March 2009

Jacob Silverman

fiction

The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadivi

It is a strange feature of Laleh Khadivi's novel that it provides a list of who has owned the Kurds' land -- a list so central to the Kurdish narrative of dispossession -- in the midst of a description of a young orphan urinating. Khadivi writes:

The boy pees through the slats of wood and takes water from the cask as the medley of men and burdened beasts moves atop the arid earth that never belonged to anyone after the Parthians (once) and the Sassanids (once) and the Mongols (once) and the Turks (just then) and the Russians (now and then) and the shah (soon), and so the Kurdish clan moves on, to own whatever piece of land they step on or roll over or smash for just that single moment of impact and no longer.

But then Khadivi manages to extract profundities from unexpected, almost accidental places, as if her prose, often deliberately lyrical in a headstrong manner, refusing to be tamed, remains unaware of where and when important historical fragments or transcendent moments may be revealed. It is seemingly this writer's mission to throw everything she has at the page, and often it sticks, creating a frequently moving, dynamic story of cultural, political and familial orphanhood.

The Age of Orphans follows the life of a Kurdish boy, motherless at a young age, who is taken in by the soldiers of the newly ascendant Shah after they slaughter his father and a ragtag bunch of Kurdish freedom fighters. His initial name is forgotten, replaced by the name Reza Khourdi, the first name being a tribute to the Shah, who hovers over this novel like a mythic god, dispensing favors, punishments, and symbols through his prophets, all fallen and craven. The boy's new surname is an acknowledgment of his heritage that will haunt him throughout his days and forever cast him apart, no matter how fervently he devotes himself to the causes of his new country.

Lacking any other choice or purpose and tempted by the promises of power embodied in a gun, Reza Khourdi molds himself into a model soldier. He undergoes a process of self-actualization that causes him to cast aside his Kurdishness and seek solidarity with his fellow soldiers, many of them just like him: conscripts from the diverse tribal regions. His transformation is a hollow one, however, and Reza, despite his intense self-denial, is painfully aware of his aloneness, his separateness as a Kurd. When his young army unit begins to fragment along ethnic lines, abetted in part by Reza's own betrayal of one his peers, a sadness permeates the group. But no one is "as sad as Reza is sad, his sleepy heart broken by the loss of the brother love born so easily between them all on those first days, free of history and the gun-strong determinations of this new state."

Those first days are, of course, fleeting. Gun-strong determinations give way to costly efforts at taming the unruly tribal regions, like Reza's own Zagros Mountains, to where, after a succession of rapid promotions, he is sent to be the local commander and implementer of the Shah's edicts. He is sent there because his heritage allows him, in the view of one superior officer, a "keen understanding of the specific sensibilities unique to the Kurds."

In a more conventional novel, Reza's posting to the region of his childhood would create in him an unredeemable monster; in true ironic spirit, he would become the ultimate abuser of his own people. Fortunately, Khadivi is in possession of a lighter touch, even if her own prose style sometimes works against her. Reza's return to Zagros does indeed bring out a monster in him, but it also brings out much else: a man pining for his cultural heritage, for the mother whom he loved dearly, for a way to rid himself of memories and his unmistakably Kurdish features, and for a place in the new country that he at once serves and defies in quiet ways.

And though a complex portrait of the man emerges, Khadivi would, at times, be better served to let it develop more organically. Many passages feature a mass of orotund phrasings piled together with a succession of "and"s, no comma in sight to slow the verbal locomotive. These overdoses of locution are generally confined to the novel's first section, in which we see the young boy undergoing a traditional Kurdish rite-of-passage towards manhood, and then traveling to fight the Shah's army. There is a blurred quality to this "book," the first of five that make up the novel, where details seem to mass together without giving us a clear vision of who that boy really is -- even his age seems uncertain.

But that uncertainty and that tangle of pungent prose come, in hindsight, to be better appreciated. As the first section ends with Reza's father dead and the boy subsumed into the mass of the Shah's army, a kind of focus develops, casting the first section in relief. The narrative slows down, the horizon clears, and we can better see the view of who Reza is and who he may come to be: a tool of political forces beyond his control. That is not to say that the first book does not contain moments of startling force and clarity. Besides the intriguing passage quoted at the beginning of this review, consider also this description of the massacre of the Kurdish irregulars that the young Reza (then unnamed) marches with:

In these short instances and insufferable spans the boy lives through a night forgotten by history, where the men of the land and soldiers of the shah take to each other with bullet, knife, curse and bludgeon to craft a single composition

These descriptions, and the passages surrounding them, are loaded with a sense of the charged, chaotic atmosphere of battle. But in the rest of this sentence, bracketed off from the first portion by a semicolon, Khadivi's transcends the literal, as her prose speaks to a greater issue of why people -- generally men -- fight to the death and of how these messy, manic, deadly conflagrations are easily forgotten in time, compounding their futility. The rest of the sentence reads:

the precise choreography of flesh puppets, strung to a thousand stars and pulled as sparring lovers, to and from the flame, to and from the gouge, to and from the stab and shot, their beating hearts like magnets charged to the opposite pulls of victory and death.

It is a rich, heady lyricism, that, if not quite well earned, has the benefit of being daring, and of wisely casting the men as both victims and perpetrators of the intoxicating, deluded romanticism of war. They are "sparring lovers" with "beating hearts like magnets," mixed with fire and gore and cosmic purpose, but we are reminded that they have already been cast as something much less than they claim to be. In that word, "composition," denoting something symphonic, there is the connotation of beauty and genius, but their arrangement in fact reduces them to mere "flesh puppets." In this role, they are playing parts acted out many times before, with only the names and stories changed, and they are far more tragic for it.

When Khadivi allows herself to stray from this highly lyrical style, she reveals herself as a writer of much maturity, despite this being her debut novel. Interspersed in the novel are revealing first-person narratives from people who meet Reza. They provide a prismatic and humanizing perspective of the troubled young man. Later, in the opening of Book III, Khadivi chronicles Reza's arrival in Tehran -- the much-fabled, big, modern city of the Shah -- as a mix of fragments and brief sentences connected by ellipses. Once more, details are piled one on top of the other, but this time they cohere better, representing the overwhelming intoxication of this city steeped in culture, history, prostitutes, opium, busy marketplaces, dark solicitations, and crowds. Combined with an earlier telegram addressed to the Shah and written in a charmingly submissive, courtly style, Khadivi shows that she is a writer of diverse talents.

"What is this Iran? Who is this Iran?" some Kurdish villagers ask Reza, who by this point in the story is a "man milled down like stone into dust," tired of his wife and many children. He can't answer truthfully without exhausting himself. And it's not a surprise then that this novel closes just before the Islamic Revolution, with an air of utter inevitably, sweeps across the land. Like that list of conquerors, the ayatollahs are simply the latest in a line of aspirants, wiping out the old failed regime and trying to claim "this invisible thing called Iran."

The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadivi
Bloomsbury
ISBN: 1596916168
304 Pages