[Dundurn Press; 2023]

“I had travelled south to write about what was happening on the rigs,” explains the narrator of Babak Lakghomi’s South, only known as “B.” He leaves a city and his girlfriend, Tara, to write a piece for someone known as “the Editor,” describing the conditions of the people on an oil rig in the titular South. Beyond this assignment, B is also trying to write a book about his father for “the Publisher,” who initially loved the manuscript. B’s father went missing, and his disappearance remains mysterious. His father’s disappearance understandably defines B, haunts him, and the book he’s writing is an “attempt to find out who he was, to understand why he’d left.” Shortly after B arrives at the rig, he receives an edit from the publisher, in which ”anything about my father being laid off from the factory had been removed.” B is furious. 

South uses a semi-allegorical method, skirting around exact geographical and character names, to beautifully represent the fear, secrets, and terror experienced by B and his fellow citizens. This aspect of narrative redaction mirrors the character’s desire to find the truth in his whitewashed world. B is looking for truth, which puts him in danger. In his desire to document reality and know the truth about his father, and what is actually going on in the oil rigs, he threatens the authoritarian government’s suppression and control. The consequences for his actions are severe, to the point of life-altering.

While reading this novel, I almost contacted my editor to change my assignment to an interview with the author. Babak (maybe he goes by “B”) Lakghomi, born in Iran, must know personally the strange unnamed world of South. Instead, I gave myself a crash course on Iran, as well as the oil and pearl industry in the Persian Gulf. Mostly, I gave into the book’s moving narrative and visceral world. Because despite the unnaming aspect of South, the novel describes the physical landscape of desert and heat, the stench of fish, and the feel of ocean salt, with grace and beauty.

While none of this background research was necessary to enjoy or understand Lakghomi’s harrowing novel, it’s a testament to its narrative strength that it stirred such curiosity in this reader. In that regard, I’m reminded of other slim, political novels, in particular The Life and Times of Michael K. by J. M. Coetzee, where the narration follows one individual through the terror of South African apartheid, without calling it such, immersing the reader in the beauty of the land, albeit one ruled by corruption and violence. Strangely, I also thought of Fiskadoro, Denis Johnson’s similarly slim novel that takes place in a post-apocalyptic future.

In South, there is very little digression, moving the reader forward through B’s journey to discover the truth and to document the horrible conditions of his countrymen, as well as find out what actually happened to his father.

Before B makes it to the oil rig, he stops for a night in a village where the “salt is inseparable from soil” and “Cows soaked in shallow saline waters to get away from the heat . . . The tops of their coats burned under the sun.” There, he witnesses a ceremony that in being both superstitious and symbolic becomes a kind of mimicry of reality. It is one of drums around a fire, with a man on his knees at the center of the ritual and women “like crows with metal beaks.” A sacrificed chicken’s blood and a song about the winds that come when the soul is weak are conjured for the man on his knees, who “convulsed under the cloth. When he started to scream, the drums stopped.”

B wakes the next morning, unsure how he got back to his bed. He goes to his suitcase and finds a book he brought, The Book of the Winds. Later, a chapter starts with a quote from said book, explaining, “Whereas sometimes the spirit may leave the body, the wind may stay behind in the head and need more blood and ceremony to depart.” When reality seems unreal, superstition arises as a balm, a way to explain terror.

Part mystery, part documentation of the horrors of slave labor and totalitarianism, the novel never loses its ability to make B a human, a man, one with problems and desires. Small, seemingly inconsequential characteristics make him so: He struggles with alcohol, his relationship with Tara is tenuous, like any real love, complicated and full of doubts and disappointments.

When B arrives at the oil rig, he was expected by “the company,” but he did not expect things to go as badly as they do. This is saying a lot, in that he was aware that things were going to be difficult. Once he arrives, he is stripped first of his privacy and then his ability to communicate with Tara, and then his relationships with the Editor and the Publisher become something other than what he thought.

In many ways, the universal aspect of the novel is that nothing is what we expect. Trust is lost. Humans are capable of incredible horrors that undermine hope. The turning point of the novel, perfectly situated halfway, is when B goes to the reception desk of the rig to arrange his departure. This, after much time—time here is not easy to calculate—sleeping and eating in C-Can that is basically a prison, among people whom he can’t know or trust, despite his efforts. There, the secretary behind the desk says, “There are no letters for you.”

B responds: “That’s OK . . . I just want to go home. I was wondering if you could book me in for the next helicopter?”

“I am afraid that won’t be possible,” she answers.

As the novel hurtles toward the end, the reader is taken along an excruciating trip toward the dark truth of power and greed, of the human cost of wanting to know the truth. What happens to his piece for the Editor? Does he find out what happened to his father? Does B ever make it home? What is home, country, and family? Flannery O’Connor wrote, “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” Lakghomi does just that. Stories are important when we live in a world where the truth is hidden and ugly, a world where most people have so little power over anything, where fate feels like wind, powerful and inexplicable. B, our writer-narrator, knows this. He takes us on his journey, giving the reader a chance to experience all that he can hold onto, in spite of those who would rather he not know. South is an exceptional example of how the personal and political, when intimately entwined, make for a deeply compelling, even necessary read.

Paula Bomer is the author of the novels Tante Eva and Nine Months, the story collections Baby and Inside Madeleine, and Mystery and Mortality, a book of essays. Her work can be found in Bomb, LARB, Bluestem, The Literary Review, The Cut and elsewhere. She is from South Bend, Indiana and has lived in Brooklyn for more than thirty years.

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