Winner of the 2019 Albertine Prize and Lambda Literary Award
Kimiâ Sadr fled Iran at the age of ten in the company of her mother and sisters to join her father in France. Now twenty-five and facing the future she has built for herself, as well as the prospect of a new generation, Kimiâ is inundated by her own memories and the stories of her ancestors, which come to her in unstoppable, uncontainable waves. In the waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, generations of flamboyant Sadrs return to her, including her formidable great-grandfather Montazemolmolk, with his harem of fifty-two wives, and her parents, Darius and Sara, stalwart opponents of each regime that befalls them.
It is Kimiâ herself—punk-rock aficionado, storyteller extraordinaire, a Scheherazade of our time, and above all a modern woman divided between family traditions and her own “disorientalization”—who forms the heart of this bestselling and beloved novel, recipient of numerous literary honors.
“Where initially Disoriental seems focused on Kimiâ’s father and his pro-democracy activism—first against the Shah, then the Ayatollah Khomeini—this is truly Kimiâ’s story of disorientation—national, familial and sexual—and finding herself again.” —The Globe and Mail
“A tour de force of storytelling . . . Djavadi deftly weaves together the history of 20th-century Iran [and] the spellbinding chronicle of her own ancestors. . . . Perfectly blends historical fact with contemporary themes.” —Library Journal
“Riveting . . . Djavadi is an immensely gifted storyteller, and Kimiâ’s tale is especially compelling.” —Booklist (starred review)
“A wonder and a pleasure to read.” —Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
WINNER 2019 ALBERTINE PRIZE
WINNER 2019 LAMBDA LITERARY AWARD
FINALIST 2018 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
FINALIST 2019 CLMP FIRECRACKER AWARD
FINALIST 2019 BEST TRANSLATED BOOK AWARD
WINNER LE PRIX DU ROMAN NEWS
WINNER STYLE PRIZE
WINNER 2016 LIRE BEST DEBUT NOVEL
WINNER LA PORTE DORÉE PRIZE
ONE OF THE GLOBE & MAIL’S BEST BOOKS OF 2018
|Publisher:||Europa Editions, Incorporated|
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About the Author
Tina Kover's published works include the Modern Library translation of Georges by Alexandre Dumas pére, The Black City by George Sand (Carroll&Graf), and Maurice G. Dantec's Cosmos Incorporated and Grand Junction. In 2009 she received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship for the translation of Manette Salomon by the Goncourt brothers.
Read an Excerpt
In Paris, my father, Darius Sadr, never took the escalator. The first time I went down into a metro station with him, on April 21, 1981, I asked him why. His answer was, "Escalators are for them." By "them," he meant you, obviously. You, the ones who were going to work on that Tuesday morning in April. You, the citizens of this country, with your income taxes and compulsory deductions and council taxes — but also your education, your intransigence, your critical minds and your spirit of solidarity and pride and culture and patriotism, your devotion to the Republic and democracy, you who toiled for centuries to achieve these mechanical staircases installed meters underground.
At the age of ten I wasn't conscious of all these ideas, but that helpless look on my father's face — acquired during the months he'd spent alone in this city, and which I had never seen on him before — shook me so much that even today, every time I see an escalator, I think of him. I hear the thumps of his feet on the hard treads of the staircase. I see his body hunched slightly forward from the effort, obstinate and resolute, unshakeable in his refusal to take advantage of the momentary comfort of a mechanical ascent. According to Darius Sadr's logic, that kind of luxury was a sort of abuse, if not outright theft. His destiny was henceforth joined to the staircases of the world, to the passage of time without surprises, and the indifferent gazes of passers-by.
To really understand the complexity of that thought, you've got to go inside my father's head — my father as he was at that time, I mean. Stormy. Disillusioned. You have to understand the tortuous, magnificently absurd reasoning at work here. To see, beneath the layer of suffering, made more severe by failure, the threads of delicacy and elegance, of respect and admiration. To appreciate the firmness of his decision (not to take an escalator, ever), and the skill with which he summed up in just a few words — he, who had spent most of his life bent over a ream of writing paper — everything that he had become, and everything you represented.
