On Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, winner of the Jan Michalski Prize

Sahar Delijani charts the career of  Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, winner of the 2013 Jan Michalski Prize, and how his work has forged the conscience of his nation. Sahar’s PEN Atlas piece precedes an exclusive Q&A with Mahmoud Dowlatabadi There is no Iranian who does not have a personal relationship with Mahmoud Dowlatabadi and his books. We all remember the time we read his ten-volume-saga Kelidar, his most well-known and loved novel, which tells the story of a nomadic Kurdish family during the politically troubled times of post World Word II in Iran.Undeniably one of the most important novels ever written in Farsi, this epic family saga tore through contemporary Persian prose, a majestic manifestation of literary mastery; and nothing either in us or in modern Persian literature was ever the same since.I was seventeen when I read Kelidar. Upon leaving our redbrick house in Tehran for a new life in Northern California, the first five volumes of the book were among my most precious possessions neatly packed in my blue suitcase. My mother brought the other five. I began reading at my grandparents’ home with its soft carpet and pink roses, facing the grandiosity of the Pacific Ocean. I remember the wind, the perfume of the freshly watered flowerbeds, and the tears running down my face because Dowlatabadi’s recounting of a history that I knew very little about just cut too close to the bone. And I was not the only one. The entire nation of Iran, three generations already, have seen themselves reflected in the characters Dowlatabadi has created. We have grown up with his novels, pondered with his characters, suffered with them, asked questions with them, made their stories our own.Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is Iran’s most prominent living novelist. He has written several novellas, short stories and more than ten novels, such as Missing Soluch, The Colonel, and Besmal, which have been translated into English. His works cover Iranian history from feudalism to modernity, from rural to urban life and the mass migrations from villages to cities, and set upon revealing the contradictions in a society where the more traditional modes of thoughts embedded in us since ancient times come head to head with a modern, cosmopolitan existence, leading to the disintegration of rural life and the beginning of what we know as modern Iran.As a child of a poor shoemaker in a remote village in the north-western part of Iran and as a young émigré to Tehran pursuing his love for theater while doing menial jobs for a living, Dowlatabadi is a writer who is intimate with the subjects of his novels, has lived with them, has been one of them. His background as a worker and a farmer has set the fundamental basis for his writing; personal experiences from which he draws consistently in his work. His sensual language, he claims, is a result of his work on the fields where he learned “to adorn what I had in my hands. The same way I learned how to grace language.”Barely having time between several jobs, the young Dowlatabadi used any moment he had to write. His love for writing began with letters he wrote to his family, above all his father and friends. A metaphor he once used in a letter to a friend, he says, triggered that first spark to set off what would soon become one of the most distinguished voices in contemporary literature.Dowlatabadi wrote for several years before he felt ready to embark upon the 3000-page-novel, Kelidar, which took nearly fifteen years to complete. While writing, Dowlatabadi was arrested by the Savak, the Shah’s secret police, and spent two years in jail, where he gained a reputation as “Mahmoud the golden hand” for the haircuts he gave to his 170 cell-mates. When he asked his interrogators what crime he had been arrested for, they confessed that there was no crime, “but everyone we arrest has copies of your novels.” Thus Dowlatabadi had already begun to give form to the consciousness of a nation.Using a language rich both with poetry and oral speech and expressions, Dowlatabadi has put into words the epic narratives of our country. Stories of villages, fields and mountains, revolts and injustice, upheavals and guns and love, of the forgotten and the forgetting, the wronged and the wrongdoer, of pride and pity, solidarity and solitude, and of a nation taking step after step through a tumultuous history, seeking a more just future. Dowlatabadi’s prose is descriptive, lyrical and unflinching. They are words to be savoured, stories to be remembered, and perhaps lessons to be learned from a writer who set out to safeguard not only our contemporary literature but also a piece of our historical memory.About the authorSahar Delijani was born in Iran and grew up in California. She was born in Evin Prison in Tehran, Iran in 1983, the same year both her parents were arrested due to their political activism against the Islamic regime. In 1996, when she was 12 years old, her parents decided to move to Northern California to join her mother’s family. Delijani was registered in a middle school, starting from 7th grade.In 2002, Delijani gained a place at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a BA degree in Comparative Literature. In 2006, after having met her husband at Berkeley, she moved to Turin, Italy, where she has lived ever since.Her debut novel, Children of the Jacaranda Tree, will be published in more than 70 countries and translated into 25 languages. It is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.Additional informationThe 2013 Jan Michalski Prize was awarded on 13 November to Mahmoud Dowlatabadi for his novel The Colonel