THE AGE OF ORPHANS by Laleh Khadivi

Book Quote:

“The shah comes with tanks and armies of horses and men. Keep a careful lookout for them. They will be of a frightening size, but do not scare, run to give us warning and all will be well. This is our land and the gods of it are on our side.”

Book Review:

Review by Mary Whipple (SEP 20, 2009)

A young Kurdish boy, living in the Zagros Mountains in 1921, has always felt loved and protected, despite his family’s “poverty.” He enjoys “flying” from the roof of the family’s hut, experiencing the soaring feelings of earth and heaven at the same time, and identifying with the falcons. “With his chest opened upward, he pushes his face deeper into the beam of sun and wishes for his thin bones and narrow shoulders to aspire among the chaotic open-aired thrash of wings, to fly high and above the hemmed land and sweep aloft the delineations marked out of him, on him, into him” as a Kurd. In gorgeous and poetic language, author Laleh Khadivi, recreates the “gloried ground” to which the boy is connected by birth and culture.

When, at age seven, he is suddenly taken by the men of his village on a journey to a cave, where he is initiated into manhood, he sees his simple life anew: “Boy once, now man, now Kurd, now Kurdish man, to reign over Kurdish land; the young suzerain, kingly after a simple cut.” His devoted mother, a victim of violence which killed her entire family when she was only five, considers him doomed to relive the horrors of warfare. Soon after his initiation, he accompanies the village men to a mountain lookout, where they wait for the shah’s troops to arrive. Determined to protect land which has been theirs for thousands of years, the men believe “We are the children of Mount Cudi, where Noah’s ark rested after the flood, and our families are born of the animals and gardens of the survived, of God’s chosen.”

Armed as they are with sabers, knives, and some rusty guns which they do not know how to use effectively, the Kurdish tribesmen, though fierce, are unprepared for the kind of military machine they face. The army’s arrival leads to a massacre, and the boy is orphaned, leaving the battlefield with the army, without a backward glance. Though in his first days as a conscript “the mind of the boy turned to madness,” he is ultimately consoled by the fact that he will be getting boots, a whole new “family,” and a new way of life.

Throughout the novel Laleh Khadivi, a highly accomplished writer, alternates points of view among the various characters, and, in the beginning of the novel, she even personifies nature—a tree, a falcon—in passages of great lyricism. With their echoing refrains and musical repetitions, some of these sections sound like psalms, a striking contrast to the brutality, bloodshed, and horrific rapes which follow.

Named Reza, for the shah, and Khourdi for his heritage, the boy grows up as a conscript soldier, becoming a favorite of the captain for his hard work, though he is often scorned by the city boys for his Kurdish background and the fact that he is singled out for praise. Though he usually behaves as the unthinking automaton he has been trained to be, he occasionally has moments in which his past overwhelms his present. Sent at fifteen to a Kurdish village, he recognizes, instinctively, the patterns of the fields, the animal pens, and especially the scent of burning sage, and as the army tries to capture two Kurdish commanders, they engage in terrifying brutality. Reza, to prove that he is one of the shah’s men, rather than a “dirty Kurd,” engages in some of the most brutal acts of all.

As the action moves from the 1930s and into the period of 1940 – the 1970s, Khadivi shows Reza Khourdi continuing to be the perfect soldier, marrying, and representing the wishes of the shah, but still suffering the inner conflicts of a brainwashed orphan. Khadivi’s portrait of this man is intimate and carefully drawn, and she creates great empathy for him in his plight, despite his actions. His assignment to Kermanshah, a Kurdish city, in 1940, and his long residence there, bring his personal conflicts to a head.

Much as been said on other sites about the brutality and violence in this book, especially in the treatment of women—and there is violence–but it is not overwhelming, and it is certainly not gratuitous. (Nor, for that matter, is it any worse than what finds on the evening news.) The novel is primarily a story of character, not plot, and any inhumanity is integrated as part of the author’s thematic progression as “Reza” moves from an innocent childhood, through his attempts to find “family” within the killing machine of the army, his attempts to find love (though his only memory of it is through his mother), and his final assessment of his own life. Reza’s character is well drawn and complete, despite his personal limitations.

I cannot speak to the accuracy of the picture Khadivi gives of Kurdish life or her use of non-Kurdish terminology (which one Amazon reader noted), but as an analysis of a person who represents many of the conflicts we read about in the present day—specifically, the conflicts between Iran and the Kurds and between Turkey and the Kurds—the novel is enlightening and absorbing. Khadivi also includes broader themes, touching on the use of boy soldiers (no matter what part of the world is involved), the brainwashing that takes place, and the reasons these boy soldiers are sometimes more brutal than their elders. She is a serious writer dealing with serious issues, and though her novel is not easy reading for people who live safe and comfortable lives, she opens such a world to examination and analysis.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 7 readers
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury USA (March 3, 2009)
REVIEWER: Mary Whipple
AMAZON PAGE: The Age of Orphans
EXTRAS: BookSlut review of The Age of Orphans

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September 20, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Debut Novel, Iran, Middle East, Whiting, World Lit

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