But you know as well as I do that, to claim to get inside a man's head, first you have to really know him — to absorb all of the lives he has lived, and all of his struggles, and all of his ghosts. And believe me, if I start there — if I play the "dad" card already — I'll never get around to telling you what I'm about to tell you.
Let's think some more about the impact of that sentence: "Escalators are for them." That was part of what made me decide to tell this story, even without knowing where to begin. All I know is that these pages won't be linear. Talking about the present means I have to go deep into the past, to cross borders and scale mountains and go back to that lake so enormous they call it a sea. I have to let myself be guided by the flow of images and free associations, the natural fits and starts, the hollows and bumps carved into my memories by time. But the truth of memory is strange, isn't it? Our memories select, eliminate, exaggerate, minimize, glorify, denigrate. They create their own versions of events and serve up their own reality. Disparate, but cohesive. Imperfect yet sincere. In any case, my memory is so crammed with stories and lies and languages and illusions, and lives marked by exile and death, death and exile, that I don't even really know how to untangle the threads anymore.
Some of you might already be aware of me — you might remember the bloody incident that happened in Paris, in the 13th arrondissement, on March 11, 1994. It was the lead story on the eight o'clock news on France 2. All the next day's newspapers were full of it — of articles stuffed with falsehoods and plastered with pictures of us, with black rectangles blocking out our eyes. You might have seen me in one of those pictures. Maybe you followed the case.
I mean, I could have led with that, you know. Instead of talking about escalators, I could have opened with the story of what we call THE EVENT in our family. But I can't. Not yet. For now, all you need to know is that it's January 19 at ten past ten in the morning, and I'm waiting.
The Mazandaran Wind
The wing of Cochin Hospital dedicated to medically-assisted procreation has been a construction site for several months. From what I understand, the building's going to be torn down, and the department moved into the main building on Boulevard Port-Royal. This second-floor waiting room has been reduced to the bare bones. No posters or pamphlets on the walls; just twenty or so gray chairs lined up in three rows, dimly lit by the dull winter light filtering through the scaffolding outside. When I came in this morning, there was one chair placed well apart from the others, against the wall. I've been sitting on it for almost forty-five minutes now, waiting.
We had our first consultation with Doctor Françoise Gautier eleven months ago. On the warm and pleasant spring day of the appointment I'd painted my toenails red, in the slightly naïve hope of matching the image I wanted to give of Pierre and me. I'd decided to wear high-heeled sandals and, despite the army of clouds that invaded the sky while I was getting dressed, wasn't about to change my mind. While looking through our file, sent over by Professor Stein, Dr. Gautier had asked us: "So, are you going to get married?" Her tone was neutral, but the question still came as a shock; I really hadn't thought that, after Professor Stein, Dr. Gautier would care about our marital situation, too. Weren't we there to finally start the procedure? Shouldn't the questions be about medical things now — childhood diseases, heredity, operations we'd had? Were we never going to be done with this marriage business?
"Yes, of course — in a few months," I'd said, in a voice so phony that every time I think about it I want to run far away and die.
The couple sitting across from me was already here when I arrived, as was another one at the far end of the room. Three more couples have arrived since then, each one being careful to leave a few empty seats between themselves and their neighbors. Nobody speaks. The atmosphere is permeated by a silence heavy with resignation and the noises filtering in from the hallway outside. All the faces have a tense look, a mixture of anxiety and vulnerability, that makes them look like kids lost in a supermarket.
Do I look like that too?
I don't think I do, because I don't feel anything, except maybe growing impatience.
