The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Iranian author Fariba Hachtoudi is a short novel about love in a time of totalitarianism. The totalitarian regime in question is known only as the Theological Republic and its leader as the Supreme Commander, giving the novel an allegorical power, but no doubt drawing on Hatchtoudi’s experience and knowledge of Iran, which her family left after the 1979 revolution when she was a young woman.
Appropriately for a novel concerned with love, the story unfolds in two voices, but these are not the voices of lovers, though their developing relationship is the novel’s subject. The first is that of Vima, or Bait 455 (the word ‘bait’ refers to prisoners who are taken to make other prisoners talk), who was tortured at length by the regime before being allowed to leave the country; the second belongs to one of the Supreme Leader’s most trusted Colonels, a man whose job it was to spy on the torturers to ensure they could be ‘trusted’. He, too, has now fled his homeland and has been seeking asylum for a number of years; he encounters Vima in her capacity as an interpreter at the Office for Refugees and Stateless Persons. Both have left loved ones behind, the single voices of their narratives in fact emphasising their loneliness.
The Colonel recognises Vima almost immediately – “The woman sitting next to the official, strung as tight as a bow, is none other than 455” – but feels certain she will not know him as all prisoners wore hoods and blindfolds. However, in captivity Vima learned how to loosen her blindfold enough to squint underneath and observe the feet of her torturers:
“Tell me how you walk and I will tell you who you are. The Colonel has returned from the toilets. I am trying to concentrate. I’m staring at the ground, following his steps.”
Her relationship to the Colonel is closer than Vima at first realises: it was his wife’s discovery of a recording of her being tortured (which the Colonel was analysing to assess the performance of the torturers amid concern that Vima refused to break) that caused him to arrange her release, and later leave the country himself:
“You said, You have only one solution, and that is to leave. Once you’ve rescued this woman. You are going to arrange her escape. And her husband’s… They are the ones who will save you, in the end.”
The Colonel does this out of love for his wife, which he calls his Achilles’ heel. Vima is able to resist her torture because of her love for her husband, Del:
“Del’s love was what kept me safe. More than anything, when I was in the depths of hell.”
The Colonel’s weakness is Vima’s strength, though arguably in both cases love brings them suffering, and separation.
Hachtoudi uses the Colonel and Vima’s perhaps unlikely love stories to reveal how totalitarian states work, both by describing the Colonel’s rise to power, and Vima’s treatment as a victim. The descriptions of Vima’s torture holds nothing back as she is both physical and sexually abused. That the torturers themselves are also under observation reveals the totalitarian mind-set. The Colonels’ story shows how his participation in (presumably the Iran-Iraq) war leads to recognition and admission to the Supreme Commander’s inner circle – from which, of course, there is no escape. In both cases it is the regime which tears their relationships apart. In Vima’s case this happens literally through imprisonment, but also through her fear Del might have betrayed her. For the Colonel, it occurs when his two roles as loving husband and brutal soldier collide. That his wife is also called Vima highlights the contrast.
Some readers may find it hard to accept the ‘truth’ of the Colonel’s love given his complicity in torture and murder – sadly history shows us otherwise. Importantly, Hachtoudi demonstrates the humanity of the oppressor and the victim, and the victim’s humanity revealed to the oppressor. Our attitude to all the characters may contain some ambiguity, including the Colonel’s wife, who writes at the end:
“Of the two of us, who was more to blame? The young devoted soldier caught in the tyrant’s vice, or the scientist cloistered on her Olympus, refusing to see what was there before her eyes?”
It is Hachtoudi’s ability to engage with her characters, the roles they are assigned by history, and how much power they have to reject them that makes this a gripping examination of totalitarianism’s perpetrators and victims.