Disoriental – Négar Djavadi (tr. Tina Kover)

My parents lived the first couple of years of their married life in Iran, when my father bagged a plum posting there. They led a vibrant and dynamic life, fond memories of which they cherish even today. That posting and their life would have continued had it not been for the dramatic change of plans that Fate had in store for them.

As the winds of the Iranian Revolution began blowing harder, my parents like the rest of the ‘outsiders’ in the country were compelled to flee. Things came to such a head that when plans for the actual departure were put into action, my parents realized that the demand for airtickets had increased dramatically…meaning they had to grab whatever tickets they were able to lay their hands on.

That meant my parents would have to settle for tickets in different planes. In other words, they could not travel together, but had to do so separately. To add to the drama and the overall state of anxiety, my mother was pregnant with me at the time.

Having no choice, my parents went ahead with the plan. It was a wise decision. The next day, the airport in the country shut down.

My parents, travelling in different planes, landed safely and a few months later I was born.

Now, typically children are always interested in their parents’ story, and this particular one continues to fascinate me even today. It has consequently piqued my interest in literature which has been set in the country around that time.

Disoriental by the Iranian-French author Négar Djavadi fit the bill perfectly.

(Meanwhile, the author replied to me…Scroll down to the end of this post to see her response to my personal story…)

Disoriental
Europa Editions

Disoriental is an enthralling tale of an Iranian family spanning generations, touching on themes such as the consequences of revolution, adapting to a life in exile, and being comfortable with how different you are.

Our narrator is a young woman called Kimia Sadr, and in the first few pages itself we realize that she is in an unusual place, a fact which is not lost on her either. Kimia is in a fertility clinic in Paris carrying a tube containing sperms. But unlike the other people in the waiting room who are couples, Kimia is alone.

The time spent waiting in the clinic gives Kimia time to reflect on her past, a past that is rich and multilayered. Kimia’s roots are Iranian and she goes on to give an absorbing account of her sprawling, multidimensional family across generations based in Iran, her parents Darius and Sara and their revolutionary fervor, various political upheavals in Iran at the time, how Darius and Sara along with Kimia and her elder sisters migrated to Paris, and their life there trying to adjust.

When describing her family roots, Kimia goes back as far as her paternal great grandfather Montazemolmolk and his harem of 52 wives based in Mazandaran, Iran. His last wife dies in childbirth but not before giving birth to his daughter Nour, a child with blue eyes. The obsession with blue eyes is a feature that is carried on down the generations.

Nour has six sons, one of whom is Darius, Kimia’s father. We are then given glimpses of each of these sons, referred to as Uncles but numerically. Uncle Number Two features more often than not, a tragic figure who is very close to his mother Nour, and harbours a deep secret, which cannot come to the fore in Iranian society.

But the main focal points are Kimia’s parents Darius and Sara. Darius is a well-respected journalist, not afraid of putting forth his views against Iran’s political system. He is shown to be a rebel right at the outset. Unlike his brothers who believe in living a traditional life that involves marriage and children, Darius is the bookish, intelligent child, preferring a life that revolves around writing and reading. That is until he meets Sara, marrying her and going on to have three daughters – Leili, Mina and Kimia.

Iran is as much a character in this story as are the Sadrs. We know that Mossaddegh, the Prime Minister of Iran in the Fifties was deposed by the British and Americans to pave the way for the Shah, who proclaimed himself King. The atrocities against the Iranian people continued, sparking the flames of the Iranian revolution, and the ascent of the Ayatollah Khomeini. In some instances, the author Djavadi provides the historical and political accounts in footnotes, a strategy that works very well.

Darius is strongly opposed to both the political regimes – that of the Shah earlier, and Khomeini later – and Kimia highlights the consequences this has on the family. Darius is not alone in his rebellion though. Sara, a teacher while in Iran, proves to be an equal partner in their marriage, fiercely supporting her husband in his endeavors as well as writing her own account of that time.

If he, the black sheep of two horrendously rich families, raised among people who cared nothing for the future, crammed with book-learning, a doctor of philosophy from the Sorbonne, didn’t do it – didn’t tear down the Empire’s insolent red curtain to reveal the nauseating infection beneath – then who would?

In the midst of all this, Kimia gives a perspective on her own life – growing up in the Sadr family, her relationship with her sisters, her attempts to understand and bond with Darius, and her struggle trying understand her true self, trying to find a balance between her familial roots In Iran and the modern life she is now leading in Paris.

Coming from a traditional Iranian family, Kimia realizes she is different in an environment where uniqueness is not necessarily appreciated. She is trying to figure out who she is – her identity, her sexuality – whilst immersing herself at first in a lifestyle revolving around punk rock, drugs and junkies. All before she finds her partner with whom she wants to spend her life and also raise a child.

While Disoriental is a tale about family and rebellion, it is also a tale about exile. In their new life in Paris, Darius and Sara struggle to blend in with its people, finding it difficult to completely cut off ties with Iran, while Kimia’s sisters learn to adapt to a Parisian way of living in their own ways.

