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Shokoofeh Azar, The enlightenment of the greengage tree (#BookReview)

May 9, 2020

Book coverI bought Shokoofeh Azar’s novel The enlightenment of the greengage tree when it was longlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, for which it was also shortlisted. However, it was its shortlisting this year for the International Booker Prize that prompted me to finally take it off the TBR pile.

Born in Iran, artist and writer Azar was still a child when the Islamic Revolution started in 1979. She grew up there, and, as an adult, obtained work as an independent journalist. However, after being imprisoned three times, she fled Iran by boat, ending up on Australia’s Christmas Island, and was eventually accepted as a political refugee by the Australian government. She has written a children’s book and two short story collections, but The enlightenment of the Greengage tree is her first novel. Like many first novels, it feels autobiographical, though given the narrator is a ghost and Azar is clearly still with us, it is not exactly autobiography!

The story chronicles the lives, experiences, and reactions of a family caught up in the chaos and brutality of post-revolutionary Iran. This family comprises father Hushang, mother Roza, son Sohrab, daughter Beeta, and another daughter, the above-mentioned ghost narrator, Bahar. Following the 1979 Revolution, they flee Tehran for the remote village of Razan, which was untouched for years by the revolution, until it came there too during the Executions of 1988.

While the story is roughly linear, it does slide around a bit, so you need to keep your wits about you. It starts in Razan with Roza’s attainment of enlightenment “at exactly 2:35pm. on August 1988, atop the grove’s tallest greengage plum tree”, the same moment at which her son Sohrab is executed amongst hundreds of other political prisoners in Tehran. This, of course, is told to us by thirteen-year-old Bahar who, we don’t discover until chapter 5, had died in a fire set in her father’s library in 1979 by Revolutionary Guards.

Now, the book is described on its back cover as magical realist, but this is term I have been uncomfortable about ever since hearing Alexis Wright question it. I fear that with our rationalist Western minds, the description “magical” can carry a hint of condescension. Alexis Wright said that “Some people call the book magic realism but really in a way it’s an Aboriginal realism which carries all sorts of things.” Toni Morrison has spoken similarly. Azar, on the other hand, embraces the term, describing it like this: “People of old or ancient cultures sometimes seek the metaphysical solution for realistic problems”. That makes sense. I also rather like this description in Wikipedia by Mexican critic Luis Leal. He says “to me, magical realism is an attitude on the part of the characters in the novel toward the world” or, to be more specific, toward what happens to them. I guess it’s really a matter of a rose by any other name, and that the issue is less the term, than how we readers understand or approach what we read?

So, when I tell you that Roza finds enlightenment at the very top of a greengage tree, that the ghosts of 5000 executed people confront the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in his bedroom, that Beeta becomes a mermaid and joins the merpeople to escape the sorrows of the world, that forest jinns place curses, or, even, that the novel is narrated by a ghost, I am accepting that this is how the characters experience their world.

The enlightenment of the greengage tree is, then, the story of people in extremis. The background is the repressive regime, but the book’s ambit is much bigger. It’s about life and death, love and loss, and how those play out in brutal, politically-charged times. While “most people”, says Hushang, “wanted to get used to everything”, his family heads to the jungle town of Razan, where they think, foolishly as it turns out, they will be safe. When the revolution does reach them, the people are unprepared, and are left

wondering how they’d ended up in a game whose rules they hadn’t written. The game of aggressor and victim. A game in which it didn’t take long for the victims to become the aggressors; become victim aggressors… it wasn’t long before they forgot their myths and dreams, their history and balance …

With Sohrab soon arrested, our family soldiers on, each reacting to the brutality they confront in their very different, beautifully differentiated, ways.

Roza leaves home early in the novel because:

… she wanted to lose herself.  She didn’t want to sit in her newly rebuilt house and look at the freshly-painted walls, and the new furniture and carpet, and imagine how Sohrab was killed or how I suffered as I burned.  She didn’t want to think about the future and what other calamities might befall Beeta and Hushang.  She wanted to run away from herself, from her fate.  She didn’t want to be wherever she was.

Beeta, on the other hand, who had stayed and struggled, eventually transforms into an aquatic creature, “so as to experience and live life with a freedom that had been impossible as a human”. Meanwhile, Hushang, who also stayed, reads. He had “a thirst for reading”, a desire to be “connected with the world’s thinkers”, to distance himself “from the contemporary world of intellectual midgets that had overrun his country.” Eventually though, his reading brings him to “contemporary Iranian history; the place where all his questions turned to bottomless chasms”.

History is, in fact, a constant thread in the novel, one that is pored over from every angle – including an attempt by the people of Razan to discard it altogether. Azar shows, graphically, the damage done by those regimes which try to quash people’s past, their heritage.

Late in the novel, there’s a confrontation between Hushang and his brother Khosro who had taken a mystical path. Hushang is furious, arguing that “this mysticism game” had done nothing against the various atrocities and traumas, and criticising “smart people” like Khosro for hiding “in the safety of temples instead of doing something to fight the corruption and injustice.” Khosro, though, believes, probably realistically, that nothing can be done to avert the ongoing destruction of Iranian culture. He argues that “all I can do is not become tainted by something I don’t believe in.”

The enlightenment of the greengage tree is a wonderful read if you like books which pose these sorts of fundamental questions about how to live in difficult times. It could be a grim read, given the brutality contained within, but it’s not. It’s tragic, of course, but it has a sort of unsentimental, slightly melancholic tone that doesn’t weigh you down. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, Beeta tells Bahar that “imagination is at the heart of reality”. A perfect description of what Azar has done in this book.

In the front matter, Azar expresses gratitude to the Australian people for accepting her “into this safe and democratic country” where she can “have the freedom to write” such a book. We, however, should be grateful, in return, to have such a creator in our midst.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

Challenge logoShokoofeh Azar
The enlightenment of the greengage tree
Translated by Adrien Kijek*
Melbourne: Wild Dingo Press, 2017
268pp.
ISBN: 9780987381309

* Translator’s name is a pseudonym; the European edition was published with translator as anonymous.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2020 8:13 am

    “contemporary {…} history; the place where all {…} questions turned to bottomless chasms” is definitely a phrase for today.

  2. May 9, 2020 8:14 am

    P.S. I meant to say that the link from the WordPress email doesn’t work, and I got here by searching on the word ‘greengage’ ..

    • May 9, 2020 8:35 am

      Ah, I wondered if that would happen. I had a problem publishing it, ie I hit the button before I was ready, and wondered what my over-rectification might have done. Thanks for persevering!

  3. Sara Dowse permalink
    May 9, 2020 8:23 am

    For some reason, WG, the last line or lines are missing and when I click on comments it comes up 404 page not found. Sara

    >

    • May 9, 2020 8:36 am

      Thanks Sara. My fault. I had a problem publishing it, ie I hit the button before I was ready, and wondered what my over-rectification might have done. You clearly persevered, so thanks!

  4. May 9, 2020 9:13 am

    I’m glad you have reviewed Shokoofeh Azar’s novel, and that you raise the thorny old topic of ‘magic realism’. Back in the 1970s, after ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ had taken the literary world by storm, quite a few white Australian writers, including myself, tried their hand at magic realism, with little success in my view. For Aboriginal writers, it’s a different story, as your quote from Alexis Wright demonstrates. And then along come Shokoofeh Azar, in the 21st century, fleeing Iran and ending up in Geelong, of all places, and knowing exactly how to make magic realism work for her.
    I don’t know if Shokoofeh is still in Geelong, but because we lived so close to one another, we drove together to Scone literary festival in 2018, (not all the way, but driving in a hire car from Newcastle airport). I will always be grateful to Shokoofeh for taking over the driving and navigation when I got into a panic. If you happen to read this comment, Shokoofeh, thank you again!

    • May 9, 2020 9:21 am

      Oh what a lovely story Dorothy. I read somewhere that she lived in Warrnambool, but that may have been before Geelong? Or is it now?

      Anyhow, I not really happy with this review. Two things happened – one is that old issue of starting down a path and then feeling stuck and unable to see my way out of it, and then the other was hitting the publish button by mistake (something I do once every year or so!) and then rushing the review because it had gone live and people would start looking for it. There is so much to this book that I didn’t even reference, let alone explore.

