Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Disoriental

with one comment

disorientalMy review of this excellent novel was first published at the Guardian.

From a fertility clinic waiting room, a single woman seated between couples – Kimiâ – recounts her family history. She promises at the start to follow “the natural fits and starts” of memory, and her narrative jumps across a time scale from a grandmother’s birth in a late 19th Century harem at the foot of the Alborz mountains (the great-grandfather’s thirtieth child), through Kimiâ’s Tehran childhood, to her present incarnation as a twenty-five-year-old French-Iranian punk fan.

“Disoriental”, Négar Djavadi’s sophisticated debut novel, teems with fully-realised characters. Kimiâ ’s immediate relatives – her parents Darius and Sara (both political activists), her big sisters, and uncles numbered one to six – are the most closely observed.

Djavadi’s beguiling tale-telling, cynical and lyrical by turns, extends to an account of Iranian history. Imperialist assaults, coups, revolts, and waves of repression crash against the steady background of a “phallocratic society”. Before Khomeini and compulsory veiling there was Shah Reza Pahlavi, the “pauper-turned-king” who “used a special militia to tear the veils from women’s heads.”

Kimiâ  (meaning ‘alchemy’) grows up a tomboy in a country which doesn’t recognise the concept. Nor – though it tolerates transexuality – does official Iran accept the existence of homosexuality. President Ahmadinejad is quoted: “We don’t have this phenomenon.”

But for now sexuality is the least of Kimiâ ’s problems, as first the Shah’s police and then the mullahs target her parents. The family escapes, but there’s no happy ending. Kimiâ ’s father is broken in exile, avoiding the metro escalator because it’s “for them” (the French). Djavadi treats the immigrant condition with intelligence and compassion, exploring how to integrate into a culture “you have to disintegrate first”.

It’s also possible to migrate (metaphorically) without ever leaving home. The Islamic Revolution proves the point by changing street names, “confusing and blurring landmarks and memories.” As the prose swoops back and forth from living, breathing domestic detail to the global and universal, Kimiâ  in the waiting room realises finally that all of us are travellers, exiled from our first home through the uterine canal – “that dark hyphen between the past and the future which, once crossed, closes again and condemns you to wander.”

Spiced with hooks and foreshadowings, and tempered by strategic reticence, this novel compels the reader’s attention as consistently as it entertains. Packed with big issues, from AIDS to the rise of the far right – and brilliantly translated by Tina Kover – “Disoriental” is highly recommended.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 28, 2018 at 10:54 am

Posted in book review, France, Iran

Tagged with ,

One Response

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  1. Brilliant, loved it. Engaging, thought provoking, insightful and a damn good read.

    Claire 'Word by Word'

    August 18, 2018 at 10:14 am


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