The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Fariba Hachtroudi tr. Alison Anderson

Layout 1A woman working in an asylum centre as a translator is called to fill in for an interview. She utters the word she has all but banished from her vocabulary. Yes.

Now she faces the man with the voice she recognises, the man who snapped his fingers and changed her life, in their country, all those years ago.

One last interview with an asylum seeker who’s a bit of a problem, said my interlocutor, who was not anyone I knew. He went on, It’s a Colonel from the Theological Republic. But – I read your file. “Refuses to do any simultaneous translation for military or government personnel from her country of origin.”

Fariba Hachtroudi’s novella (translated from French) is a dual narrative, switching between two characters as they experience the present and remember the past in flashbacks, a kind of first person stream-of-conscious prose that is tense and withholding, though ultimately revealing.

We know bad things have happened, but no one wishes to relive or explain them, their thoughts rarely go there and yet we feel the presence of the past that hangs over them and the danger in the present. They both live with fear, paranoia and suffer from separation, from the memory and pain of love. They seek answers, atonement and their brief meeting will move them closer to it.

Now the Colonel is one of the hunted. He has been reinstated as a citizen. We have become full-fledged compatriots.  But what about the past? Can you just erase it with a swipe of your hand? And that pool of putrefaction that he waded into, without blinking an eyelid? The stench of it?

They live in isolation and with the memory of a great love and yet they have this terrible connection, which they must move beyond if they are to benefit each other. Can one overcome the memory of torture, the victim and the perpetrator and establish some other understanding?

Torture, like love, destroys, distorts, and transforms. Indubitably. Love, like torture, alters bodies. From the precipices of torment. Both love and torture mortify the soul deep in one’s inner chaos. Where the self disintegrates.

It’s a book that would benefit from being read twice as the narrative isn’t chronological, the characters and their loved ones are revealed slowly so thoughts shared in the beginning without reader knowledge add more to the story if we flip back and reread them.

Though a short novella, it requires concentration and acceptance that the threads will become clear, even while things are unclear, there is a mounting tension and discomfort that is hard to articulate, but is testament to the profound, tightly woven writing style of the author, this her first translation into English.

Fariba Hachtroudi

Fariba Hachtroudi

Fariba Hachtroudi was born in Tehran, leaving Iran after the 1979 revolution and settling in France. She spent 2 years in Sri Lanka teaching and researching Theravada Buddhism.

An account of her return to Iran after 30 years in exile was the subject of a memoir The Twelfth Iman’s a Woman? Following that visit she set up MoHa, a humanitarian foundation that advocates for women’s rights, education and secularism.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions for kindly providing a copy of this novel.

12 thoughts on “The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Fariba Hachtroudi tr. Alison Anderson

  1. A very thoughtful review, Claire. I remember seeing another post about this novel somewhere (possibly at Grant’s blog, 1streading) and it brought to mind a film I’d seen – A Syrian Love Story – about the breakdown of a couple’s relationship as they try to escape from Syria. If you haven’t seen it, I would definitely recommend it. Not an easy watch by any means, but I think it would be of interest to you given your tastes in literature.

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    • Thanks for the film recommendation Jacqui, it doesn’t appear to have come out in France, I hope it does. It’s interesting with this novella, the intensity and tension that come off the page through the narrative style the author uses, and then the slow revelation of what brought them to that moment. I can imagine there are so many, many stories of breakdown and hardship through decisions people must make living under dictatorship and/or fear, often when people have little choice. And then living with the aftermath, when nothing is ever the same.

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  2. This sounds like a really impactful and timely novella. It seems like a good length as well especially since you think it’d benefit from a second reading to fully work out the time line and see all the connections. Europa publish such great writing!

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    • I don’t often reread novels, but I find novellas often provoke that desire in me, I’ve reread a couple of Peirene novellas that have done the same thing, everything clicks late in the story and then it makes rereading the earlier pages a completely different experience and it is as if the story isn’t quite complete until we go back and reread it.

      With this one I reread the beginning again and it was as if I had never read those pages before, because by the end we have come to know the characters that much more intimately. It makes me wonder about the writing process too, how the author creates the work. Yes, Europa have an interesting collection of authors and writing styles that come with them. They certainly get me reading outside the norm.

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  3. This sounds like a beautifully controlled piece of writing, Claire – as much conveyed by what’s unsaid as what’s said. Given the author’s biography I wondered if her own experiences had played into it.

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    • Yes, I wondered that, she dedicates the book ‘To You, My Del’ which was the name of the husband of the translator (who had been the victim of torture as a way of getting to him) and the one for whom the character has a great love – but is abandoned by, which could suggest all kinds of things, that she has experienced the great love, the suffering, the abandonment – it would be interesting to read Hachtroudi’s account of her return to Iran. The fact that she has founded an association for women’s rights will likely also have been motivated by what she has seen and/or experienced for sure.

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  4. Best part is the title! “The man who snapped his fingers”. Sends off all the alarm bells off…who is he? What happened ? I think many writers ignore the importance of an attention grabbing title. This is the first thing I look at! It has to be unusual enough to arouse my curiosity. What a great title! Sounds intriguing. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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    • It’s interesting because it’s not the same title that was used in the original French version and in the book we discover the main woman character is writing a novel and has a few suggested titles, two of which have been used in the publication of this novella! You might wish to read it in its original version Le Colonel et l’appât 455.

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      • Duly noted…I was looking for a French read! I just ordered via Kindle!
        Need something to keep me awake after….. ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (classic but uneventful. I enjoyed the Disney movie version (1949) more than the book!

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  5. You really draw out the parallels between the two characters – especially given they start on opposite sides. Perhaps that’s where the novel’s hope lies.

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