Mahmoud Dawlatabadi – Thirst (2014)
Setting: The Iran-Iraq war
What it’s about: Is a soldier still human? That is the question that hangs over this novel from Iran.
In Thirst, a tank of water stands between two sets of soldiers, Iranian and Iraqi. The narrative eventually forms a mirror between the two sides. Meanwhile, the writer himself is struggling to finish the story of the two soliders and the water tank because a prison camp head is coercing him to fabricate war propaganda. The two wage a witty war of words in between scenes from the battlefield.
Mahmoud Dawlatabadi probes our assumptions. As two soldiers argue in a trench about how to treat their prisoner, one explains to the other why they can do their duty and kill soldiers, but not a human being:
It’s quite simple, sir. Soldiers are different from human beings. You can’t see a soldier’s face from far away.”
Why you should read it: For the interlacing of millenia of Persian and Mesopatamian history into modern conflicts (“What truce? We’ve been on the offensive or defensive for centuries”) and the subtle probing of the nature of humans in conflict, ancient and modern.
The dual narratives of ‘the author’ and story was risky, but works as an ode to the power of writing, as when the author ponders his plot:
The author immediately fell to wondering whether his pen might even be able to prevent the prisoner’s death.”
Mahmoud Dawlatabadi tells us the author is a man “smitten with words” in reference to a 17th century poen “when a person who is smitten by words is given a pen, he will not stop writing even if threatened by a blade’.” Which is essentially the theme of this book.
This dedication to the word, to truth, is contrasted to a disdain for weapons of war, which gives the sense of urgency that a way must be found to overcome ancient divisons once and for all:
Ever since the invention of lead bullets along with a device from which they could be fired in order to kill people, human beings have become nothing but statistics and can hardly be called ‘people’ anymore. And consequently, honour, kindness and humanity are now redundant concepts. For this new invention can be aimed and fired at anonymous individuals known as ‘targets’”