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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

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To purchase Thirst

Title: Thirst
Author: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
Genre: Novel
Written: (Eng. 2014)
Length: 151 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: Thirst - US
Thirst - UK
Thirst - Canada
Thirst - India
  • A Novel of the Iran-Iraq War
  • Persian title: طریق بسمل شدن in Iran
  • طریق بسمل شدن has not yet been published in Iran; the English translation apperars to be the first publication of this book
  • Translated by Martin E. Weir

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative spin on the horrors of war

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Irish Times . 13/9/2014 Eimear McKeith
TLS . 10/10/2014 Maureen O'Rourke

  From the Reviews:
  • "A novel about the writing process, it explores how words can be weapons: the official truth is a fiction, and it is only through fiction that the truth is laid bare. Thirst is as universal as it is disturbingly topical." - Eimear McKeith, Irish Times

  • "This is a powerful indictment of mechanized conflict, and raises the question of why two peoples so close should be at war in the first place." - Maureen O'Rourke, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Thirst begins on the battlefield. Unspecified, at first -- "Somewhere, on some spot here on planet Earth" --, the scene is eventually revealed as on the front in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). A few men have survived the latest exchange of fire on this 'Hill Zero', and they've even captured one of the enemy -- but they're also pinned down, without water and unable to reach the nearby water tank without risking near-certain death, picked off by a sniper.
       Quickly, however, an author emerges from behind the scenes, a man trying to fashion an account of such a battle-scene. He's not completely stuck, but he's having trouble capturing the situation in exactly the way he wants. Adding to the pressure, he's been commissioned to write a rather different sort of account: taken on a tour of a prisoner of war camp, he's to come up with some propaganda -- to spin events in order to undermine the enemy. As the prison commander helpfully explains:

The story followed two distinct paths from here on in: what really happened, which you'd be well-advised not to enquire about; and what I've already explained to you, at least in part, the rest of which I'm going to tell you now.
       The man insists:
So, get this through your head: the 'truth of the story' is whatever the prison camp office chooses to tell journalists, authors, the Red Cross or any other busybody !
       The author, however, has a crisis of conscience -- and rather different ambitions in writing about the (larger) situation. He's very reluctant to (re-)package a story so that it fits the official line, and is hoping to write something different, and closer to the reality of war. However, the powers that be remind the author that official favor is both a responsibility, especially in time of war, and a privilege, and that if he doesn't play along:
To spell it out for you, at best you would be cast adrift in foreign lands like most of your colleagues, and you wouldn't be in such good shape as you are now. You get my meaning, I hope ?
       The casual threat of exile -- and a good working-over to send him on his way -- as the best outcome he can otherwise hope for obviously trouble the author, but can't persuade him to abandon his ideals, and so he continues working on his story of the soldiers on the front, dying of thirst and holding a prisoner.
       Dowlatabadi is an Iranian author, but one of the twists of this novel is that he writes largely from an Iraqi perspective: his author is an Arabic-writing Iraqi, the Major who is bullying him a representative of the Iraqi armed services. The point -- especially for those dying of thirst on both sides on Hill Zero -- is, of course, of the universality of war-experience. For those at the front, ideology and nationalism may still be nominally what motivates them, but both blur in their identities: the one side is very much a mirror-side of the other. The powers-that-be pulling the strings, of course, have other ideas: the author is afforded a behind-the-scenes look at what is taking place, but he wants nothing to do with the sort of fictionalization demanded of him for the good of the abstraction that is the state; his heart and mind are with the fighting men (and some innocents far behind the lines, too), the ones put in untenable positions.
       Drifting more than shifting between its layers of narrative, Dowlatabadi evokes an in extremis atmosphere -- certainly in the variations among those close to the nevertheless unreachable water tank, but also in the author's situation, as both frustrated and intimidated creator. He's straightforward enough with the powers-that-be (though occasionally accepting ambiguity, allowing his words to be heard in the way they want to hear them), and he complains, for example:
We get used to forgetfulness, so lying becomes a habit. Duplicity and hypocrisy become habits; conceit becomes a habit; habit itself even becomes a habit.
       The original Persian title refers to the concept of 'besmel' (commonly also: bismillah, 'in the name of Allah'), explained in a footnote here as: "the supplication required in Islam before the sacrifice of any animal", and it is used repeatedly in the text, as the characters find it applies to them: "I was going to be besmeled", one reports, for example.
       Those dying of thirst may naturally seem confused in their minds, but varieties of madness abound, the reach of the war extending far beyond the front. And even the author complains to the Major: "You've entered my head, got inside my mind and created the most dreadful confusion." In drifting across these different narrative planes, Thirst has, at times, the feel of a hallucination -- appropriate, given the many characters (all, pretty much, save the Major) who feel completely ungrounded.
       Not quite a story of variations on a story, and the attempt to settle on a definitive or appropriate version, Thirst nevertheless effectively shows how the war experience is, on the human scale, one of near unbearable horror, regardless of the exact unfolding of events. The author struggles with the humanity of it, while the authorities here are a reminder of the dark forces behind it all -- the same the world over, regardless of the side or cause, in their hypocrisy and lack of concern for the individual.
       A painful, dark story, but neatly fashioned and presented by Dowlatabadi, and effective.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 August 2014

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Thirst: Reviews: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi: Other books by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Iranian author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (Mahmud Doulatabadi, etc.; محمود دولت آبادی) was born in 1940. He has written many highly acclaimed novels and also worked as an actor.

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