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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

My Father's Notebook

Kader Abdolah

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To purchase My Father's Notebook

Title: My Father's Notebook
Author: Kader Abdolah
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 321 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: My Father's Notebook - US
My Father's Notebook - UK
My Father's Notebook - Canada
Cunéiforme - France
Die geheime Schrift - Deutschland
Scrittura cuneiforme - Italia
El reflejo de las palabras - España
  • Dutch title: Spijkerschrift
  • Translated by Susan Massotty

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good story, quite well related

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 28/2/2006 Marjorie Kehe
The Economist . 24/2/2001 .
FAZ . 10/2/2004 Sabine Berking
The Guardian . 22/4/2006 Sebastian Groes
The Independent . 16/6/2006 Ruth Pavey
The LA Times . 26/3/2006 Susan Salter Reynolds
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 24/4/2003 Angela Schader
Scotland on Sunday . 30/4/2006 David McVey
The Times . 22/4/2006 Shusha Guppy
TLS . 5/5/2006 Nora Mahony
Wall Street Journal . 17/3/2006 Robert J. Hughes
Die Zeit A 20/3/2003 Karl-Markus Gauß

  Review Consensus:

  Generally liked it very much

  From the Reviews:
  • "In a narrative so clean and simple that it often has the feel of a fairy tale, the author gives us a country where myth and unlovely reality meet and mingle, where an opium-induced haze can be confused with wisdom, and where bird song and gunshot both have their place. (...) Occasionally Abdolah's need to teach the reader about Iran becomes burdensome (...) and sometimes the narrative runs down a dead end (...). But for the most part, this somewhat dreamy tale succeeds in conjuring the richness of the world that Ishmael left behind. It also conveys the heartache of an exile who cannot help but feel a traitor as he leaves his father and his country to their fates." - Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor

  • "In short, powerful sentences, Mr Abdolah draws a poignant and colourful picture of a humble life set against Iran's recent history: Reza Khan and the last Shah, the 1979 revolution, war with Iraq and fundamentalist terror. (...) Exile is Mr Abdolah's recurring theme and, if language is a native land, his writing is a special homecoming." - The Economist

  • "Die geheime Schrift ist ein Stück, das einen nicht losläßt. Eine Familiensaga, ein postmoderner Roman über die geistige Unbehaustheit des Exils, ein Buch über die Höllen der Diktatur. Vor allem aber ist es ein Buch über die mystische und heilende Kraft der Sprache." - Sabine Berking, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "My Father's Notebook is a moving elegy for a lost father and homeland, but also a voice raised against all forms of repression. (...) Yet now that Iran's political leadership is causing the west a nuclear headache, Abdolah's attempted cross-cultural imagination is all the more urgent. His novel reminds us that the deaf-mute comes in many different guises." - Sebastian Groes, The Guardian

  • "With seamlessly interwoven quotations from Persian and Dutch literature, deft storytelling and affectionate humour, he offers the reader buoyancy as well as weight. In Susan Massotty's translation, My Father's Notebook is a gift to English readers." - Ruth Pavey, The Independent

  • "(A) gentle story, partly autobiographical, of cedar trees and oil lamps, yellow opium, Persian rugs and the village at the foot of Saffron Mountain." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Indeed, in outline it may sound worthy and didactic, grim but Good For You, but the reality is very different. Yes, the reader learns much about recent upheavals in Iranian life, but there is more here than the sad but familiar story of political exile. (...) My Father's Notebook is an intriguing, complex and often playful novel that deserves attention." - David McVey, Scotland on Sunday

  • "Kader Abdolah spices his narrative with poetry, myths and tales of Sufi wisdom from Persian classics, while skilfully conveying the condition of exile: gratitude for hospitality tinged with pain, regret and nostalgia for the lost homeland, remorse for the wrongs done to others, and the struggle with a new language. In the end some wisdom is attained. This original novel shares the experience with the reader and Susan Massoty’s fluent translation conveys the simplicity and exotic diction of the original Dutch." - Shusha Guppy, The Times

  • "My Father's Notebook, smoothly translated by Susan Massoty, examines communication between generations in a moving and conflicted tribute to a marvellous character." - Nora Mahony, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Abdolah Kader (...) hat ein meisterliches Werk geschrieben, das mit leichter Hand viele Fäden verwebt, Genres aufbietet, Tonlagen erprobt." - Karl-Markus Gauß, Die Zeit

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:

       My Father's Notebook is narrated by Ishmael, an Iranian exile living in the Flevopolder, "the reclaimed ground that the Dutch have wrested from the sea". His account is of both his own life and that of his father, Aga Akbar, "an illiterate, deaf-mute poet".
       The notebook of the title is central to his attempts to decode and recreate Akbar's life. Akbar never learnt to read, but his uncle, the poet Kazem Khan, insisted that he write: "Just scribble something in your notebook. One page every deay." The exercise takes on some meaning when Kazem Khan takes his nephew to Saffron Mountain -- "our country's spiritual legacy" --, famous for a cave with an ancient cuneiform inscription that scholars from across the world came to copy. And Akbar copied it down too, and his own notebook was then filled with his own form of expression, his own cuneiform writing.
       The book chronicles the changes Iran undergoes, from Reza Shah's modernisation efforts (which include building train tracks across this territory) all the way to the Khomeini-regime. Akbar is a man of the old world, with little interest in or understanding of politics; Ishmael, on the other hand, goes to study at the University of Tehran and becomes a left-wing activist (until he has to flee the country).
       It is Kazem Khan that gets Akbar a job as an apprentice to a carpet mender -- the sort of artistic work appropriate for Akbar, and one that would allow him to travel a great deal as well ("There's always a damaged carpet somewhere").
       Akbar remains fairly simple -- though part of that appearance is also deceiving, since his deafness, muteness, and illiteracy make his world a very different one from that Ishmael is confronted with. Akbar communicates well enough with his family (and most anyone else he has to) through sign language, and he also remains very independent, often going off by himself. From his distant Dutch exile, the son tries to constructs a portrait of the man his father was -- but finds many gaps.
       For the most part, the biographical and autobiographical bits are very nicely done. The stories are fairly simple, but quite well and evocatively told. Jumping occasionally to the contemporary perspective from which he writes (and tries to make sense out of his father's notebook), Ishmael offers a nostalgia-tinged good story of a quickly changing country and the effects it has on individuals -- and always of the difficulty of communication and language. Eventually, his own story -- of being a young radical -- comes to the fore; it's also interesting, but perhaps not quite as satisfying -- perhaps also because one senses his own frustration at how it all came to an end.
       Ishmael is also very selective in what personal information he offers. The reader knows he is married in present-day Holland, but in his chronological account suddenly confronts the reader with a wife and daughter pretty much out of nowhere -- and that only when they have to leave Tehran and go their separate ways. He has an excuse, but it's not entirely convincing:

     So far I've said very little about Safa. That's because I don't want to stray from my father's cuneiform notebook. Otherwise I would also have written more about my sisters and about their husbands' tragic fate.
       But it's not as if the entire book revolves around the notebook -- in fact, Ishmael often strays from it.
       My Father's Notebook reads well, and while it doesn't entirely cohere it does offer a good picture of many (changing) aspects of Iran in the 20th century. Appealing, if not entirely satisfying.

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My Father's Notebook: Reviews: Other books by Kader Abdolah under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       'Kader Abdolah' is the pen name of an author born in Iran in 1954. He moved to the Netherlands in 1988 and now writes in Dutch.

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© 2006-2021 the complete review

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