‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’ Shokoofeh Azar
ISBN-13 : 978-1525258930
Shokoofeh Azar’s International Booker Prize-shortlisted novel begins with an immediate sense of its potent mixture of mysticism and tragedy.
‘Beeta says that Mom attained enlightenment at exactly 2: 35pm on August 18, 1988, atop the grove’s tallest greengage plum tree on a hill overlooking all fifty-three village houses, to the sound of the scrubbing of pots and pans, a ruckus that pulled the grove out of its lethargy every afternoon. At that very moment, blindfolded and hands tied behind his back, Sohrab was hanged. He was hanged without trial, and unaware he would be buried en masse with hundreds of other political prisoners early the next morning in a long pit in the deserts south of Tehran, without any indication or marker lest a relative come years later and tap a pebble on a headstone and murmur there is no god but God.’
After the events of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, a family who have lost a daughter, seek solitude and escape in the forests of the north. En route, they are stopped by Revolutionary Guards who search the car for anything considered offensive under the new order. They find no alcohol, no prohibited music or texts but they do discover a battered copy of Gabriel García Márquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude.’ The guards pass the dog-eared novel around and, in the end, decide that ‘politically, it was not a dangerous book’. (The censors have not been so kind to Shokoofeh Azar’s first novel for adults: it was and remains, banned in Iran, though continues to be printed underground.)
The device of the García Márquez novel is one of many literary allusions in this novel and signals the theme of magic realism that is richly stitched into Azar’s work. The book draws heavily on Persian mythology and folklore as it grapples with the events that unfolded in Iran after the Islamic revolution.
Shokoofeh Azar tell us the story of one family whose lives were torn apart in the upheaval. The narrator is the ghost of Bahar, the youngest of the family who died when zealots destroyed the family home in Tehran, burning it to the ground. The ghost of Bahar is visible to her family and relatives, as are many of the other ghosts, djinns and spirits who populate the pages of this novel.
Bahar tells us first how her parents, Reza (Rosa) and Hushang, her older sister Beeta, and her brother Sohrab fled in search of ‘sanctuary and serenity’ as four guards and a mullah follow them.
They do eventually reach Rezan, the village that will be their future home, but the conflict they fled comes hard on their heels.
‘And yet, as we laid the first stone for the house near the forest and that ancient fire temple on a hill overlooking Razan, we couldn’t have imagined how useless our flight had been given that just nine years later the road leading to the village would feel the weight of a car carrying a mullah and his bodyguards that then ascended the hill to the grove and arrived at our doorstep.’
We learn of Sohrab’s arrest and his imprisonment and death at the hands of the regime. Later in the novel we see Reza abandon her family and her forest home, and we experience Beeta, now grappling with delusions and the aftermath of a love affair, morph into a mermaid in the Caspian Sea.
‘The more she read old books such as The Darab Nama, One Thousand and One Nights, Khayyam’s Nowruz Nama, Hossein Kord Shabestari, The Shahnama, Eskandar Nama, Malek Jamshid, Jame al-Olum, Ajayeb Nama, and Aja’ib va Ghara’ib, the deeper she delved into the magnificent expanse of ocean that was the Iranian people’s real-imaginary beliefs, and became ever more detached from the real, day-to-day world. To deny or forget her past, she read and wrote, submerging herself in the meaning of myth’.
For a reader such as myself, unfamiliar with much of Persian mythology, it would be easy to get lost in this book, however, the translator has provided ample footnotes to keep us on track and let the prose carry you along.
Azar deals with the instability of life by introducing vengeful forest djinns, benevolent spirits, black snow, all representing the decay of a great civilisation tearing itself to shreds. The human tragedy is evoked memorably in a scene where we see ‘orphan mothers’ who bury their sons with the small golden bells tied around their ankles ‘so they wouldn’t get lost.’
In a supernatural form of revenge, these children return as ghosts, and join forces with others of the disappeared, taking a satisfying revenge on their nemesis, Ayatollah Khomeini as they hunt him through a maze in an underground palace of mirrors that they themselves compelled him to build.
The book, though harrowing in places, is peppered with wonderful prose vignettes and often sparkles. I enjoyed how other works of fiction were introduced in places as signposts or literary devices. I don’t pretend to understand everything about this book, indeed, there were sections that seemed superfluous, but in saying that, there is a linear thread to the story of the family and beyond that, there is the retelling of tragedy through the evocation of episodes of folk memories from the past.
‘In the years of Mom’s waiting in Razan, and Dad’s in Evin Prison and Darband, on a foggy morning of an ordinary day when Mom had long since lost the fortitude and physical strength to tend to the grove and keep the house free of creeping vines, ants, and lizards; and the inhabitants of Razan had become used to war, black snow, and the absence of their sons and mothers; and the whole story of the First Soothsayer, Effat’s black love, and Razan’s holy fire had become mere distant, inconceivable memories; the brazen sound of chainsaws aroused the villagers from their sleep, once and for all.’
The author, Shokoofeh Azar, sought and was granted political asylum in Australia in 2011. She says the book was aimed at western readers; if so, then my minor gripe would be that we learn too little about the events that sparked the revolution, and the book was not in any way critical of the previous regime. Perhaps, even from the safety of Australia, she felt that exploring these elements might be a step too far. Her translator, who I understand is based in the US, asked to remain anonymous ‘for reasons of safety.’
‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’ has had its detractors, but for me, this was a wonderful read. The conclusion to the story is both tragic and satisfying and left me looking forward to more from this author.