She (Sara) doubtlessly didn’t know who we were anymore, or what she had a right to expect from us, now that our promised land had turned out to be a road to nowhere. Our uprooting had turned us into strangers, not only to other people, but to one another. People always think hard times bring you closer together, but that’s not the case with exile. Survival is a very personal matter.

Disoriental, then, is a wonderfully and intelligently rendered tale. There is so much going on this novel…it’s a story about Iranian culture and a way of life simmering with rich flavours. In Kimia, the author Djavadi has created a strong raconteur whose voice is engaging and chatty immediately drawing the reader in. Her storytelling is not linear because Kimia chooses to go back and forth across time focusing on a particular topic rather than sticking strictly to a timeline…all building up to THE EVENT which is alluded to earlier on in the novel, but revealed only much later. But at no point did the narration feel loose or baggy, Kimia is well in command of the story she wants to tell.

All I know is that these pages won’t be linear.  Talking about the present means I have to go deep into the past, to cross borders and scale mountains and go back to that lake so enormous they call it a sea.  I have to let myself be guided by the flow of images and free associations, the natural fits and starts, the hollows and bumps carved into my memories by time. 

In terms of the writing, Djavadi’s prose is lush, passionate and immersive enabling the reader to get completely caught up in Kimia’s high-spirited personality and her heartbreaking and sensitive portrayal of her family and the slew of upheavals they have to grapple with.

Indeed, the novel raises the basic question of the challenges of displacement. In countries embroiled in war, immigrants flee to safer places looking to escape death and persecution and hope for a better standard of living. Those who manage to secure asylum have certainly crossed the first hurdle – they don’t have to worry about the possibility of death every day. But then steadily, the next hurdle has to be crossed – how to assimilate themselves in the society of the new country where they have sought refuge. It’s not always easy. Change is tough and challenging, and not everyone can successfully manage it.

In fact, Disoriental is an apt title for the novel signifying a clever play of words. It is a tale based in Iran, which is in the East, a region otherwise known as the Orient. But it also means how refugees or people in exile are disoriented by the displacement and the challenges of starting life afresh in a new country with a completely different culture. Dis-oriental could also mean shedding off your Eastern origins and embracing the Western way of living.

All in all, Disoriental is a vivid, pulsating novel and one I am unlikely to forget anytime soon. Highly recommended!

Translation credits from the French go to Tina Kover.

P.S.: This is one of those posts which has a personal touch – a story about my parents in a country they would have settled in (and where I would have been born) had Fate not decided otherwise.

I put this post up on Twitter, and here’s how the author Négar Djavadi responded…

Djavadi reply

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The first Margaret Atwood I read many years ago was The Blind Assassin, and I remember being blown away by it.

Subsequently, I delved into her novels such as Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, Lady Oracle – all excellent. But The Blind Assassin remains my favourite.

There was still more of her work to explore, but as other authors clamoured for my attention, Atwood was pushed to the back shelves.

And then the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was released, winning accolades and critical acclaim.

I have yet to see the series. However, it gave be the push that I needed to finally lay my hands on another Atwood novel. Also, whenever there is a TV/film adaptation of a book, I prefer reading the book first.

So here goes…

Handmaid's Tale 1
Frontispiece from the Folio Society Edition

If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending…

But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else. Even when there is no one.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel and has become a much talked about book recently, not only because it has been adapted into a highly acclaimed TV series but also because of how its themes eerily mirror what we are seeing in the Trump era.

In the first half of the book, Atwood takes her time in setting up the story – the structure of Gilead, and the characters that people this oppressive regime, their roles and functions.

Gilead is a tyrannical system, where rules have to be strictly followed to the tee.

Within, there is also a dominant hierarchical system. Broadly speaking, the men mostly control the women. But even within each gender group, there are tiers.

For instance, in a typical household, there is the Commander with his wife. If the wife can’t conceive, there is a Handmaid assigned to the Commander, and her role is to breed children. The household also has a Martha, who is generally the housekeeper.

Women married to the poorer men are called Econowives. Essentially, every woman, depending upon her function, is expected to follow a certain dress code. The Handmaids wear the red dress with the white headgear.

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An Illustration from the Folio Society Edition

In the novel, the protagonist is the Handmaid called Offred. We are never explicitly told what Offred’s real name was before Gilead came into being. The name is a derivative of the male name Fred. So, Offred means she is Commander Fred’s Handmaid. In other words, Handmaids do not have an identity of their own. Also, the name is not unique. So if the Handmaid is transferred, the next Handmaid taking her place will also take on the same name. This itself gives the first indication that women in Gilead are controlled, are the property of men with no individuality of their own.

Gilead is a society with a strict set of rules and disciplines even when it comes to sex. Offred’s sex sessions with the Commander, called the Ceremony, are scheduled as per calendar (as is the case for the other Handmaids in other households too). Obviously, these are no passionate encounters by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the Commander’s Wife is also present on these occasions in a kind of a weird ménage-a-trois.

All this is one part of the Gilead set-up (there’s more), and as I mentioned earlier a large part of the first half of the novel goes into greater depths into the inner workings of the regime, painting a detailed picture of its rituals.

