Book review - The Man Who Snapped His Fingers

French-Iranian Fariba Hachtroudi’s English language debut is a profound, exquisitely crafted novella about life under a merciless regime, about torture and resilience, truth and culpability and the triumph of love over fear.

Two survivors of a totalitarian state, “the Theological Republic”, meet in exile, somewhere in northern Europe. A former colonel, Ala had been one of the Supreme Commander’s inner circle, “in charge of security in penal institutions” including the notorious prison ironically named “Heaven”. The Supreme Commander could be any number of despots operating today but the parallels with Hachtroudi’s homeland are obvious and the similarity in English pronunciation between Heaven and Evin - Tehran’s main prison - seems more than coincidental.

Ala has been living in limbo for five years, awaiting news of his asylum application. His only friend is Yuri, a fellow “fugitive”, from Russia. Ala is desperate to be reunited with his beautiful astrophysicist wife but until he is granted refugee status and documents that allow him to work, she cannot join him. If he is sent home it is to certain death.

Vima is a victim of the regime. Known as “455”, she is famous for having remained unbroken, despite enduring the most horrific torture, described in spare, unrelenting prose. Her husband Del had been a terrorist suspect, Vima the bait. But she refused to betray him. Now the tables are turned. The Colonel is reduced to a nameless number while Vima works as a translator at the Office for Refugees and Stateless Persons. Vima recognises the Colonel’s limp, her jailers’ feet were all she could see while wearing a blindfold in prison, and realises that this is the “saviour” who stopped her torture and helped her flee the country.

Hachtroudi reveals her protagonists’ stories through alternating first person narratives that track back and forth in time. It soon becomes clear that the future holds little for them both without their loved ones. Vima’s loyalty to Del, who disappeared after his release, clearly affects Ala, who has a similar all-consuming passion for the wife he left behind. He wants Vima to be his messenger and asks her to write down his “testament as a free man”, recorded on tape, in case something should happen to him. But it is Yuri who holds the last piece of vital information that helps absolve Ala and leads Vima to lay her ghosts to rest.

The Man Who Snapped His Fingers is a powerful indictment of political violence and the use of torture. Ala and Vima may be victims of a tyrannical regime dominated by paranoia but, Hachtroudi suggests, the west is also culpable: “Virtual war is a rich country’s weapon, while the poor country resorts to terrorism.”

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday