The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree review magic realism in Iran – The Guardian

Posted: June 8, 2020 at 4:46 pm


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Sanctuary and serenity Mazandaran province, in northern Iran. Photograph: Angelo Andreas Zinna/Alamy

Revolutionary Guards pull a family off the road to check for forbidden items in their silver Buick; they find neither alcohol nor music but Gabriel Garca Mrquezs One Hundred Years of Solitude. After passing the copy around, they conclude that politically, it was not a dangerous book. The censors have been less forgiving of Shokoofeh Azars first novel for adults, which was banned in Iran, though many copies have been printed underground. It is now on the shortlist for the 2020 International Booker prize a first for fiction translated from Farsi.

As signalled by the nod to Garca Mrquez, the novel applies magic realism with a Persian twist to Iran after the Islamic revolution of 1979, focusing on one family destroyed by the upheaval. It opens in 1988 as a mothers grief-driven epiphany at the top of a greengage plum tree coincides with the execution of her son, hanged without trial and dumped in a mass grave in the deserts south of Tehran one of fifteen thousand people killed for their political beliefs in the 1980s, alone.

The youths 13-year-old sister Bahar had burned to death in a cellar when zealots stormed the family home in Tehran a mansion filled with Persian poetry, tar music and an uncensored library, from Rumi and Shakespeare to Sadegh Hedayats modern classic The Blind Owl. It is ostensibly the dead girls ghost who narrates how her bereaved parents, Reza and Hushang, her sister Beeta and brother Sohrab, sought sanctuary and serenity in the ancient forests of Mazandaran in northern Iran. As four guards and a mullah pursue them, Sohrab is removed in handcuffs, Reza abandons their forest home, and Beeta, grappling with delusions, morphs into a mermaid in the Caspian sea.

Azar deploys dreams and Persian folklore, from forest jinns to black snow, to mythologise a civilisation devouring itself

Footnotes proliferate: Azar deploys dreams and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Persian folklore, from forest jinns to black snow, to mythologise a revolutions decay and a civilisation devouring itself. The insatiable eight-year Iran-Iraq war, stoked with the flesh of child mine-sweepers, is poignantly evoked through orphan mothers who bury their sons with the small golden bells that are tied around childrens ankles so they wouldnt get lost. In a supernatural revenge fantasy, these ranks of cannon fodder join forces with the disappeared to vanquish the stonily arrogant Ayatollah Khomeini in his subterranean palace of mirrors, his corpse emitting the same stench that all dictators secrete in the end.

Some playful prose, as when Reza and a blue-eyed Italian backpacker find themselves high upon the enlightenment of love, suggests a Farsi Isabel Allende. But the main problem is an ill-conceived, and poorly controlled, teenage narrative (I was nothing but a delusional dead person) more reminiscent of magic realisms New Age spinoff a cloying genre that went global in the 1990s with novels such as Chitra Banerjee Divakarunis The Mistress of Spices. The plot itself suffers from blind alleys (an irrelevant treasure trunk); a premature climax (Khomeinis early nemesis); and a limp ending.

The author, who sought political asylum in Australia in 2011, has said she wrote the novel primarily for western readers. But, despite a catalogue of appalling events, we learn surprisingly little of the history behind the revolution. The shahs Literacy Corps is mentioned, but not his secret police. In place of the historical forces at work in Garca Mrquezs fiction, we have national myth. Bahars immolation is likened to the Arab conquest of Persia, when Islam ousted Zoroastrianism around the seventh century. The family persist in referring to this modern orgy of book burning and killing as the Arab invasion: They came and burnt, plundered, and killed. Just like 1,400 years ago.

The US-based translator, whose name the UK publishers have withheld for reasons of safety and at the translators request, has made a good job of sections. But, too often, it reads like a draft, tripping up the reader. Consider this description of a treehouse: It had a window facing the sunrise and a door facing its setting the suns setting, that is. Or this: Life is precisely that which she and others were prodigiously killing the moment itself.

In the most convincing section, set decades after the revolution, the bereaved father passes morality police and chador-clad women in Tehran, feeling alien in his own country. Detained, he writes a record of his life, investing desperate hope in the power of the imagination to transport him from the stale minds of his captors. Few would quarrel with such a sentiment. Yet to overlook the books flaws risks what South African writers under apartheid, eager for a robust critical response to their art, memorably scorned as solidarity criticism. It would also be regrettable if the claims made for this ambitious but uneven novel deterred even a few readers from venturing further into Farsi literature.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, translated by Anonymous, is published by Europa Editions (RRP 13.99). To order a copy go toguardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree review magic realism in Iran - The Guardian

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June 8th, 2020 at 4:46 pm

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