My Father's Notebook, by Kader Abdolah, trans Susan Massotty

Weaving a magical carpet as Persia becomes Iran
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The Independent Culture

Backhanded though it is to begin reviewing a good novel at the late point where it starts to fall apart, fragmentation is so essential to My Father's Notebook that it seems appropriate. "I felt like an apple that had fallen from the bough. It could never be put back": the speaker is Ishmael, who must flee Iran for political reasons, leaving his family to cope. Through the novel, Ishmael's closest bond has been with his father, Aga Akbar. Once Ishmael has disappeared into the then USSR, he can only write from the safety of Holland. So he drops out of the strongest part of his own story, in a way indissoluble from the condition of exile - but it does fray the ending.

Fray is an echoing word in a story that starts when Iran was still called Persia, in a mountain village where women wove beautiful rugs, where the deaf-mute Aga Akbar became a wizard carpet-mender, and in which many threads of stories keep criss-crossing. Why did Kader Abdolah choose to have Akbar unable to hear or speak, and only literate in a script of his own devising? Perhaps it was to symbolise the chasm in custom and outlook between the old Persia of Akbar's parents, pre-Reza Shah's dictatorial modernising of the 1930s and 1940s, and the subsequent dictatorial rule of the clerics.

Kader Abdolah is a pen-name for a man who was once a physicist in Tehran. That he should be in Holland, and writing in Dutch, is all part of the cultural fracturing this novel sets out to map, understand and, in a new form, reintegrate. In that sense he, too, is a carpet-mender. The narrative, albeit in oblique, poetic ways, follows Akbar from his birth in a village "without a trace of the modern world", to his death, about 80 years later, during the time of Khomeini. The son of a noble and a servant, he is orphaned, then brought up by his uncle, an opium-smoking poet. The first aeroplanes appear, greeted by children as iron birds. Reza Shah snatches the headscarves off women and generally bullies Persia into his Westernised vision of modernity.

After his fall, his son replaces him. Ishmael is bred to be his father's interpreter. Akbar decides his children need educating, so the family moves to the city. Ishmael becomes a left-wing activist, first against the Shah, then the clerics, until imminent arrest forces him to escape. His life in Holland, beautifully evoked as it is, feels almost like another novel, with loose ends tied up at a distance.

The evocation of life on the new ground, literally, of the Dutch polder is only one example of how well Kader Abdolah writes. With seamlessly interwoven quotations from Persian and Dutch literature, deft storytelling and affectionate humour, he offers the reader buoyancy as well as weight. In Susan Massotty's translation, My Father's Notebook is a gift to English readers.

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