by Susan Abraham
The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadivi is a no-holds barred war story. It offers an intriguing storyline and one laced with tragedy, from start to finish. The dense plot reflecting battlefronts with the same atmospheric aura as pitiful families, lies condensed within this 292-page paperback, that may remain as beautifully encased and yet as vulnerable, as I still remember another beloved war story. That was Fair Stood the Wind for France, written by the famous gentleman farmer and prolific novelist, H.E. Bates (1944, UK).
In The Age of Orphans, the reader is treated to shocking disclosures of barbaric violence attributed to torture of rebel fighters and the odd sexual encounter, through mismatched opportunity between hero and villian. In the same breath, Khadivi’s brilliant literary genius, is careful to caress ruffled feathers and brutal scenes, using an assortment of haunting reflections. Her refined and elegant vocabulary is beguiling, to say the least.
Briefly, the crux of the plot is that it starts off being set, in the early turn of the 20th century, before the Shah of Persia, came into power. It will eventually work its way down into modernity. Reza, a little Kurdish boy, living with his father’s rebel and misplaced tribe, high up in the Zagros (Persian) Mountains, idolises his Maman (mother), while all around him, brave men prepare to take on the army.
The Kurds want their own land and country. Unaware, Reza appears tender, gentle and sensitive…a kind, pensive little boy who takes delight in heaping affection upon his mother and by feeding at her breasts, every chance he gets. However, he is prepared for early manhood by his father and neighbouring men, who take him into the caves and through a painful ritual, announce his manhood.
Reza suffers the first injustice at being separated from his Maman. A man no longer suckles at his mother’s breasts he is told with fury by an irate, rude father…often callous to his son’s demands. To Reza’s red-faced candour and very much a misfit in his own society, he is laughed at by the others and teased by the girls. He and his mother meet in a secret place, so that Reza may still feed on her milk. This secret tryst is soon discovered by the menfolk who laugh out loud and make his maman go insane. Being unofficially mad, she takes to hovering about in an isolated garden. Reza is eventually taken into battle with his father, where ambitious plans fail dismally in an army massacre. Reza observes the series of brutal murders with horror and that of his own father, being stabbed and kicked to death.
The foundation of the novel, begins from here.
Reza is adopted by an insensitive but amused army, together with other orphaned little boys who all vye for favour with rivalry, and soon begin their training as soldiers. Eventually, Reza rises into a powerful rank and with a stern, po-faced conjecture but terribly guilty conscience at the same time, fights against his own people. The Kurds naturally see him as a traitor but are too afraid of his power. However, one cruel farmer, takes actions into his own hands that will change Reza’s destiny in a shocking, sudden way. By now, our protagonist has properly hardened his heart and turned appropriately cold and distant, towards everyone in general. He contains all the attributes of an actor, heroic, handsome, brooding and charismatic.
Reza marries a beautiful Persian woman, with a mind of her own. She hates the Kurds and brings their children up to reflect the same misgivings. Materialistic and selfish, she takes revenge on Reza, whom she feels has short-changed her with a failed promise of glitzy wealth and status, by sleeping with other men. She earns herself a scarlet reputation.
Not that Reza minds of course. As the years flee and we now see ourselves in modern-day Iran, we also observe an increasily brooding Reza, who feels an immsense sadness at having betrayed the Kurds. He has never got over missing and losing his mother and through a chained series of events, this is naturally reflected in Reza’s initial experience with women.
The novel grows with sharp strength as the plot progresses through Khadivi’s easy ability, that allows her to reveal the often hidden but affectionate heart of Reza. Slowly but surely, despite all his brutalities, the reader learns to love him. Khadivi avoids the usual sentiment associated with heartbreaking novels, that trace a deep sense of emotion.
She does this by seeming to write with a strong masculine hand and one suspects that she rides through her own played out brutal scenes, with nary the blink of an eyelid. Her story is devoid of emotion and sentiment is played out through narration. One expects a thick maze of skilled literary metaphors and complex wordplay, poetic in rhythm and structure, and all of which are managed beautifully by Khadivi herself.
I rarely do this, but I feel that unless one is at home with serious fiction, I become protective of the author’s genius in this case, to warn the lover of general fiction or lighter literary reads, so as to thread with caution. Perhaps because I am a writer myself, that it would pain me to hear someone complain of a novel being too complex or dry, or dull, solely because of a lack of capacity to understand the author’s cleverness.
I marvel at the workings of the human spirit that seek to expand the mind and heart to unfathomable possbilities. And so it currently is with me. From an intial love of Middle-Eastern literature, I fell in love with Iranian culture and the Arts and to think, that I am now deeply curious about Kurdish history and literature. This, however gothic and foreboding, it may appear to be. My only other experience with Kurdish history and society has been in the form of a famous Iranian film, called Blackboards, made by one of the nation’s youngest award-winning film directors, 28 year old Samira Makhmalbaf.
I was held captivated by the vast isolated landscapes that made for the border of Iran and Iraq, and the lifelike performance of Kurdish refugees on their way to escaping an enemy life. The refugees all nurtured a sole dream…to reach a promised land and despite its serious connotations; the film proved highly comical and witty, with its never-ending satire. It all involved a small group of men who carried blackboards like bird wings, on their backs, so as to bring education to remote regions. However through a certain circumstance, a teacher end up trailing the refugees instead and reluctantly enters her own chapter of high comedy.