Abdolah, an Iranian expatriate now living in the Netherlands, nests a story about a father and son into a sweeping novel that chronicles the tumultuous modern history of his homeland.
Aga Akbar was born an outsider twice over: He’s the illegitimate son of a nobleman as well as a deaf-mute. With the assistance of Kazem Khan, his colorful, opium-addicted uncle, he learns to communicate in his own form of sign language, find work as a carpet mender and start a family in a mountain town near the Soviet border. And though he never formally learned to read and write, he diligently filled a notebook using a cuneiform-like script inspired by a 3,000-year-old message written by the first king of Persia in a nearby cave. That notebook is the springboard for the plot here: Aga Akbar’s son, Ishmael, is a political dissident living in the Netherlands who’s struggling to decipher his father’s writing. In the process, Ishmael provides brief vignettes about Iran’s history, from the military dictatorship of Reza Khan that began the 1920s through the war with Iraq that consumed the country for most of the 1980s. Aga Akbar is buffeted by these changes despite his modest station: He’s jailed and beaten by officers during Reza Khan’s rein under suspicion of writing codes, and he endangers his life as Ishmael becomes more involved in the country’s leftist movement. Abdolah’s prose, translated from the Dutch, is clean and lyrical, but the novel ultimately feels unbalanced: The elegantly formed passages about Aga Akbar’s struggles and courtships in the first half give way to the second half, focused on Ishmael’s life, where politics is emphasized at the expense of storytelling. And because the key player in the climax of the book—Ishmael’s sister, Golden Bell—is so incompletely rendered, the book closes on a disappointingly unaffecting note.
An intimate portrait of Iran, stuffed with ambition, but ultimately overladen.