Interspersed in all this is the protagonist Offred’s story. Offred is among the first generation of Handmaids who has seen both worlds – a free United States, and subsequently a controlling Gilead.

Being alone in her own room gives Offred time on her hands to reminisce about the past, the people she was close too.

What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, criscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.

We learn that she was in a relationship with a man who was called Luke then, and they had a child together. But Offred has no clue of their fate in the current regime. Then there is her relationship with her mother (a difficult one), and the carefree times with her best friend Moira (a nonconformist and a rebel then as she is even now).

Those were the times when they wanted a brighter future…

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability? 

It was also when they thought about love…

The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.

And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time.

There is a good deal of comfort, now, in remembering this.

In the current regime, however, she does as she is told, doing her best to remain as ordinary as possible, to blend in. And there is the fervent hope that she becomes pregnant so that a nasty fate does not befall her.

There are other important characters in the story. Moira, of course. And Offred’s walking partner, Ofglen, who is also a Handmaid but in another household.

But the key ones are Commander Fred, the Commander’s Wife (Serena Joy), and the Guardian Nick, who is the Commander’s chauffeur.

It’s in the second half of the novel where the pace of the story picks up, the tension and terror mounts, and propels Offred’s fate. For starters, the Commander, one day, expects Offred to visit him in his study, which is forbidden as per rules of the regime. Is he attracted to her, seeking a night of passion?

Then there is Serena Joy, who despises Offred for obvious reasons, but has a plan which she puts forward to Offred, convinced it will be beneficial to both of them.

How will all of these developments determine Offred’s future?

Handmaid's Tale 3
An Illustration from the Folio Society Edition

The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that is brimming with themes and ideas.

The central theme of the novel is how a state chooses to control women in society giving rise to gender inequality. In a patriarchal world, continuation of the male line is considered to be of paramount importance. But this power rests with women because they are the ones giving birth. Therefore, there is this need to subdue women by exerting control over their reproductive rights. They have to breed no matter what…the fact that they can have a choice is denied them. This is true in the Gilead regime in the novel, and even in the real world, especially in those regions across the globe which have an abysmal record when it comes to women’s rights.

The other core subject is the power dynamics between men and women, and the horror of a woman losing her independence to a man. There is one particularly powerful and poignant section when Gilead starts taking control, and women all of a sudden begin to lose their rights and their independence…making Offred dependent for a short while on Luke.

You don’t know what it’s like, I said. I feel as if somebody cut off my feet. I wasn’t crying. Also, I couldn’t put my arms around him.

It’s only a job, he said, trying to soothe me.

I guess you get all the money, I said. And I’m not even dead. I was trying for a joke, but it came out sounding macabre.

There’s more…

That night, after I’d lost my job, Luke wanted me to make love. Why didn’t I want to?

What’s the matter? He said.

I don’t know, I said.

We still have…he said. But he didn’t go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn’t be saying ‘we’, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.

We still have each other, I said. It was true. Then why did I sound, even to myself, so indifferent?

He kissed me then, as if now I’d said that, things could get back to normal. But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.

We are not each other’s anymore. Instead, I am his.

One of the themes in the novel is how we take things for granted, not appreciating the good moments or the importance of what we already have until it is too late.

We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?

Ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about rebellion, notably by the women. Each of the women in the story choose to resist the stifling and controlling environment in their own way. The obvious rebel is Moira – gutsy and daring, as is evident in her attempts to flee the regime. But there is also Ofglen, Offred’s walking partner, who later reveals to the latter that she is working for the Resistance (an underground movement), while maintaining an outward appearance of docility.

I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.

But what about Offred? Offred is a strong woman in her own right, even if she is not as fiery as her best friend Moira. At first, she diligently follows the rules set out for her, but as the book progresses, Offred gradually undergoes a transformation – it’s a subtle one – as she takes greater risks in working the system to meet her own ends.

I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something.

Again, what will all this mean for Offred’s future?

The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil.

Handmaid's Tale 4
Various Book Covers for The Handmaid’s Tale

Which brings me to how the novel ends. I will obviously not reveal what happens, but according to me, Atwood has given the novel a brilliant ending simply because of the ambiguity surrounding it.

There is a postscript which follows, which I thought was unnecessary because it attempted to give an explanation of what went on in the story while not claiming to provide any certain answers. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the novel could have been better without it.

But that is just a minor quibble. Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale remains a powerful read with much to think about especially with what is going on in our world today.

I will end with a quote from an introduction given by Margaret Atwood herself, in my lovely Folio Society edition, of what she was attempting to put across in her novel…

The Handmaid’s Tale has often been called a ‘female dystopia’, but that term is not strictly accurate. In a feminist dystopia pure and simple, all of the men would have greater rights than all of the women. It would be two-layered in structure: top layer men, bottom layer women. But Gilead is the usual kind of dictatorship: shaped like a pyramid, with the powerful of both sexes at the apex, the men generally outranking the women at the same level; then descending levels of power and status with men and women in each, all the way down to the bottom…

Handmaid's Tale 5
Vintage Dystopia and Folio Society Editions