I love how some books keep calling me back to their pages; Laleh Khadivi’s “The Age of Orphans” is one that doesn’t want to let go of its reader.
Her writing has been compared to that of Anita Desai and Michael Ondaatje- and yes she deserves that high praise. Once you read a few pages of her novel, you will understand why she’s been compared to these two particular writers. However, I want to focus my blog more on the plot of an orphan remaining a lost child throughout his life.
Laleh Khadivi’s novel, is a story about a boy’s journey into becoming a man. A very disturbing story filled with metaphors and graphic explanations- but it is a story of war- what else can we expect?
This story follows one of the many Kurdish boys who are born into war. The book opens with the female heavy metaphors. There is a description of roof from which Reza jumps in hopes of flying. Khadivi illustrates a warm innocence of boyhood, where a child plays and longs for his mother’s breastmilk. She sets the landscape of his childhood, a house with a roof made of mud, straw and woven sticks, mountains in the distance, deserts surrounding him and impossible hopes of a future filled with normalcy. He is an innocent child- but “a useless one; he cannot perform any tasks, or assist the other men with their day to day activities”. This is a child who is “tied to the land”. No matter how much the child tries to break free from his bond to a woman, he cannot.
As all boys must, this child needs to grow into a man; and it is his father and uncles who take him to the caves to transform him from a breast-suckling child to a Kurd. He goes through his initiation, filled with symbolism and metaphors. He is constantly reminded “The Kurds have many fathers” (sic. but only one mother?) His initiation is a time to bond with his father and the male relatives of the family. The men rejoice in his physical pain- much like men rejoicing after a woman is raped-which happens later in the book. However, the opposite happens; he feels hatred and fear towards the “betrayal” of his male relatives. Although he is told to be proud of becoming a man, he feels out of place. The initiation is a failure; as the boy still runs to his mother for breastmilk the first chance he gets.
After the raiding of his village, and being recruited into the army of the Shah, he remains a child at heart- longing for the only connection that defines him- a woman’s breastmilk. Depicted as being weak, but beautiful, he is molested by his elders and rewarded with little gifts. For bribery, he is given a gun- which becomes his prized possession. He only defines himself with any distinction in this male world by turning his back on his Kurdish roots (by smashing a young child’s face and raping women).
This book turns the innocence of boyhood on its head and we as readers become afraid of the character as his fury progresses. We follow him from a distance, as we see him resort to drugs and whorehouses to escape the empty feelings he holds. We witness him through other character’s eyes- women seeing the true being hiding in the thick armour- various women identify him as a lost child. We see him struggle internally with his fears and uncertainty, overhear his inner thoughts as he is conditioned to think in a certain manner, and his fear of his future wife.
Yes, this is a story about a male, however, the only true ties a male has is the ones he shares with a woman- his mother, his sister or his wife. The female presence in this male character heavy book is overpowering; multiple references are made to the land, to a woman’s body, to a woman’s instinct.
I would caution readers about the graphics of this novel, as they can be quite disturbing. However, if you do choose to pick this book up, pay close attention to the female brush with which this story was written. Despite it following the becoming of a ruthless soldier, the language still holds an empathetic tone, reminding us that this angry character is just a lost boy.
No, I guarantee, this will not be the last time I read this book- and if you choose to purchase it, it will be one that you re-read multiple times.