Disoriental by Négar Djavadi

Review published on December 26, 2017.

Disoriental feels like it comes from the heart. Kimiâ, the narrator, is a wonderful creation and story is vast and insightful. To read this novel is to understand a little better what it is like to be an exile, certainly a lot of myths are dispelled. An exile is an odd mix of integration and segregation (that part that is eternally ostracised both by society and internal tragedy). As one of the most important things about literary fiction is that the characters are of the real world, this novel is a triumph. I found myself wondering all the way through Disoriental about how many of the people who populate these pages are based on actual members of Djavadi’s own family? How much of Kimiâ is herself and how much the marvellous and tragic family odyssey is based on fact? Quite a lot I suspect; if not then I have been brilliantly taken in, if so then it has been lovingly rendering into a beautiful fiction. There is more than a century of Iranian history here and several generations of the Sadr family. All have their of own story but are part of what makes Kimiâ who she is.

Disoriental is a multi-layered tale with so many themes but the novel is essentially a brilliant exploration of self by the narrator Kimiâ Sadr. A modern woman living in Paris, living a lifestyle that her ancestors would not approve, she has a girlfriend, Anna, and loves alternative rock gigs. Kimiâ is trying to have a baby, she is undergoing fertility treatment at the Cochin Hospital. The chosen father is HIV-positive Pierre Favre. Her modern tale of fertility/conception is in contrast to the family history of fecundity, the many children down the century. Kimiâ wants this baby as an unmarried mother, even though it means jumping through hoops and lying to the ‘system’ that favours married heterosexual couples. This aspect of her story will be very familiar to many people in the Western world and touches on one of the crisis of the modern world, birth rates. Yet Kimiâ isn’t just defined by the modern world but also by her existence as an exile and her family background, that element of each of us that is in our DNA and handed down through the generations. As Kimiâ contemplates the future she is drawn to long reflections on her family past in Iran, subconsciously exploring her identity. The individual tales are fascinating but as I have said they are all part of Kimiâ.

Early in Disoriental we are told of ‘the event’ which occurred on 11th March, 1994 in the 13th Arrondissement. We are not told what happened but can sense it is a before and after moment for the family, it overhangs the narrative.

Kimiâ reveals what it is like to be a refugee. The exile can find a new place to be but will forever be haunted by home and those left behind. As you begin to see what that means for Kimiâ, you will understand the meaning of the strange word Disoriental.

This is a wonderful read, a story that you can immerse yourself in and forget about the world around you. Djavadi writes passages in the great tradition of Persian literature and with the beguiling beauty of Scharazade distracting King Shahryar. There are little tales with a magical quality and yet there is a parallel story set in modern day Paris with very contemporary themes. Because Kimiâ is a product of both worlds the dichotomy of styles works very well.

Disoriental is also a family saga that spans the whole twentieth century history of Iran. From the feudal regime of her great grandfather, Montazemolmolk, in the northern province of Mazandaran to exile in France, Kimiâ runs us through her family. Exploring their story under the Shahs and the Ayatollahs; the Western exploitation of oil, Reza and Mohammad Khan, the origins of the Savak (the secret police), Mossadegh’s revolt, the influence of the CIA and the 1979 revolution. This is a clever mix of personal stories and an epic sweep of the turbulent dramatic history of Iran. Kimiâ’s father is a liberal who becomes an exile when he can longer stay safe in Iran. That is why she follows him to Paris as a ten year old. The family has to re-establish itself in a new world.

Djavadi tells Kimiâ’s story in a way that has long been closed off to us in the Western world, her character relates the tales handed down generation to generation – an oral history.

Europa Editions have recently published two remarkable novels by women writers of Franco-Iranian origin. Last year’s The Gardens of Consolation by Parisa Reza and now Disoriental. Both are deserved prize winners. They are very different in style but between them they are not only magnificent stories of two families but a vast exploration of the political and social history of Iran. I would thoroughly recommend Disoriental as a thought provoking novel of real breadth and emotional intensity.

Paul Burke 5/5

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi
Europa Editions 9781609454517 pbk May 2018

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