An achingly smart debut, I’m finally reading Laleh Khadivi’s The Age of Orphans(Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2009), launched last year at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. The Age of Orphans tells the story of a young Kurdish boy who dreams of birds and is trained to fight in the war against the shah in the early part of the 20th century, only to watch his entire village massacred in battle. Written in sections ranging from 1921 to 1979, the novel moves through the wars on the Kurds through the formation of Iran, and the former Kurd orphan conscripted into army service by the very killers of his clan, forging him into a soldier. Where does the boy who loves birds disappear to after the soldier is beaten into him? Where does that boy go when he is forced to turn back on his own people, when he finally takes a wife, working to hide an identity etched into his flesh? He internalizes everything, barely speaking, even when spoken to. We watch as the boy turns to a soldier who has lost his soul, and the deeper heartbreak during those moments he glimpses it again, to despair, and feel little choice but to throw it back, denying himself and his origins. He is a soldier in the shah’s army, given a new name and a new identity, unsure even of his age. A section of “Book I: Southern Zagros Mountains, Courdestan—1921,” just before his last battle as a Kurd, as a boy, reads:
Well before dawn on the fourth day the men rise in unison and relieve into cupped hands their night’s liquid, which they splash onto their faces. In the early blue light they do not eat breakfast or bread or even dried meats and mudberries, and the boy grows hungry and cannot find a face familiar enough to complain to and so scrounges about the empty burlap sacks and finds nothing. As if to tease the hungry boy the men take turns with a knife and cut a line across the palms of their hands and squeeze blood out from their bodies into a tin cup that follows just behind the knife as it is passed from man to man; they drink and are nourished. So it goes for the morning and the afternoon. The forty or sixty or eighty men obey the silence and pour of their life juice into a cup and imbibe it easily, as if it were a glass of tea. The boy makes the incision himself and the gash sears less than he expects. He clutches his fist to watch with glee as the ruby drops join the rest and hungrily drinks the warm viscous fluid like a noonday soup.
Written in a subdued, lush prose, Khadivi writes the heartbreak and a contained violence laid bare, and the betrayal of a soul that turns into the soul of a country, taking its tentative first steps on the remains of its own beaten-down populace. What holds the story together is how well and how clear the narrative is told, with a language that knows how to propel it along, melodic and lyric and rough, when necessary, holding the faintest of distances, sometimes, even, through the main character’s lack of understanding; a story told so obviously from the point of view of the former orphan, but allowing more information than the boy/soldier comprehends. Even when he does comprehend, he stands back, just outside of himself, and watches. Listen to this section from “Book III: Tehran, Iran—1938”:
It is the first night, wedding night, and Reza sits with the men. They feed him rich lamb stew and buttered rice and French pastries filled with cream. Between bites they ask of his battles and victories and he gladly tells them of the nation emerging from the wilds and the bloody encounters with certain tribes—all of them necessary and obvious, of course—and of the barren mountain landscapes they can be grateful they have never seen. He goes on in exaggerated detail to distract them from the real question that lurks about the room: Soldier, where are you from? The men of the family are well deterred and listen with jaws hung loose as the pipe is passed between them around and around. The brothers joke with him and hold his hand in their with affection for the soldier of dubious origin who is family now, patron to their humble home. The old men nod and smoke, cross and uncross legs and listen to the women scream in the room down the hall as they sing and click tongues and bless the bride.
Getting a bit anxious, eh, sarbaz?