By Negar Djavadi
Translated by Tina Kover
338 pp. Europa Editions. Paper, $18.
Exile and immigration, terms often used interchangeably, are dissimilar in one key aspect: Exile, brought on by inevitability and not by choice, lacks the agency so essential to immigration. Having been banished from her home, an exile must find her way in the aftermath of her own disappearance.
In her remarkable novel, “Disoriental,” Negar Djavadi — an Iranian writer who fled her native country after the 1979 revolution and settled in Paris — beautifully captures the “disorientation” of exile and the attempt to reconstruct a self through family stories. Her book spans four generations of the Sadrs, from the great-grandfather Montazemolmolk, a feudal landowner in Mazandaran, to his daughter Nour, to Nour’s six sons, among them Darius, the father of Kimia, the narrator.
We first encounter Kimia in the drab waiting room of a fertility clinic in Paris. Huddled with anxious couples in a dejected atmosphere of childlessness, she recounts her family’s story, enveloped within the history of Iran. A sense of estrangement was commonplace among the Sadrs long before their geographic displacement from Tehran. Montazemolmolk, whose lands are confiscated following the collapse of the Qajar dynasty, settles in Qazvin and writes poems about exile. His descendant Darius, a political activist, has a penchant for vanishing. “We lived alongside him,” his daughter writes, “grew, ate, passed our tests, opened the front door, got sick, earned our diplomas, and closed the front door without him really being aware of it.” Darius’s brother, known as Uncle Number Two, keeper of the family mythology, is “trapped in a lie”: Married with children, he is homosexual in a country where homosexuality is the ultimate aberration. Kimia, a tomboy, is treated as an imaginary son by her father, who lectures her on Marx and Engels while shaving. And at times Iran is an entire culture that is estranged from itself, enchanted by all things Western, particularly French. In one of the book’s funniest passages, we meet a French-educated gynecologist whose claim to fame is his use of the French word “vagin” to “designate that intimate part of the female anatomy that Persians, prudish and reserved, never mentioned by name.”