Laleh Khadivi's second novel charts the course of two brothers fleeing Iran as the shadows of revolution begin to lengthen in 1979 and deconstructs their differing reaction to life in exile, writes Lucy Scholes
The Walking tells story of two boys escaping Iran during the revolution
Iranian-born author Laleh Khadivi's first novel The Age of Orphans was the story of a Kurdish boy orphaned after a brutal battle between his tribesmen and the new Iranian army in the Zagros Mountains in 1921. It told the larger narrative of a nation in flux through the life of a single individual.
The Walking, Khadivi's second novel, begins nearly 60 years later in 1979 during another period of violence and displacement. This is Iran, a country where "regimes are like seasons, always passing, always changing". This time Khadivi's story is closer to home as just like her two protagonists, the young Kurdish brothers Ali and Saladin Khourdi, she and her family fled Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Khadivi was only two years old.
Woken early from their slumbers one morning, the brothers are taken by their police captain father to a mullah to confirm their loyalty to the Ayatollah. The mullah and his guards round up 11 Kurdish men, take them to a "secreted" valley then shoot them by firing squad: "eleven shots fired out from eleven barrels, as somewhere in the sky, a million threads were cut and the Kurdish men dropped to the valley floor like puppets, useless and tossed aside."
Ali and Saladin are handed pistols with which to finish off the bodies, their father standing by, encouraging his sons' crimes: "We must know that there are only devoted men under the Ayatollah. Men devoted to this new Iran and nothing else", the mullah commands.
In the confusion that follows - their father's desperate pleas for his sons to do what is asked of them, "take the gun, or forget it all, your home, your sisters, your life as a man here", Ali's stubborn refusal and Saladin suspended as if in a dream - the boys flee.
So begins the brothers' long journey west. Saladin spent much of his childhood in the cinema - cocooned in the dark, his eyes transfixed on the flickering images on the bright screen in front of him, seduced by the glamour of Hollywood and America - so he fixes his sights on Los Angeles.
Ali, by comparison, is a reluctant travelling companion: they just need to stay hidden, he suggests, until the fuss has died down and the mullah has gone, and then they can return home. But retreat is not an option and, as the revolution continues, the two boys find themselves driven further and further away from the mountain town of their birth.
They make it on foot to Istanbul, where for a few carefree days they find work at a printing press, unjamming the old, moody machines on the night shift, and walking the city, eating ice cream by day, sleeping under a blanket of old newspapers in the park. They do so until one morning they find their own pictures on the front page - criminals wanted for their insubordination that day in the mountains - and they realise their journey is far from over.
They board a freighter at the docks, buying their passage with the only thing of value they possess, a gold figurine they dug out of the ground in the mountains en route, just two of the many illegal immigrants fleeing in hope of sanctuary in the west. Packed tightly in one of the ship's containers, they arrive in the Azores, are herded off the ship and into the charge of a man so sun-tanned he "seemed to be carved of copper".
One more leg of their journey will take them to LA, Saladin's hunger for the city he "recognises from a lifetime of films" increasing with every day that passes. But as he swells with excitement, Ali seems to shrink in stature and personality. The older brother, known for his "deep beliefs and great calm", has always been the "braver" of the two, but "with each step away from the mountains" Ali's "noble traits had dimmed". It soon becomes clear that if each brother is to fulfil his destiny, they can no longer walk side by side. Saladin touches down in LA, smuggled aboard a plane as cargo, without Ali.
As in The Age of Orphans, there is a larger, more all-encompassing story told in The Walking too. As well as being the individual tale of the Khourdi brothers, Khadivi also tells the broader story of the Iranian exodus, both through the eyes of those (like herself and her family) who left the country of their birth, and those who stayed behind, wondering what had happened to their friends and family who had fled.
The voices of these countless, nameless men and women haunt Saladin and Ali's story, a communal chorus who whisper their hopes, dreams and fears in the absences that litter Saladin's new life in America.
Those who have left remember what they've left behind - "our grandmother's tea set", "the favourite towel", the cheap imported Chinese vase someone's uncle rewired as a lamp, "the walk to the bakery" - while what does follow them, "in dogged pursuit like a neglected neighbour or a new ghost", "there when we are looking and there when we are not" is news from home: "dispatches, reports, official accounts, unofficial accounts, imagined and recounted accounts", they cannot escape it.
Their new lives in America continue against a brutal backdrop of violence in Iran - the Black Friday Massacre in Shah Square; the Cinema Rex Fire - "the broadcasts pursued us into our new homes, beds, nightmares and daydreams until the low crackle and constant buzz was with us everywhere, all the time, dogged, snapping, nipping, biting, devouring". But it is the Hostage Crisis that affects them the most as "during those 444 days the suspicion leaked like a stain into the fabric of our new life". Americans refuse them jobs, the butcher sells them "only old cuts of pork", the police don't protect them from harassment and their children are afraid to go to school. Even after the standoff comes to an end "Americans continued to cast their dark glances for some time afterward, like a car with bad brakes coming to a stop".
Bar a few implausible twists and turns in the plot, The Walking is a gripping tale of displacement, belonging and the bonds of brotherhood, written in hauntingly lyrical prose. "Life", Saladin muses towards the end of the book, "a series of steps taken, avoided, done right, done wrong."
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.