In the breathtaking surroundings of the Maison de l'Ecriture in Montricher, Switzerland, in the foothills of the Jura, the fourth Jan Michalski Literary Prize was awarded to Iranian novelist Mahmoud Dowlatabadi for his novel The Colonel, published in the in the U.S. by Melville House and in the U.K. by Haus Publishing. With the prize, the author wins 50,000 Swiss francs.
Dowlatabadi, who teaches Persian literature at the University of Tehran, has written some 30 novels, each very different, but only about a dozen have been cleared for publication in his home country. However, his work is finding an ever-widening audience in the west, with deals in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Norway, Israel and Syria.
The Colonel was recently shortlisted for the IMPAC Award and longlisted for the Man Booker Asian Prize, and the author has often been spoken of as a potential Nobel laureate. Dowlatabadi hopes the book's success may lead to its publication in Iran, where the manuscript remains stuck with the censor, but he has no wish to be published in a samizdat edition, as many Soviet writers once were.
The novel was written three decades ago, as the repressive regime of the Shah gave way to that of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who provided the West with its first serious encounter with Islamic fundamentalism. A 19th-century military figure gave the book its title, though it is neither historical or autobiographical. "A melancholic masterpiece" according to the Liepman Agency in Zurich, it conveys "the general atmosphere" of Iran, whose revolution Dowlatabadi described (through a translator) as "sensational," though clearly not in the sense most of us would use that word.
The Colonel is set on a single day, its story narrated by an old officer, much-decorated by the Shah and tormented by memories of his children, who answered the calls for revolution and war, and by the death, at his own hand, of an adulterous wife.
Dowlatabadi, who is now in his seventies, has endured decades of harassment, and spent two years in prison, after being arrested by the Shah's secret police in 1974.
The Jan Michalski Literary Prize, and the Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing and Literature, are the creation of Vera Hoffmann Michalski; Jan Michalski was her late husband. The Prize and the architect-designed Maison de l'Ecriture--the library, gallery and auditorium opened this year--are part of the Jan Michalski Foundation, which is in turn part of a wider program of philanthropy.