Story of conflict between two Kurdish brothers forced into exile zooms in on the ever-changing identity of America.
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I don't believe in providence, so I'll call it coincidence that brought me in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings to review Laleh Khadivi's novel, The Walking, about two young Kurdish Iranian brothers who are forced into exile as a result of a kill-or-be-killed incident by the Islamic republic in 1980. Yes, two brothers from an Islamic country, connected through their father to a persecuted and stateless ethnic group, pushed toward America one reluctantly, the other longingly in a bid for mere survival.
Even more striking, The Walking is a sequel (of a planned trilogy) to The Age of Orphans, which tells the traumatic tale of the brothers' father who, like many tribal boys under the Pahlavi shahs' rule, was conscripted, abused and indoctrinated for the good of that recent man-made notion, the nation-state (and all the "good" that can come from nationalism).
The Walking is a reminder that fiction can enlighten us about the human condition, that a well-told story with well-drawn characters can be a portal to a better understanding not only of how events happen but why they happen. This is not to say that Khadivi sways us toward one or another conclusion; she simply places us in the lives and minds of those who are forced, like the migratory birds to which she often refers, to leave home or die.
At the center of the story is the psychological conflict between the brothers: the older, who wants to return and fight "for honor" and the younger only 17 years old whose obsession with American cinema drives him to "imagine no other possible home."
And so they walk as do we, our muscles aching, bellies burning with hunger, lips parched, skin split by fists of prejudice, in fear of the future, confused by strange cultures across borders and over mountains, through cities and on the decks of a ship, together in love, yet torn in loyalty and desire until the boys' relationship is cleaved by both.
Interspersed throughout this compelling story are chapters of lyrical prose that give voice to the collective experience of Iranians who stayed behind and who escaped: their fears and preoccupations, the increments by which they remember and forget and miss one another, the ways they change as time passes and memory bends and alters. Most important and well-rendered is the psychological and physical scramble to belong and thrive in a new place, and Khadivi doesn't shy away from the madness that can befall those who can't adapt.
To anyone who doubts the capacity for a child of immigrants to fathom and correctly explain the experience of displacement, let them stop now. Khadivi came to America as a small child. For all intents and purposes, she's American. But she was raised in the shadow of exile and as a witness to the struggle to "make it in America" (or not make it), to survive on the kindness only of other refugees, to crumble under the ignorance and dismissal by a population so confident of its perfection that it believes the preposterous idea that it has justifiably walled itself off from the rest of the world.
In great part, The Walking addresses the heart-aching conflict a sort of inner border war of all reluctant or accidental immigrants: To whom am I loyal? With which nation do I identify? Where do I put my memories and how do I forget injustices? The hopeful answer is always the notion that we somehow straddle both the "old home" and the "new home" without betraying either, but that's neither easy nor easily defined, which is why a novel that explores these issues can be so helpful and enlightening.
Khadivi's excellent pacing draws us into a deeply sensual and suspenseful story, yet there are times when the narrative becomes an irksome chronology of historical events that are often wrong and serve no purpose in the closer story. Especially annoying to the knowledgeable reader are inaccurate transliterations of Farsi words and phrases.
The Walking makes us think about the ever-changing identity of America, which is what makes this country unique. Not all of us remember or fully accept that, but we must. As Khadivi's collective narrator says: "Imagine our shock when, after some years, we noticed that we had not at all become Americans in that vein, that there was no chance of such shape-shifting, but instead America, California, Los Angeles, became a bit more like us."