A magical realist take on human rights in Iran

By Anika Baset
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The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree_final_ DB_May17The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
Shokoofeh Azar
Wild Dingo Press

In her first English novel, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, Australian-Iranian author Shokoofeh Azar follows the story of a family caught in the chaos of post-revolutionary Iran. Through the clever prose – translated from the original text in Farsi – and mythical Persian entities, Azar oscillates between the opposing forces that shaped Iranian life in the period immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The result is a compelling story that seamlessly navigates the contrasts between the physical brutality of the Revolutionary regime and the strength of the resistance; the anti-intellectual religious fervour and a child’s innocent love of books; the senseless loss of young life and the enduring power of familial love.

Azar’s evocative yet playful style imbues the novel with warmth and humanity, which centres the focus on the real people affected by now-infamous, historical events. Her mindful understanding of the beautiful, random details of day-to-day Iranian life, crafted through elegant prose, is evident throughout the book. When contrasted with the terror imposed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers after overthrowing the centuries-old Persian monarchy, the reader is jolted by the impact of this sudden political upheaval on innocent civilians.

“Three days later, in a place that evoked childhood games and laughter, popcorn, roasted corn on the cob and smiling instant photos, Luna Park Tehran was filled with armed Revolutionary Guard patrols and plain-clothes officers equipped with radios, who had shut down the Upside-Down Ship and Train of Terror, to bring real terror to the people’s upside-down lives.”

What makes The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree truly unique is the use of supernatural characters, as featured in the magical realism style of classic Persian storytelling. Again, Azar’s literary skill is evidenced by how naturally these characters are folded into the narrative, symbolic of how the memories of lost loved ones stay with us long after their departure.

A fearless confrontation with human mortality arises as a necessity of both the presence of these supernatural creatures and the relentless cruelty of an insecure regime desperately trying to consolidate power. But through a playful personification of death, Azar alludes to the force of life that exists beyond the reach of Supreme Leader Khomeini and his Revolutionary Guards.

“‘There are lots of good things about dying’, quips a ghost. ‘You are suddenly light and free…you no longer have to grow up and live a repeat of others’ lives on our own behalf. You are no longer forced to study or tested on the principles of religion or what invalidates prayer’.”

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is ultimately a philosophical celebration of life that persists in the face of confused national identity, desperate personal anguish, and unimaginable brutality. With her nuanced understanding of the dichotomies that drive the human condition, Azar positions herself as a literary talent to watch. In 2018, the novel serves as a timely reminder that there are some forces that can’t be shaken by even the most despotic governments: courage, love and the strength of the human spirit.

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