Friday, March 13, 2009

The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadavi - 304 pages


Book CoverReza Khourdi is a typical Kurdish boy: traipsing among the rooftops of his hometown, wishing he were following in the footsteps of the older men of the tribe and longing for the comfort of his mother. All that changes when Reza joins the elder men on a trip out to the far desert for his circumcision. The procedure is normal for boys of his age, and Reza feels the typical conflicting emotions about it. What happens next in the boy's life is not so typical. Traveling back towards home in the dark, his people are attacked and killed by the Shah's men, leaving Reza to be captured and conscripted into the Shah's army. Reza must now learn to fight against his own people and tribes, pushing them into submission and taking over their land and crops. As the boy becomes a man, his emotions and inhibitions begin to die, turning him into the perfect soldier: a man who is dead to his feelings and reactions, who willingly and almost fawningly strives to do the bidding of his commanders. As Reza catapults into higher and higher ranks, his loyalties to his army and to his former people are constantly in opposition to each other. He must forget everything about himself to push forward and destroy the Kurd enemy, an enemy that was once himself. After many years of the soldier's life, it is suggested to Reza that he take a Tehrani wife, which he does just as obediently as he can. Reza and his new bride struggle in more ways than one. Her hatred for his Kurdish roots and his silence are only some of the things that begin to cause problems. Soon Reza is promoted to Captain, and although his rank keeps advancing, his status in his household and among his men begins to plummet. He begins to find pockets of resistance within himself that he cannot expose, so he must try to alleviate the unhappiness and emotional clash in other ways. Reza's story is both disturbing and dark, a story of Iran that many have not yet heard, in a voice as trembling and horrifying as the events that surround his life.

This book was almost too much for me. The graphic violence was portrayed with such a dearth of emotion and such coarseness that I felt my spirit plummet every few pages. There were some instances of horrible child abuse in the book, such as the terrible way the soldiers treated young Reza when he was captured. It was almost terrifying to think about what a child's mind would do under those circumstances, and indeed those reactions manifested themselves all over the page in Reza's reactions. I also had a hard time with Reza's relationship with his mother before she died. I thought it was odd that a child of 7 or 8 was still so focused on suckling from his mother. I agree that different cultures have different timetables for most things, but his intense and insatiable desire for her milk seemed strange and a bit malevolent.

In addition there were many instances of vulgar imagery. The human body and all its sexual functions seemed almost completely devoid of taboo, which was strange, seeing as though other areas of the book were so reserved and cautious. On the other hand, once I got past the shocking aspects of the plot, I thought the book was very well written. At times the writing had a touch of stream of consciousness, and at times it arranged itself like good poetry, full of arresting and intricate imagery. The imagery was especially well done because it evoked a great sense of place. You could feel the aridness and brightness that surrounded the characters, and could see the barrenness of the desert in which they lived.

Another thing I liked was the way that various chapters were told from differing viewpoints. Though each narrator was only heard from once, this technique allowed a fuller picture of the story to be revealed and for more of a wholeness and fullness to exist in the narrative. I especially enjoyed the chapters from the women's point of view, because this remained mostly a masculine story, and these chapters exposed more of what the other side of the population was experiencing at the time. Reza himself as a character was a little hard to get used to. He didn't showcase any internal monologue, and it was only by outward factors that I could decipher just was must have been going on in his head. This wasn't really a problem in the beginning of the book, for as a child he was much more prone to display some types of behaviors and reactions, but when I reached the second half of the book, Reza's adulthood, it became very hard to know why he did most things and what his thoughts were surrounding the greater issues of his life. I can only think of one time in the latter half of the book when it was clear to me why Reza was behaving the way that he was. There is no denying that this was Reza's book; the other narrators and characters only really existed to showcase other aspects of his life and his military service. I also felt that the second half of the book was slightly superior to the first half. Maybe it was the fact that I had been holding the book at arm's length in the beginning due to it's graphic nature, or maybe I just engaged more with the more mature Reza's character. Whatever the reason, I felt that the first half of the book was slightly less well-shaped and polished than the latter half, though it didn't affect my overall enjoyment of the story.

Although there were some eyebrow raising moments in the book, I did ultimately enjoy the story that was told and very much appreciated the craftsmanship of the writing. I think that before reading this book, it may be important to some readers to know that the story is sometimes explicit and disquieting because it may hamper the enjoyment of some to come to these scenes unaware. By no means does this book delve into the disgusting or atrocious, but some may find the ideas inside a bit perverse. I admit, there were times when the book became disquieting, but I also freely admit that I think the author wasn't just pushing the envelope to be avant garde. I think that this story, in this form, needed to be told. I think the point of it all was not to make us squirm in discomfort, but to make us aware of the lives that may be lead on the other side of the world, and perhaps it was an attempt to explain the plight of those nameless Kurdish orphans who are so wholly sucked into the circumstances that envelop them. An interesting and thought provoking read, recommended with caution.

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