The Age of Orphans, By Laleh Khadivi

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Laleh Khadivi's debut novel, remarkable for its beautiful and brutal poetry, tells the story of a lost Kurdish child and the history of "this invisible thing called Iran". It is 1921 and an unnamed Kurdish boy is orphaned after a bloody battle between Kurdish tribesmen and the new Iranian army in the Zagros mountains.

"The boy lives through a night forgotten by history, where the men of the land and soldiers of the shah take to each other with bullet, knife, curse and bludgeon to craft a single composition, the precise choreography of flesh puppets, strung to a thousand stars and pulled as sparring lovers, to and from the flame, to and from the gouge, to and from the stab and shot, their beating hearts like magnets charged to the opposite pulls of victory and death."

After the carnage, the child becomes the slave of the Iranian soldiers. The violence of war is mirrored in the violence of language. A bureaucrat renames him Reza, after the Shah, Khourdi, for his tribal origins and as an afterthought throws in the middle name Pejman, broken-hearted. With his hard, polished soldiers' boots, and his new identity, Reza strives to belong to the new Iran and distinguishes himself in the military through his brutality against the Kurds.

As a reward he is sent to Tehran, where he marries a bookseller's daughter. Meena is urban, educated, everything that he is not. Together they imagine that they can be representatives of the new nation: the modern woman in her tight suit and her brave, ambitious Captain.

Reza's story is interwoven with the voices of his parents, his wife and children, the child he murders, the girl he rapes, the madame, the matchmaker, the midwife, his peers and superior officer, the birds, the sapling that marked his circumcision. The undertow of their witness undermines Reza's attempts to reinvent himself .

Meena's dreams are shattered by their posting to Kermanshah. The harsh magnificence of the arid and majestic landscape belittles the fragile aspirations of modernity they bring with them. Meena grows bitter when the gracious living, the marble floors and chandeliers promised her, fail to materialise. Over the years the marriage deteriorates. Reza "watches her grow against the land while he dissolves into it."

"What is this Iran? Who is this Iran?" the old tribesmen ask. It is a nothing, it is an idea, a mark on the map, the Captain tells them. Reza brings streets, cinema and Iranian citizenship to the Kurds, "but never the freedom to travel the borderless land or the stable sensation of home".

He is drawn back to the land of his birth but there is no reconciliation, only a return to murder and death. "The land will outlive us and there will be nothing but to lie atop each other: I lie on you, you on her, the lot of us on the bodies of the long dead."

There is no moral resolution or spiritual comfort at the conclusion of the novel, the first of a trilogy. Khadivi's writing is bleakly expressive and always sensitive to the alterity and particularity, the poetry and the politics of an individual life.