Mahmoud Dowlatabadi wins the 2013 Jan Michalski Prize
by Sal Robinson
Some prizes are important, and some prizes are just not to be trusted. For instance, a prize where when you win it you, you have to go to Stockholm and see a princess? That can’t be real.
Which is why we were very happy to hear that The Colonel by Melville House author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (and superior scarf-wearer) has been chosen as this year’s winner of the Jan Michalski Prize.
The Michalski Prize, which is given out annually by the Fondation Jan Michalski, was inaugurated in 2010. Past winners include Aleksandar Hemon for The Lazarus Project, György Dragomán for The White King, and Julia Lovell for The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of China. The prize is unusual in its wide-ranging remit: it is open to books written in any language, and works of fiction and nonfiction are considered together, not as separate categories. It seeks only, as the Fondation’s site puts it, to “crown a work of world literature.”
Which will now allow us to do this, in the office:
That’s right, from now on all copies of The Colonel will come with their own tiny legal-pad crown.
Japes aside, the importance of Melville’s publication of The Colonel — and why we are glad that this prize will hopefully bring the book to more and new readers — was brought home to me recently at the annual ALTA conference, when a translator came up to me in the lobby of the Indiana Memorial Union and told me that, though she was Iranian, she’d never read Dowlatabadi until she came across the Melville editions of his work. The Colonel is banned in Iran, which means that foreign editions play an even greater role in getting it out to audiences than they would normally: even his Iranian readers are dependent on German, French, and English editions.
And there’s a reason The Colonel is banned: not only is Dowlatabadi’s Persian a radical departure from literary norms — the translator of the book, Tom Patterdale, calls it “rough and ready, the language of the street and the barrack room” — but the book pulls together many strands of twentieth-century Iranian history without regard to taboos, and especially portrays the dark legacy of the 1979 revolution.
Dowlatabadi’s artistic integrity clearly struck a chord with the Michalski Prize jury member Ilija Trojanow, who paid tribute to Dowlatabadi in his nomination of The Colonel for the prize shortlist, calling him the “greatest living prose author of Iran” and saying that “his epic narratives, his scope of themes and the depth of his thinking has mesmerized me.” Trojanow, who was recently denied entry to the United States because he’d written critically about the NSA, also tells a story about Dowlatabadi that illuminates the place his novels have had in the history of his country:
After being arrested in 1974 by the Savak, the shah’s secret police, he asked his interrogators what crime he had committed. “None,” they responded, “but everyone we arrest has copies of your novels…”
There’s no more fitting tribute for a writer than to be read, even — or maybe especially — if it gets him into trouble. I’ll bet a paper crown on that.
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.