The women across from me, whose bodies — like mine — have been turned into a battlefield, have undoubtedly already started storing up a whole range of emotions to talk about later. Long conversations filled with explanations, indignation, stifled tears and liberating laughter. "Do you realize" and "if you knew" and "no, but really," until everything comes out and dissipates into the air and is forgotten. From time to time, when she comes back from her academic travels, Mina acts like that with me (and with Leïli too, of course). She calls me, and pretty soon the details come out, and the stuff between the parentheses, and she laughs incomprehensibly, and coos, and repeats the same story in different tones. She doesn't find it unusual that I listen, hanging on the telephone for hours, because I'm her sister. Leïli listens to her too, but she doesn't have that ball of annoyance lodged in her throat, getting bigger with every sentence. Because Leïli understands her. They share that easy ability to "spill their guts," as our mother, Sara, used to say.
Sometimes I wonder if it's really possible to be this emotionless. Even though it happens to me less than it used to now, the sensation is always there, just within arm's reach. When I was a teenager, I felt like the place inside me where emotions were supposed to be had dried up at some point without me noticing. The world seemed to me then — it still does now — to be behind glass, intangible and distant, like a silent spectacle in which I was incapable of taking part. Even then, I'd already made the connection between that feeling and the images of American GIs back from Vietnam that I'd seen in the movies and on TV. I knew in my bones how they felt, sitting on the family couch, staring at nothing, while people fussed and flapped around them. Their absence, their inability to join in the action, to build a future. Like me, they seemed submerged in silence, like drowning victims floating to the surface.
It won't have escaped anyone's notice that I'm alone.
No hand to hold. No familiar body pressed against mine, brought closer by hardship. Just this long cardboard tube labeled with our first and last names — mine and Pierre's — sitting on my knees. A long tube filled with Pierre's defrosted, washed sperm (that's how Dr. Gautier described it to me).
I can never imagine how, by what process, sperm could be washed. Every time I try, I get a picture in my head of a big sieve, like the one my maternal grandmother Emma used whenishe baked cakes. I could have looked it up on the Internet, but to tell the truth I'm just not curious enough to do that kind of research.
From the minute I set foot in this room, I've sensed that my solitude interested the other couples. A woman coming here alone couldn't be divorced or separated, or they would stop the procedure. So, the fact that she's alone has to mean one of three things (in increasing order of domestic catastrophe):
1) An argument this morning, before leaving to come here;
2) Lack of interest on the part of the husband, who couldn't even be bothered to take the day off or postpone a meeting or business trip;
3) The rarest case: the husband is dead. In which case special authorization from a judge would be required to conceive a child post-mortem.
In any case, a woman alone in the fertility clinic of any hospital whatsoever on the entire planet is a creature to be pitied, even though her solitude makes the bad luck of the other people whom life has brought to this room seem easier to bear. Thank God, there's someone even worse off than us! Because this place is the exclusive territory of The Couple. The no man's land where its future, its raison d'être, and its ultimate purpose are at stake. The purgatory where the God of Fertility, awoken by follitropin beta injections, decides whether or not he will alter The Couple's destiny. My case doesn't correspond to any of the three possibilities. It's much more complex, more deceitful than that. It's a matter of strategy and manipulation. A plan conceived by gangsters. You have no idea yet, reader, of the risk I'm taking by writing this. Just know that of the thirteen couples I'm looking at right now, the ones feeling sorry for the woman sitting by herself, some would slam me up against the wall if they knew. They'd spit in my face. They'd throw me out in the street. None of them would take the trouble to understand or ask questions, or stop to consider that I, too, am the result of an incongruous combination of circumstances, and fate, and heritage, and bad luck, and tragedies.
That's the reason I'm writing this.
My father, Darius Sadr, the Master of the blank page, the Audacious, the Revolutionary, used to say, in his pensive and visionary voice: "The eyes are better listeners than the ears. Ears are deep wells, made for chatter. If you have something to say, write it." But there have been moments in my life, more or less important sequences of events, when I would have done anything to be something other than what I am. I've changed countries and languages; I've invented other pasts and other identities for myself. I've fought — oh yes, I've fought — against that impetuous wind that rose a long time ago, in a far-flung Persian province called Mazandaran, laden with deaths and births, recessive and dominant genes, coups d'état and revolutions, and every time I have tried to escape it, it has grasped me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me back in. For you to understand what I'm telling you, I have to rewind and start again from the beginning; I have to make you hear — like I can hear it myself, right now, as a nurse glances at me indifferently and moves away again — the voice of my uncle Saddeq Sadr, nicknamed Uncle Number Two. It's a voice in a minor key, smooth as a clarinet, telling what we used to refer to amongst ourselves as Uncle Number Two's Famous Story.
