An Aladdin's cave of Persian treasures
THIS novel is set mostly in Iran during its troubled recent history. The author grew up there and, as a student, joined a left-wing group resisting the rule of the Shah. After the revolution, the group was broken up by the Mullahs and many members were executed: Abdolah fled the country and settled in the Netherlands to become a writer. Everything in this potted biography also applies to the novel's character, Ishmael, suggesting a substantial autobiographical element to the book.
It's tempting, then, to echo Woody Allen and say of My Father's Notebook, "it's about Iran". Indeed, in outline it may sound worthy and didactic, grim but Good For You, but the reality is very different. Yes, the reader learns much about recent upheavals in Iranian life, but there is more here than the sad but familiar story of political exile.
Ishmael is not even the book's main character - that role falls to his father, Aga Akbar, a deaf-mute carpetmender from a village near the Soviet border that is steeped in myth and tradition and Islamic legend. The early part of the book takes us through Aga Akbar's early life. He is illiterate, but a collection of ancient cuneiform inscriptions near his home assume great significance for him, and from them he constructs his own symbols and written language.
The main part of the book is narrated by Ishmael, in exile, decoding his father's story as recorded in the cuneiform notebook. The narrative is interspersed, much as a musical is with songs, with Persian legend and poetry and excerpts from modern Dutch poems and fiction. We observe Ishmael's family's move from rural Iran to the city, Iran's transition from one brand of dictatorship to another, a nation's emergence from the primitive world to the modern, largely through their effects on Aga Akbar. He appears to be a blank canvas, but he is recording and reflecting in the eponymous notebook of the title.
Aga Akbar is a marvellous character, simple on the surface but as deep and complex as the cave where lie the cuneiform inscriptions. Whether we see him leading European archaeologists to the cave, trying to assimilate his son's attempts to teach him politics and science, or happily accepting the task of nursing a seriously ill political dissident, he convinces fully. His world, the communities in which he lives and works during a long life, are beautifully evoked in often touching and amusing detail.
There are weaker aspects to the book. Ishmael's development is outlined in a sketchier manner; his politicisation, marriage and work for 'the party' lack conviction because they seem to just happen. Partly, this is because the focus of the book is on Aga Akbar - and this is no bad thing.
The prose - translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty - is excellent, able to hint at magic and tradition where necessary, but crisper when, say, describing Ishmael's panicky preparations to flee into exile. The Canongate edition retains US usage ('railroad ties', 'plowing') that is designed for the simultaneous publication by HarperCollins USA, but this is a minor quibble. My Father's Notebook is an intriguing, complex and often playful novel that deserves attention.