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Author:
• Saturday, December 15th, 2012

Kader Abdolah was born in Arak, Iran in 1954. His real name is Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahaniand his pen name is a combined pseudonym in memory of his two executed friends from the resistance. He is the author of novels, short stories and non-fiction as well as being a columnist and poet. From an early age Kader Abdolah wanted to become a writer like his forebear, Ghaemmaghami Farahani.

While studying physics at Teheran University, Abdolah joined an underground left wing movement against the dictatorship of the Shah and later against the authoritarian Khomeini regime.

He wrote articles in an illegal journal and while still in Iran, secretly published two books describing what life was like under the Khomeini rule. He escaped in 1985 and three years later was accepted, at the invitation of the United Nations, as a political refugee in Holland.

Kader Abdolah was quick at mastering the language of his host country as much as writing all his work in Flemish. He received many honours and awards: The Golden Donkey Ear prize in 1994, the Edgar du Perron prize in 2000 for My Father’s Notebook which was first published in Dutch in 2000 and then in English in 2006. He received the 2008 decoration de chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He was also Knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion in 2000 and awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Groningen in 2009. He currently lives in Delft in Holland.

After escaping Iran, Ishmael, the main character and narrator of the novel, like the author himself, becomes a political refugee in the Netherlands. While in exile he receives a parcel containing the notebook that had been written in cuneiform script by his half illiterate deaf-mute father, Aga Akbar, the talented tapestry mender and the illegitimate son of an Iranian nobleman and servant mother. Aga Akbar was acquainted with these scriptures when he was sent by his uncle to copy the three thousand-year-old ancient cuneiform inscriptions chiseled on a cave wall on Saffron Mountain.

These scriptures narrate the story of the first Persian king in history, king Cyrus, who lived 2500 years ago. The author relates historical facts: We are informed that several years later the reign of king Cyrus was followed by the Qajar dynasty which ended in 1921 with a coup d’état staged by Reza Khan. Reza Khan declared himself the new king of Persia and established the Pahlavi Kingdom. He was in turn followed by his son Mohamed Reza Pahlavi in 1941 and then by his prime minister, Mohamed Mosadeq, from 1951 to 1953. Ayatollah Khomeini follows in 1979 and the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is also mentioned.

Ishmael decides to translate his father’s undecipherable work of a lifetime into Dutch. He feels it is his duty to do this as a painful, nostalgic, fond commemoration to his deceased father and his lost motherland. Throughout the novel, Ishmael recounts a double biography: his father’s life story combined with his own. He also writes about the political and social situation in Iran.

Aga Akbar was about nine years old when his mother died. His uncle, Kazem Khan, who looked after him, realised that his nephew couldn’t read or write. He decided to encourage him by giving him a notebook and asked him to “scribble something”, at least “one page every day. Or maybe just a couple of sentences”, which he did.

My Father’s Notebook blends facts, autobiography and fiction. The novel is about the intertwined past and present of Persian culture going back thousands of years. There are the myths, poetry, geography, religion and unique rich traditions on one side and the depiction of the twentieth century life in Iran on the other. It is also about the unconditional tender love between a son and his disabled father, despite their differences.

The author’s constant navigation between the enchanting past tarnished by Iran’s present bitter reality and his new life in exile in the Netherlands, brings two parallel worlds into focus and in complete opposition due to their entirely different cultures and history – conservative Muslim Iran on the one side and secular Holland on the other.

The novel ends on a sad note tinted with a ray of hope. Golden Bell disappears and her father, Aga Akbar, who accompany her in escape is found dead by a shepherd on a cold snowy mountain. Nevertheless, Golden Bell might still be asleep in the Saffron Mountain waiting to be woken at the right time to witness a new world of justice and freedom in her country. Just like the people mentioned in The Holy Koran in the Surat “The Cave” to which the author refers to in the novel’s prologue and epilogue.

An emotionally poignant story which gives an insight into the humanitarian problems relating to political refugees and their sufferings after being uprooted from their beloved homeland by repressive regimes.

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Author:
• Friday, February 26th, 2010

Tash Aw was born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1971 from Malaysian parents. When he was two years old his parents moved back to their homeland, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he grew up. He was educated at a Catholic School and moved to England with his parents when he was in his teens.

He read law at the University of Cambridge and Warwick and with his degree in hand, he worked in various jobs, including as a lawyer for four years. In 2002 he obtained a degree at the School of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, while working on his first novel which he completed during this time.

The Harmony Silk Factory, Tash Aw’s first novel, was published in 2005. It was long listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, won the 2005 Whitbread Book Award First Novel Award and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Asia Pacific region), as well as the Guardian First Book Prize. It was also long listed for the 2007 International Impac Dublin Award.

The Harmony Silk Factory was translated to several languages. Tash Aw, comments on Literature, film and culture in South East Asia for the BBC on a regular basis. Tash Aw’s second novel, Map of the Invisible World, was published in May 2009. He currently lives in Islington, London.

The Harmony Silk Factory is set in the 1930s and 1940s with the background of the second world war and the Japanese who are about to invade British occupied Malaysia. The title of the book refers to Johnny Lim’s textile shop in the Kinta valley, where he ran his illegal shady businesses and his political affairs.

The novel is divided into three parts. Each part represents the opinion of the narrator and his version of Johnny’s mysterious life, by going backwards and forwards in time.

His son Jasper, who is now in his forties and seems to dislike his father strongly, starts the narration in a subjective way. He is followed by Johnny’s famously beautiful, unfaithful, well-bred, deceased wife, Snow Soong, who died at childbirth, through her diary. The third and last version of the novel is by Johnny Lim’s best friend, the eccentric British expatriate, Peter Wormwood, who is in his seventies and spent most of his life in Malaysia.

Peter reminisces about the past, while debating with his inmates about the flora and fauna in order to plan a design for an English style garden in the old people’s home, run by the Catholic Church, where he now lives.

Three different characters, three distinct accounts and viewpoints about the same events, re-shaped by each narrator in order to shed a variety of light on the main character, the Chinese born, Johnny Lim, the self made, highly ambitious rich merchant.

Jasper, his son portrays him as an objectionable, hateful, dishonest, murderer, traitor and Machiavellian personality. His wife, Snow Soong, sees him as a naive, taciturn person of a humble background. While his friend Peter describes him as the best and only friend he ever had.

Throughout the story the reader never finds out Johnny Lim’s version in order to surmise if he was a hero or a villain or read his side of the story. In fact, the author ends his novel with a few loose ends, maybe as an invitation for the reader to draw his own conclusion.

The reader better gets to know the psychologically tortured, repressed feelings of the human imperfection of these well developed main characters: Johnny Lim, Snow Soong, Peter Wormwood, his unpleasant compatriot, Frederick Honey, the manager of the British controlled tin mine and the suavely cunning, multi-lingual, highly cultured, Japanese professor Mamoru Kunichika, to whom Snow was strongly attracted during their action-adventure trip to the mysterious Seven Maiden islands, which is supposed to be Johnny and Snows belated honeymoon trip.

The Harmony Silk Factory is a novel without much action, with loose ends and yet it’s a pleasurable book to read. Because of the author’s skillful writing, his prose is pure and uncluttered and his psychological analysis of each character with his strength and weaknesses, gives a credible dimension to the story. Last but not least is his vivid description of the luxuriant nature of the beautiful Malaysia.