      • May 9, 2020 7:22 pm

        And oops, I forgot to mention, Dorothy, your comment about magical realism. That’s a really interesting comment. I love the sense of writers wanting to explore something new that they’ve seen, but its perhaps not quite working because, perhaps, the culture is different.

  5. May 9, 2020 11:48 am

    I don’t often disagree with what Alexis Wright has to say but I found *her* comment condescending. It’s not how you bring people with you when they are reading your work and wanting to learn.
    And yes, Shokoofeh is a beautiful person and I am so thrilled by the international recognition of her work and the micro-publisher who took a risk with it.

    • May 9, 2020 7:28 pm

      Thanks Lisa. I’m afraid though that I’m a bit mystified about what is condescending in ““Some people call the book magic realism but really in a way it’s an Aboriginal realism which carries all sorts of things”? It makes sense to me that “we” might call “magical realism” is something which to other people is part of the same spectrum or continuum? I’m not sure how her sentence discourages people from reading her book? We seem to be reading it in different ways.

      • May 9, 2020 10:11 pm

        I’m not at all comfortable with labelling people and their interpretations by their identity and then ascribing negative implications such as condescension. Western minds can be irrational, and Indigenous minds can be rational. And as Shokoofeh’s book shows, magic realism has a long and honourable presence in ancient literature and replacing the term with something else for the sake of it seems unnecessary to me.
        But I didn’t mean to hijack the discussion about Shokoofeh’s book…

        • May 9, 2020 11:13 pm

          Ah, it was I who said that, not Wright, and I was clearly a bit clumsy in my expression as I certainly don’t mean to label people at all. What I was trying to say is that Western thought “tends” to the “rational” and “can” contain a hint of condescension towards the idea of “magic” as something not rational, not really believable. This is what, I think, makes writers like Wright and Morrison, for example, a bit wary about the term being applied to their works which encompass non-Western ways of seeing. “Magical realism” is a relatively new term coined in the 20th century, as I understand it, that wouldn’t have been applied to ancient literature. Azar, however, doesn’t seem to mind the term. It’s really complex, but because of the connotations of “magic” for many of us in the west, my point really was that I understand Wright and Morrison’s discomfort with it. Is that clearer? (I don’t think you’ve hijacked the discussion, because I raised it in my post!)

        • May 10, 2020 11:57 am

          Yes, that’s clearer:)

  6. Sara Dowse permalink
    May 9, 2020 12:26 pm

    A terrific review, WG, of a book I feel I must read and won’t be disappointed doing so. The argument between the two characters are reminiscent of Dostoyevsky to me. On magic realism – it’s my belief that many writers use a bit of it, even us westerners, because it expresses so well the mystery at the core of life. I did in my last novel, although I didn’t signpost it. And there’s Lincoln in the Bardo. Even Toni Morrison. And more I’m sure, but those are ones that come immediately to mind.

    • May 9, 2020 7:29 pm

      Thanks Sara – when you read the book you’ll see how far short my review is! However, if it has encouraged you to read the book then I’m really happy because it’s the sort of book and subject matter that I think you will really enjoy.

  7. Sara Dowse permalink
    May 9, 2020 12:27 pm

    That should be ‘the argument between the two character is…’ You’re not the only one, WG, who presses the wrong buttons!

  8. May 11, 2020 5:54 pm

    So glad you finally got to the wonderful story Sue. I adored it when I read it a couple of years ago & delighted that she’s getting even more recognition and attention of late. I’ve been wondering lately if magic realism is a response to extreme trauma and on-going conflict. When your reality is so tough and grim, then flights of fancy, imagination and magic might be the only way to get through your day. Turning your life into a fairy story might be the only way to face the truth.

    • May 11, 2020 7:55 pm

      Thanks Brona. That’s an interesting point and makes sense. The problem is that I think for Iranians/Persians and indigenous Australians, for example, this way of seeing the world is part of their culture, which is why I’m uncomfortable with this western notion of “magic” (and why I think Wright and Morrison champ at it a bit?) We see magic as trickery, and something you don’t believe because there’s a trick to it but that’s not how some cultures see the world I think? Words, eh?!

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