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15 July 2020updated 23 Jul 2020 4:24pm

Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree: a powerful family saga

This is a fiercely clever work of fiction.

By Catherine Taylor

Magical realism’s reach in literature is long and persistent. Its use as a device through which to filter the horrors of totalitarian regimes, whether in Latin America or Europe, is compelling: think of the better novels of the Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna); any number of the works of the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez; and more recently the Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk (Primeval and Other Times).

It is also a way of exerting authorial autonomy, an act of resistance against revisionist attitudes to history and culture and draconian clampdowns on education, equality, sexuality and gender identity, such as those in Iran from the late 20th century onwards. Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, set directly after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and recently shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, owes as much to Persian and Arabic lyric storytelling as it does to any political fable, and its central family saga can be found across world literature.

In one of the novel’s most powerful passages, a household’s precious library is burned by religious fanatics: a symbol of intellectual freedom violently denied under the new regime. “I vividly remember how Danko’s Burning Heart was engulfed in flames that then licked at Luce’s skirt who, desperately trying to protect herself from the fire in the pages of Romain Rolland’s book, held Pierre tightly to her breast. I watched as the fire spread to the intertwined lovers Pierre and Natasha, Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde, Salaman and Absal, Vis and Ramin, Vamegh and Azra, Zohreh and Manuchehr, Shirin and Farhad, Leyli and Majnun, Arthur and Gemma, the Rose and the Little Prince, before they had the chance to smell or kiss each other again, or whisper, ‘I love you’ one last time.”

Azar – whose translator from Farsi wishes to remain anonymous – is well acquainted with the dire effects of censorship, having left Iran as a political refugee for Australia, a country of which she is now a citizen, in 2011. The family in The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree – a fiercely clever book when it does not droop under the surfeit of its numerous, heavy allusions – is resistant to the dictates of the revolutionaries. Like another fiction set during a period of terror, Hanna Krall’s Chasing The King of Hearts, in which the heroine navigates the Warsaw Ghetto by ultimately refusing to believe in its dreadfulness, Azar’s characters are dreamy and somewhat ethereal, and yet strong-willed, even triumphant, as they witness the turbulence thrown up by their dramatically altered country: the public executions and random brutality, the vast numbers of the disappeared.

They retreat into an extraordinary parallel pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian world, which also includes the mythology of mermaids and jinns, ghazal poetry and fortune-tellers. This otherworldliness is amplified by the early revelation that the book’s principal narrator (similar to Alice Sebold’s 2002 bestseller The Lovely Bones) is the ghost of a 13-year-old girl, Behar, killed when her family’s house in Tehran was petrol-bombed, on “February 9, 1979, just two days before the culmination of the Islamic Revolution”. Following which Behar, whose preternaturally wise spirit accompanies her parents and elder siblings when they leave Tehran for the safety of the countryside, comments, “I became an enigmatic family rumour.”

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Behar is also a spirit without too much foresight, as barely a decade later a second tragedy engulfs the family: the arrest, imprisonment and state murder of her brother Sohrab. As a result of this their mother, Rosa, sequesters herself for three days atop a greengage tree in the village, in search of the enlightenment of the book’s title.

Reckoning and redemption jostle side by side in the novel: in one chilling, hallucinatory chapter Ayatollah Khomeini is ambushed by a council of the ghosts of thousands of people killed by the revolutionaries, who have a significant and final task for him to complete before he dies. For all that death saturates its pages, Azar’s prose is exuberant; even if the monotone American-English translation can be heavy-handed in places. One of Behar’s family’s favourite books is Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; and its more whimsical aspects are an obvious influence on Azar’s accomplished if uneven work. 

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
Shokoofeh Azar
Europa, 272pp, £13.99

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This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine