Laleh Khadivi’s luminescent writing in her first novel, The Age of Orphans, speaks of Kurdish subjugation for most of the past hundred years, approaching what some of the Kurds’ neighbors would clearly prefer: obliteration. Though born in Iran in 1977, the writer herself has spent much of her life in the United States, most recently completing this novel–described as the first volume of a trilogy focusing on Kurdish men in the twentieth century. These goals are admirable, but Khadivi will need to bolster her exquisite prose with more action and dialogue if she hopes to grow a significant following of readers.
The protagonist of Khadivi’s narrative—while still breast-feeding, years beyond what would be considered normal–is circumcised and, somewhat later, trundled off to war where he observes his father’s death. He’s the only survivor from his village and, at age eleven, fully vulnerable to the Shah’s soldiers who are intent on pacifying the Kurds in the southwestern part of the newly-formed Iran (1921). Soldiers identify the boy as a tribal conscript, someone they can use to strengthen their country, and re-name him Reza Pejman Khourdi. Quickly, he’s programmed to fight for the new Iran.
“There are few conversations as the boys in the barracks are re-familied and re-clanned, instructed to gather every morning, noon and night as soldiers for the shah. They wake to the same pistol fire, eat the same long fold of lavash, piss into the same stinking trough. Together they mingle their blood, pus, semen and spit together in a soldier sauce that melds many into the one body and the one mind and one memory until origin is of no consequence. They are boys, conscripts, vassals of the non-yet-nation, and at night they a mass in dank barracks and sit supplicant before a framed portrait of the shah to chant the six-minute paean to the painted likeness.”
“God praise the Persian nation, and God protect His Most Honorable Majesty, the King of Kings, Shahenshah Pahlavi. The first.”
Khourdi’s deracination follows a grandiose plan: “further military indoctrination; possible marriage with a Tehrani woman of some education and modernity; an eventual assignment in the Kurdish region near his home of Kermanshah, where he will understand and discipline his own. In this way we become our nation bringing those from outside in.” The quotation is supposedly from a military document.
Accordingly, at age nineteen, Reza is married to a Tehrani woman and then quickly packed off (while she is pregnant) to Kermanshah, where he becomes the state’s administrator for the next thirty years. Six children are born from the marriage during the first ten years, but the numerous offspring in no way imply a happy marriage. Khourdi prefers the prostitutes at the local whorehouse. His wife, Meena, eventually cuckolds him with a series of younger men.
And all the while, Reza is there to thwart any attempts the Kurds may have for their own statehood. Revolts are put down by Khourdi’s soldiers. The Kurds are constantly vilified as dirty, uneducated, and not smart enough to handle their own affairs. A young lieutenant states to Khourdi, “To have a state of their own, can you believe it…. They are but Kurds; what would they do with a nation?” Behind Khourdi’s back, the Iranian soldiers refer to him as “a captain in command of nothing.” Worse, in his growing frustration and awareness that he is little more than vehicle for pacifying his own people, Khourdi becomes impotent.
Much of what might have become an interesting psychological exploration of a man losing his cultural identity is given over, instead, to elaborately embroidered prose. Until late in the novel, much of the implied action is inert. The dialogue is often so sparse that what might have been a revealing character study becomes instead a summarized account of a man, slowly reaching old age and only then recognizing the need to reclaim his obliterated cultural origins. The elegance of Khadivi’s prose is not enough to sustain an interest in her hero’s passive life. Hopefully, by the time she completes the second volume of her work, she will have learned to employ a variety of more interesting narrative techniques.
The Age of Orphans
Bloomsbury, 289 pp., $24.00.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.