Reviewed by E.B. Heath
… Mum came down from the tallest greengage tree …
“This whole thing is not at all as I’d thought” …
Life is precisely that which she and others were prodigiously killing – the moment itself.
Should an award ever exist for the category ‘Lightness of Touch when Writing about Brutality’ then Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree would surely take first place.
This, Azar’s first novel, is written in the magic realism style of classical Persian storytelling. It narrates an account of one middle class Iranian family in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Azar’s kaleidoscopic imagination presents this history in a most unique way. While not shying away from the ugly and the cruel, the text does not get bogged in despair, rather a strange philosophical splendor hovers over the narrative.
From the first page, it is clear that an omniscient third person is the narrator. But it took this reader a few pages to realize that our narrator is dead. Bahar was thirteen years old when zealots burned her alive. Her ghost continues to interact with the four members of her family: her father Hushang, mother Roza, brother Sohrab and sister Beeta. She is a witness to their separate and joint histories as they take flight from Tehran for Razan in the north east of Iran. But when the Morality Police extend their brutality into remoter regions, once again Bahar’s family must witness more horrors.
At the heart of this family is their love of literature and this is a theme that resonates throughout the book. From their eclectic collection of books, the children, guided by Hushang, become aware of the world and the people in it. Azar poignantly describes how the family watched as this precious heritage burns at the hands of the mullah.
All those voices, those books, each of which was part of the body and soul of our five-member family: our arms, our hearts, our hair, our dreams, our eyes, our mouths. … We couldn’t bear the wailing of Shakespeare and Rumi, Hafez and Confucius, Zoroaster, Buddha and Khayyam, any longer, so we set off towards the house.
Another great grief the family must bear is when Sohrab is hanged for attending a political discussion. Roza becomes unhinged and along with other grieving mothers disappears into the Hyrcanian Forest. She wanted to run away from herself, from her fate. She didn’t want to be wherever she was.
In all this heavy despair Azar permeates the text with the magic of jinns, ghosts, strange fireflies and dragonflies, black snow and a host of ghosts. The grace and subtlety of the text spurs the reader on to suspend disbelief. Just when credulity has reached its limits, Beeta, who has had a passionate affair and is jilted by her lover, metamorphoses into a mermaid. Whereas readers’ sense of reality is disrupted throughout the novel, at this point the fixed line between the natural and supernatural world fades away and readers might agree with Beeta when she says:
I think imagination is at the heart of reality, or at least, is the immediate definition and interpretation of reality.
I was left with the sense that it is Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime that is an unbelievable dystopian trope in this novel. In a stunning piece of writing, Azar delivers a form of justice. She imagines Ayatollah Khomeini spiralling downward to madness and death in an underground mansion of mirrors, haunted by the spirits of the thousands of souls he has put to death.
In that split second, he understood that whereas in monologue he was a fierce ruler, in dialogue he was nothing but a bearded, illogical little boy, stubborn and pompous.
A tension in the novel is between the decision to physically run from this regime, to retreat into mysticism and literature, or to stand and fight. It is a tension experienced by many in the world today. While Hong Kong youths stand in brave opposition, others have no choice but to flee towards a democratic life in the West. Having experienced this tension herself, Azar plays out these issues in a dialogue between Hushang and his mystic brother Khosro: With all this destruction, all I can do is not become tainted by something I don’t believe in.
At the end of the novel Hushang is plagued with the need to understand: He still wanted to know how the Iranian culture and civilization, with all its grandeur and creativity, with its belief in good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, had collapsed and reached such depths.
Azar does not mention why Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Shah’s regime was overthrown or detail its harshness, apart from Sohrab being imprisoned for one year by this government. But there is only so much that can be addressed in one novel and Azar’s themes range broadly, the above being only a small sample. Not many novels deserve a second or third reading but The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is one that merits several readings. Azar is a skilled and imaginative writer.
Shokoofeh Azar was born in Iran in 1972; her father was an intellectual, author and poet. She studied literature at university and worked as a journalist for fourteen years, publishing short stories and a Companion in Writing and Editing Essays in the Persian Literary Encyclopedia. Independent writing became increasingly under threat and Azar was jailed three times, the last being three months in isolation. Realizing she had little choice Azar and her family fled to Australia in 2011. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree has been translated from Persian and is her first novel.
Wild Dingo Press can be congratulated for introducing an inventive new author to the Australia publishing scene.
By Shokoofeh Azar
Wild Dingo Press
Paperback $ 24.95