In 1988, Kader Abdolah fled from Iran and settled in the Netherlands. He had already written two novels and here he continued to write in a new language. This fact is worked in a surprising manner into his third novel, Spijkerschrift. The title refers to the indecipherable symbols in which the deaf, dumb and blind Aga Akbar has recorded his life’s story. This self-invented script can be seen as an attempt to find his own language in a country whose inhabitants are oppressed by the consecutive regimes of the Shah and Khomeni.
Aga’s son, Ismael, is no exception. He has fled to the Netherlands and comes into the possession of the manuscript, which he is determined to translate, in despite its illegibility. Just as in the past, he has to be the means through which his deaf and dumb father is understood. He is an extension of his father and of the history of his country, including its flaws, plus whatever he himself remembers, or imagines, which creates a wonderful chronicle. Ismael paints a penetrating and colourful picture of both his fatherland and of himself as a translator and writer. In that respect, he appears to have created a second homeland by writing himself into the literature of his new language.
Constantly jumping back and forth between the present day and the past, his book gradually spans a bridge between two worlds, which are both given a new tint by the strange intermediate position of Ismael. ‘I write my story in the language of the Dutch people, in other words in the language of poets and writers who are no longer with us (-). I do so because it is the law of flight.’ And it is in its very language that Spijkerschrift excels. As a foreigner, writing in a language foreign to him, Abdolah is extremely economical with his words and possesses a unique power of suggestion.
The history of Iran in the 20th century glints through the fractured lens of the enigmatic notebook of the deaf-mute carpet mender Aga Akbar in this deeply felt tale. Born to the concubine of a Persian nobleman, Aga Akbar invents a cuneiform language inspired by that of an ancient Persian king in an effort to express himself. Aga Akbar marries the brave but bitter Tina, fathers four children and moves from tiny Saffron Village to the big city. There he finds his carpet-mender’s craft replaced by mechanized drudgery, and participates in the religious fervor preceding the revolution led by the imams. Years later, Aga Akbar’s son, Ishmael, who narrates most of the novel, partially translates the notebook his father filled with his cuneiform script. Ishmael, who like the author is a political exile in the Netherlands, tries to understand his father, whom he served as translator and guide almost from the day he was born. Though Ishmael feels like an extension of his father, his leftist politics and university education inevitably separate them, emotionally and physically. The narrative is sometimes choppy and overpacked, but Ishmael’s complex love for his father and his country and his struggle to do what is right for both proves moving and illuminating.
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