The French-Iranian filmmaker Négar Djavadi’s first novel, Disoriental, translated by Tina Kover, is narrated by Kimiâ Sadr, who flees Iran aged ten with her mother and sisters in the middle of one night in 1981. As the author herself once did, they spend five nights crossing the mountains of Kurdistan on foot and on horseback before they reach Turkey; from Istanbul they fly to Paris to join their father.
Now, aged twenty-five, Kimiâ finds herself trying to piece together her family’s past and her own memories as she undergoes fertility treatment in a clinic in Paris. Her recollections are narrated in a tone of self-conscious lyricism, playing on tropes of oriental storytelling, a blend of personal recollection and family legend that, through her child’s-eye memories, at once innocent, distorted and sharply acute, merge into a rich fable.
The “disoriental” of the title refers to both the family’s abrupt move from East to West, and the disjunction and disorientation that underpins the refugee experience. Taking off for Paris from Istanbul, Kimiâ looks through the porthole of the plane and watches “as the East, the Orient, shrinks below us into anecdote and then nothingness. Kimiâ Sadr as you have known her . . . does the same . . . . Soon I will be born for the second time”. Even though Kimiâ’s family is francophone, their shock on arriving in France is acute; each experiences it as a kind of bereavement. In Iran the family was a multi-textured, porous entity, comprising generations of uncles, aunts and cousins, kinship intensified and nourished by the tentacular bonds of friendship. In Paris Kimiâ discovers that “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”. The French “stay closed in on themselves, protecting their peacefulness and personal space as a mother hen with her eggs”, but there is another reason: Kimiâ has had to learn to “withdraw”; exile has forced her to “translate” herself “into other cultural codes”. All refugees must “unlearn – at least partially – what we used to be, to make room for what we have become”. Kimiâ experiences this brutal alienation, like the “icy rain” that falls over Paris, “like a punishment”.
The fragmented, impressionistic texture of the narrative mirrors the characters’ vertiginous sense of displacement, which is simultaneously geographical, political, social and historical: “Sometimes, in the middle of Parisian crowds, sitting in a café or on a folding seat in the metro, in a century driven by technology and machines, I catch myself thinking about how my grandmother was born in an andarouni . . . . I’m the granddaughter of a woman born in a harem”. Arriving in Paris, the family is crammed into a tiny apartment, where in spite of the almost intolerable physical proximity it becomes fractured and atomized. Darius, Kimiâ’s brilliant, iconoclastic father, a dissident and activist in Iran, now wanders the streets of the city for hours at a time, while her beautiful, generous, wildly intelligent and creative mother Sara rarely leaves the neighbourhood and struggles to understand what has happened to her: “Was she really in Paris?” As the parents “battle the djinns of depression”, their bewildered daughters struggle with anxiety and unhappiness, each becoming withdrawn, silent and self-contained.
Where her sisters focus on their studies, Kimiâ finds solace in music and drugs, inventing herself as a ferociously independent, free spirited, punk rock-loving rebel, whose life is “soaked with music and alcohol and illegal substances . . . . I learn to exist in an infinite now”. Now she has a girlfriend, Anna, and is trying to have a child with an HIV-positive friend called Pierre. In contrast to Iran, where “being gay isn’t shameful. It’s impossible. A non-reality”, her sexual identity isn’t policed in France, except within the medical system, where she and Pierre must perform as a married couple, since IVF treatment remains restricted to heterosexual couples.
Disoriental is bookended by tragedy (revealed at the end), which Kimiâ refers to throughout as “THE EVENT”, and joy, as her fertility treatment is successful and she, Anna and Pierre prepare for their new, unconventional family to come into being. Like the best kind of fable, it is a tale of the solace and constriction of tradition and the magic and danger of reinvention.