Disoriental by Négar Djavadi

Our memories select, eliminate, exaggerate, minimize, glorify, denigrate. They create their own versions of events and serve up their own reality. Disparate, but cohesive. Imperfect yet sincere. In any case, my memory is so crammed with stories and lies and languages and illusions, and lives marked by exile and death, death and exile, that I don’t even really know how to untangle the threads anymore.

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Edition: Europa Editions, 2018, 320 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

What is, first and foremost, a fascinating semi-autobiographical novel about the history of one Iranian family over multiple generations, Négar Djavadi’s debut novel Disoriental, skilfully translated from the French by Tina Kover, becomes a reflection on some of the key events in 20th century Iranian history. On a more personal level, it’s a nuanced examination of the different facets that form the central character’s identity.

In the waiting room of a fertility clinic in Paris, the narrator, 25-year old Kamiâ Sadr, is thinking about her future that triggers the memories of some of the dramatic events from her own past, as well as the stories of her ancestors in Iran.

I carry within me the same kind of crazy feeling as the hero of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, who breaks out of a black-and-white film into the real, full-color world, where he thinks it’s possible to forget the past. I’m always chasing after the present. But the present doesn’t exist. It’s only an intermission, a temporary respite, which might at any moment be swept away, destroyed, pulverized, by the escaped djinns of the past.

Beginning with the story of her great-grandfather, Montazemolmolk, who had fifty-two wives and twenty-eight children, Disoriental primarily focuses on the story of the family of Darius Sadr, an intellectual and dissident, who openly criticised the Shah regime and, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, was also opposed to the policies of the Khomeini regime, and, as a result, was forced to flee Iran and go to exile in France. Later, at the age of 10, Kamiâ, accompanied by her mother and sisters, also fled Iran to join her father in France.

The book is a very engaging family saga that provides valuable insights into Iranian culture and history, as well as, on a more personal level, it shows how Kamiâ’s past experiences and upbringing has shaped her life and identity. She’s a very astute observer of the world and people around her. For example, one such interesting observation concerns the issue of integration into French society that gives us a sense of what it’s like to try to balance two cultures that are equally important parts of someone’s identity.

[…] to really integrate into a culture, I can tell you that you have to disintegrate first, at least partially, from your own. You have to separate, detach, disassociate. No one who demands that immigrants make “an effort at integration” would dare look them in the face and ask them to start by making the necessary “effort at disintegration.” They’re asking people to stand atop the mountain without climbing up it first.

The narrative shifts back and forth between different periods in Kamiâ’s life and is intertwined with significant incidents in her family’s history that have had a lasting effect on their lives over multiple generations. I loved how the author managed to explain the political and cultural aspects without disrupting the flow of the narrative. It’s not a very long novel, but, in the end, I felt that it took me on an epic journey that educated, entertained, and moved me, and I would love to see this book turned into a film. It was a pleasure to listen to such a great storyteller as Kamiâ, and I think the book deserves even more recognition than it has already received. I’m certainly hoping to see Disoriental among the nominees of the 2019 Man Booker International prize.

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5 thoughts on “Disoriental by Négar Djavadi

  1. Michael December 29, 2018 / 20:26

    Great review! This is a difficult novel to summarize well, because of how sprawling the plot is, but you’ve really captured its essence here. I also enjoyed how seamlessly politics and history were interwoven with the story – the author strikes the perfect balance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agnese December 29, 2018 / 22:29

      Thank you! I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it too. It’s such a memorable and well-executed novel. I’m excited to see what she writes next.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Agnese December 30, 2018 / 15:26

      Yeah, me too. That’s why I hope it will make it onto the 2019 MBI prize longlist.

      Liked by 1 person

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