"Since early that afternoon, the wind had been blowing so hard that it might just as well have been announcing the end of the world. There hadn't been such a tempest in Mazandarani memory since the invasion of the Mongols! And even back then, what the Mazandaran-dwellers had taken for a storm was actually the devastating blast of air preceding Genghis Khan's bloody horde. At any rate, this biting wind blowing in from the frozen plains of Russia could portend nothing good.
"Now, picture the marvelous estate that belonged to your great-grandfather, Montazemolmolk. Two imposing buildings, each with sixty rooms, outbuildings, armories, kitchens, reception rooms, horse-filled stables ... all nestled deep in the very heart of the forest, at the foot of the Alborz mountains. No fewer than two hundred and sixty-eight souls lived there, all under the care of Montazemolmolk. On that February day in 1896 — a Saturday, I believe it was — he had given the order to draught proof the doors and windows and to stay inside until the world calmed down a bit. How long would that cursed storm last? What state would his lands be in when it was over? For hours, these questions and many others nagged at Montazemolmolk, whose mood was as dark as the sky. He lived in the main building, the birouni, with one hundred twenty-three armed men whose job it was to protect his lands, and a dozen young male servants.
"Though it was only across the inner courtyard from the birouni, the other building, the andarouni, seemed as remote and impenetrable as the Promised Land itself. This was where Montazemolmolk's fifty-two wives lived, women who had come from all four corners of the country, with his twenty-eight children, and twenty or so female servants. He was the only man who had the right to enter that building, the only one who knew the heavy scent of perfumes and the quarrels that hung stagnant in the icy air. The shadowy labyrinthine corridors, half-open doors, the rustle of silks, the heady sense of being longed for, desired, the languor of bodies that ... ahem, well, you know very well what I mean!
"Yet all those nights spent in that place which he had, as it were, peopled himself, hadn't relieved your great-grandfather of the bitter sense that his world was slipping away from him. The andarouni remained a mysterious and crazy place, an enigma. On that day, when the land of Mazandaran seemed to have been reduced to nothing but a pebble in God's hand, Montazemolmolk feared, above all, that the women were taking advantage of the darkness and chaos to plot against him. After all, how can you know what's brewing in the heart of a neglected woman? How can you be sure of her loyalty, her sincerity, her love? As time passed and the number of his wives increased, he would feel the sharp blade of jealousy twisting deeper and deeper in his gut each time he set foot on the first step of the spiral staircase leading to their quarters.
"It's not as if this humiliating tragedy, undoubtedly incited by Targol Khanoum, hadn't taken place! Targol Khanoum, who had once been his favorite wife, was the source of an outbreak of itching that had spread among the women's private parts and eventually found its treacherous way to Montazemolmolk's groin. Doctors had come out from the city and a lot of doors had been slammed; objects had been hurled into the courtyard and bunches of hair had been torn out; cries had echoed through the mountains. Dishonor had invaded the estate. At that moment, Montazemolmolk would have liked for that evil wind to blow — blow those cursed women off the face of the earth and take all this misery with them. Well, but that's another story. Anyway, after hours spent fiddling with his beard, which was as full and blond as a handful of tobacco, and pacing the room with its six doors that served as his private study, your great-grandfather made the surprising decision to turn the andarouni's emergency key over to one of his youngest servant-boys. The ugliest one. The clumsiest. The one no woman would want to cuddle up to, even as a challenge. So then, Montazemolmolk ..."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Disoriental"
Copyright © 2016 Éditions Liana Levi.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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