Négar Djavadi’s debut novel Disoriental (Désorientale, 2016) is a wide-ranging story of an Iranian family that finds refuge in France, after being persecuted under the Shah and Khomeini regimes in Iran. At the core of the novel is Kimiâ Sadr, who sits at a fertility clinic in Paris and, while waiting for her appointment, thinks back on the various events that have occurred in her family, events that have led her to the present moment. History and the present, as well as the Occident and the Orient, blend here, enabling an in-depth view into some of the most burning questions in our society today.
Although a debut novel, Disoriental reads like it was written by a much more experienced author. Djavadi manages to keep the multi-generational storyline coherent thanks to the narrator’s authoritative voice, a voice that helps keep things straight even for those of us, including me, who know nowhere near enough about Iran. She predicts readers’ confusion by providing a character list at the back of the book, and often inserts half-humorous footnotes to guide the Western reader on the history of Iran (“To make things easier for you and save you the trouble of looking it up on Wikipedia”). It shows that Djavadi is a real-life screenwriter, and she handles the story like a conductor:
This is where the music shifts into a minor key, heavy on the brass instruments, signaling the dramatic change. The moment when, flooded with a terrible sense of foreboding, he pushes open Mother’s door … and the brass instruments, and indeed the whole orchestra, falls silent.
It is a dangerous game to play with such a prominent narrative voice, but here it gives the novel a unique flair, and plays only to its merit. While the story is essentially serious, it is also entertaining and funny. For one, Kimiâ seems to have a darkly humorous tendency for car-related allegories: “his handwriting is beautiful, clear and graceful, while mine looks like a car accident;” “for me, the future is more like one of those overcrowded, rickety buses wobbling along a road in Africa, which you keep an anxious eye on, wondering if it’s going to turn over”.
Behind the façade of effortless storytelling, however, resides the seriousness of the subject matter. The complicated relations between Iran and the Western world, oppressive (and fatal) religious regimes, and the subjugation of women in a severely patriarchal culture are some of the issues dealt with at length in the novel. Consider, for instance, when Kimiâ speaks of her grandparents: “Maybe it was instinct, but he knew Nour [the grandmother] would be the ideal factory in which to deposit his genes and produce a line of descendants in his image – which he took every opportunity to do, from the day Nour was installed in the bedroom next to his own.” Furthermore, it is a story of integrating into a new culture:
This scar that runs across my [French] vocabulary is my only concession to vanity; the only hint of resistance in my … efforts to integrate, let’s call them. I use that expression for the sake of convenience, because it means something to you, even though, brought up on a steady diet of French culture since childhood, I don’t really care what it conveys. Besides, since we’re on the subject, I think it lacks both sincerity and openness. Because 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.
It is pretty startling how Djavadi manages all this within three hundred pages or so: to be thought-provoking in such a wide array of topical issues while remaining entertaining. This is not a history book, nor a manifesto to deepen the guilty conscience of Western people, nor a mere adventure story. It is a piece of life. Presumably, a big part of it comes from Djavadi’s own experiences. Tina Kover’s translation must be acknowledged as well, as she, after all, is responsible for conveying the story’s readability. I cannot help comparing it to another recently published novel by an author of Iranian background, as I still have a fresh memory of it: Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Call Me Zebra is another story of exile, and while on paper I should prefer it to Disoriental (as Oloomi’s novel deals so much with the role of literature in our lives), I find that Djavadi’s novel is much more convincing and moving.