Join us


Disoriental by Négar Djavadi — au revoir to all that

Author: Catherine Taylor
Newspaper: The Financial Times
Date: May 18 2018

The Iranian Islamic revolution of 1978-79 has yielded a fascinating array of autobiographical writing from those who witnessed its chaos as children and either went into exile or grew to adulthood in the new republic. These include bestsellers such as Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, and most recently Abnousse Shalmani’s Khomeini, Sade and Me. Disoriental, Négar Djavadi’s debut novel, was originally written not in the author’s native Farsi but the French of her adopted country. Highly autobiographical, her protagonist Kimiâ arrives in Paris aged 11, with her mother and two older sisters in April 1981, to join her father, a prominent Iranian intellectual and political dissident. Djavadi’s use of her adopted language is significant in a novel teeming with perspicacious observations and hypotheses on exile, statelessness and reshaping identity. Tina Kover’s dynamic translation into English is a high-wire act, capturing all the animation and vigour of a breathless narrative voice. Kimiâ Sadr resembles an Iranian Eva Luna, the Scheherazade-like storyteller of Isabel Allende’s 1980s fantasies, written, like Disoriental, in the wake of political upheaval and regime change. Unlike Luna however, Kimiâ is recounting her tales not to her lover, but to the reader, in a tone of casual intimacy, urgency and not a little self-importance, from the waiting room of a hospital in Paris where, now in her late thirties, she is awaiting her first round of IVF. Kimiâ says she is “someone who has translated myself into other cultural codes. Firstly in order to survive, and then to go beyond survival and forge a future for myself.” Having left the warmth of a chaotic extended family circle in Iran, Kimiâ’s transition to émigré is complete and perplexing: “The talkative sociable child I used to be has turned into a Parisian adult with a face that closes off whenever I leave the House.” Moving back and forth through late 20th-century Iran and Paris in about 2008, Djavedi juggles timescales and dates to relay the history of the Sadr family. There is one specific date which is skirted around: “THE EVENT” of March 13 1994, as it is referred to obliquely throughout the book and finally confronted with full piteous horror towards the end. The novel pulsates with life, but does not shirk from violence — seen mostly from a child’s perspective. The gorgeous prose, the heady elements of magical realism — such as the central figure, Kimiâ’s father Darius Sadr, being descended from an improbable line of blond, blue-eyed Iranians through his mother Nour, born in a harem — takes the edge off the relentless turmoil described throughout. Similarly, Djavadi’s humour is infectious, whether overtly satirical or simply wisecracking: “Iranians don’t like solitude or silence . . . If Robinson Crusoe had been Iranian, he would have just let himself die the minute he got to the island, and the story would have been over.” Darius is the headstrong rebel of the Sadr family. Of all his brothers (known chronologically as Uncle Number Two, Three, Four and so on by Kimiâ and her sisters Leili and Mina), he refuses to toe any kind of line. A freethinking journalist and academic, he and his wife Sara, a teacher, are critical first of the autocracy of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the “Shah of Shahs”) and then of the religious fundamentalists led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Darius, who has a habit of writing open letters of opposition to whoever is in power, is targeted by both the Shah and then the ayatollahs. The family’s apartment is bombed with the family inside it: eventually the only option for them is exile, never to see Iran again. Djavadi’s evocation of Kimiâ’s own individual awkwardness as a child amid conflict and danger is memorable. Her maternal grandmother Emma had predicted in the tea leaves that Kimiâ would be a boy; and her coming to terms with her sexuality as an adult informs the second part of the novel. The novel has a poignant sense of place; the melancholy of autumn in Tehran, the last summer spent, as most holidays, with cousins in the province of Mazandaran, near the Caspian Sea. A punk-rock enthusiast, Kimiâ’s story is divided into “Side A” and “Side B’. In one of the many footnotes that litter the book, she explains “Side B is the weak side, the failed side”. Though by no means a failure, the wildly persuasive expressiveness of the first half of Disoriental does flag during its second. Nevertheless, it is an absorbing, important and noteworthy counterpoint to western accounts of this period of Iran’s history and its abiding aftermath. Disoriental, by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover, Europa Editions, RRP£12.99, 320 pages