlovely reality meet and mingle, where an opium-induced haze can be confused with wisdom, and where bird song and gunshot both have their place.
The narrator of "My Father's Notebook" is Ishmael, son of Aga Akbar, the deaf-mute son of a nobleman and skilful repairer of carpets.
Aga Akbar is not an ideal parent. His disability makes him gruff and thoughtless, he comes and goes at his own pleasure, and at one point he drags his family into poverty and grief in order to pursue a feckless flirt.
But the young boy never questions his tie to his father. On the contrary, he becomes particularly adept at the sign language his father has invented and readily accepts his special role as Aga Akbar's ambassador to the world.
As an adult, Ishmael discovers that Aga Akbar long kept a notebook filled with cuneiform characters derived from ancient Persian. The son struggles to translate his father's writing. He cannot, but the effort to do so inspires Ishmael to write a book - this novel - to tell his father's story to the world.
It's a neatly realized conceit. The father-son relationship gives Ishmael a means of exploring his deep and troubled love for his country.
The story of Aga Akbar also serves as a history of the Iran of his times. Blessed by being born into a land of rich tradition and simple rural pleasures, Aga Akbar is also cursed by being surrounded by provincialism and superstition.
When a railroad finally blasts its way through his region's mountains, a young Aga Akbar has a surprising encounter with Reza Shah (the father of the last shah of Iran), who is busy forcing modernity down the throats of his subjects.
Kader Abdolah (not his real name - the author today lives in exile in the Netherlands and writes in Dutch) is a natural storyteller who here uses his skills to meld the personal with the political.
The story of the marriage of Aga Akbar's parents (a serving girl and a nobleman with a gun ever slung over his shoulder) hints at the life of a remote village. Then the tale of a clever young imam named Khomeini who spoke rousingly in a mosque in Qom before clambering over the roof to escape reminds us how the mentality of that village will help to shape history.
Occasionally Abdolah's need to teach the reader about Iran becomes burdensome (as when we get dragged through newspaper clips about former Iranian prime minister Mosaddeq) and sometimes the narrative runs down a dead end (Why exactly do we need to travel to the Dutch seaside with a disabled Dutchman in a chapter that opens with a dictionary definition of "dunes"?).
But for the most part, this somewhat dreamy tale succeeds in conjuring the richness of the world that Ishmael left behind. It also conveys the heartache of an exile who cannot help but feel a traitor as he leaves his father and his country to their fates.
For the reader, too, leaving Aga Akbar is a wrenching experience. A gaunt, slightly ridiculous figure at the end, he is also a man who loves his children unfailingly, whether he understands them or not.
Aga Akbar's incomprehension in the face of Iran's rapidly shifting political scene is moving as well. How can a man trained to unquestioning loyalty understand whether a shah or an imam is a better ruler?
It's a political question, but one given a compellingly personal edge through the story of one family.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.