Book Review: Disoriental, by Négar Djavadi (Translated from the French by Tina Kover for Europa editions)

Every now and then, I pick up a book I can’t breeze through over a weekend. I love those books: those witty, lovely beach reads. But, sometimes––sometimes, I crave a novel that makes me pause, makes me think, perhaps makes me look at my own prejudices with a bit of vinegary honesty. And, if the writing draws me in, makes me want to stay awhile … well, I stay awhile.

Disoriental is a book I read slowly over several weeks, partly to absorb the immense amount of information thrown at me––a veritable zeitgeist of historical, political and cultural data presented in an often disorienting way––and partly because Djavadi’s prose is so arresting, I found myself rereading sentences and passages for pleasure. Such as this one:

  But the regret remains, sometimes howling in your gut––regret at having left opportunities hanging, like threads on an article of old clothing, but on which you should never, ever pull.

Or, this one:

  During that year, Darius taught me to: play backgammon, fill his pipe with tobacco, shine shoes, use a dictionary, remember street names, make an omelette, cut articles out of the newspaper, watch a boxing match with Muhammad Ali, open Havez’s Divan, recite Persian poetry, take an interest in History, identify the flags of various countries, shovel snow off the balcony, love Harold Lloyd and westerns, tell the violin from the cello, speak as familiarly about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as if they were my friends, start the car, shift gears, and check the tire pressure before we got on the road to Mazandaran.

  And then summer ended.

It is with this sort of dizzying narrative that we follow the story of the Sadr family––and of Kamiâ Sadr, born “different” than her sisters––as they fight, hide and flee during the fight for freedom and democracy. She struggles to find herself, growing up in the shadow of her parents and Iranian revolutionaries, Darius and Sara, who valiantly oppose one oppressive regime after another until, finally, they are forced to flee their homeland. As a young woman, Kamiâ ponders her tragic and convoluted family history, while sitting in a doctor’s office in Paris, playing a waiting game where everyone, as Dr. Sues once told us, is just waiting. In Kamiâ’s case, she is waiting to learn whether or not she will soon become a parent. Written in first person point of view, Djavadi often brings you, the reader, directly into the story, as if we are waiting with her.

  But just be patient a little longer, dear Reader, and I will reveal to you what no Sadr has ever known.

This is a head-whipping tale spanning a turbulent century, of a people and of a time that had only ever touched my peripheral thought with fleeting strokes. Though this is a novel, it follows events in Iran’s history, sometimes feeling more like memoir than fiction. Many of the villains are all too real and recognized. The author, who is a screenwriter and lives in Paris, states in her biography that, after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, she fled Iran, then only eleven years old, crossing the Kurdistan mountains on horseback with her mother and sister. In this novel, Djavadi reveals, in excruciating and alluring detail, the harrowing cost of speaking out, the truth of having one’s country and one’s identity ripped from them, of drifting in a foreign land, amongst a foreign people, of having desires and dreams seemingly abhorrent to the rest of the world, of losing all hope and of losing––and then finding––oneself.

Winner of six awards, including the Prix du Style, Disoriental should be on your reading list. With its crash course in Persian history and defiance of prejudices, it shakes an angry fist at the soul crushing cycle of tyranny. Disoriental is a great book club book, as it serves to remind us how fragile and fleeting freedom and democracy truly are.

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