The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar

In yesterday’s post I mentioned I had just finished reading this book, a wonderful, if challenging work of translated fiction by the Iranian author Shokoofeh Azar, who lives in exile in Australia. This novel was shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2018 (a literary award that celebrates Australian women’s writing and an organisation promoting cultural change).

I was very quickly pulled into this book and for the most part seamlessly travelled between the realistic part of the story and parts where the author shifted into the character’s imagination.

Azar uses the lyrical magic realism style of classical Persian storytelling to tell the story of a family of five in the period immediately after the 1979 Islamic revolution and the story is narrated by the spirit of the 13 year old daughter. When fire takes their daughter and much that have till then valued, the family flees Tehran in search of a place as far away as possible from conflict and interference, making their home on a hill above the sleepy village of Razan.

One day Beeta tells Bahar: ‘When life is so deficient and mundane, why shouldn’t imagination supplement reality to liven it up?’

The story shifts between the quiet lulls where it appears they have realised such a utopia and flights of the imagination, where we are temporarily protected from exposure to the harshness and brutality of reality, just as this family attempts to do to preserve their way of life and life itself.

Azar says she wrote the story, in an attempt to answer this question:

Can we survive without passion and hope in a religious dictatorial system?

By letting go of the need to have all of the story narrated in the realistic voice, we hang loosely onto the storyline and then detach, like a kite being given more length of string, flying high above, sometimes so high we no longer recognise where we are, before being pulled back to ground.

I managed to stay with the narrative until Beeta’s metamorphosis around page 178, where I felt my mind spinning, trying to stay with it, wondering what was happening. I almost felt defeated, and then arrived that wonderful moment of clarification, when without giving anything away, the father is forced by the dictatorship to write a statement, and as readers we are given insight into the reality we have been protected from and how the imagination has carried us through it. And though we might question what was real and what wasn’t, it no longer matters, because we have been made to understand why.  As if the universe is making a point here, this realisation ironically appears on page 222.

Dad wrote everything again. This time he cut out all the parts he had realized were incomprehensible to their stale minds, and embellished here and there to make it thoroughly believable.

This made me very curious to understand more about the Persian style of storytelling, whether this was the author’s imagination or something that was inherent in the culture she came from. And this is one of the reasons I love reading translated fiction, because of the gift of this kind of insight into another culture’s storytelling and way of thinking, how they cope with the often harsh reality of life.

Asked in an interview with the LARB (LA Review of Books) about her use of magical realism, Azar said:

Magical realism comes from an old or ancient deep-seated insight. It is more than a literary style that you can learn at university or from the books. I did not learn it only by reading magic realism modern fictions, but I also learned from mythic texts, Persian classic texts, and my own people’s culture. People of old or ancient cultures sometimes seek the metaphysical solution for realistic problems. And it has nothing to do with superstition or religion. If you learn to look at these beliefs in the right way and deeply, you can find the roots of myths, and important and beautiful meanings in these beliefs.

I highlighted many passages, too numerous to include, but leave you with this one:

Persian Greengage Plum Tree

I looked at the eyes of the ghosts sitting around the fire and at Beeta, and suddenly I realized that we dead are the sorrowful part of life, while the living are the joyful side of death. And yet, Beeta was not joyful and it was the sad side of life that she didn’t even know she should be joyful in life because there was nothing else she could do. I wanted to tell her this, but was afraid of bringing her damaged spirit down even further. Fortunately, she herself eventually spoke and said, “It seems that from among you, I am the more fortunate because nobody killed me. But I don’t feel happy at all.”

She looked at we who had died. The dead who had been the first to meet her in the world of the living outside Razan. An old man in the group responded, “This is because you don’t yet realize how beautiful, young, and healthy you are.” Beeta smiled and her cheeks reddened by the light of the fire in silent emotion; and all of us who were dead saw how good the smile looked on her. But as she recalled dark memories, her smile faded and she said, “But the man who loved me simply turned his back on me and married a young girl.” The middle-aged man said, “All the better! It means you were lovable enough but he wasn’t smart enough to realize it.”

This is one of those books that demands perseverance, for which we are warmly rewarded when we do so. I am pleased to read that she is at work on a second novel in a similar style asking the question:

Can true love exist in a religious dictatorship in which the body and love are censored? When you are not allowed to love your body and mind, can you truly be in love with another’s body and mind?

Further Reading:

Deep Into the Heart: An Interview With Shokoofeh Azar by Robert Wood, LARB

The Stella Interview: where she discusses the experiences that informed the novel, the writers that inspire her work and how writing is a means of resistance

Thank you to Daniela at Europa Editions for sending me a review copy.