Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is haunted by ghosts: of Zoroastrian priests, illustrious ancestors, political prisoners and the war dead. Not only that, but the novel abounds with jinns, mermaids, speaking tigers and plants that creep noisily. In the aftermath of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, this vibrant and teeming world — where the boundaries between human and nature and past and present are fluid and permeable — will be irrevocably altered.
The narrator is the ghost of 13-year-old Bahar, who has been killed by the revolutionaries. After her murder, her family — mother Roza, father Hushang, brother Sohrab, sister Beeta, and Bahar herself in ghost form — leave Tehran and seek refuge in a far-off corner of Iran, in a village surrounded by an ancient forest and seemingly isolated from the brutalities of the outside world. However, that reality does eventually reach the village, as the Revolutionary Guards come first to arrest Sohrab and, later, to forcibly recruit young men for the Iran-Iraq War, where most of them are killed.
It transpires that Sohrab, who has been tortured and has nearly died, was arrested “by mistake.” The family go to Tehran’s Evin prison, notorious for holding political prisoners, hoping for his release. Instead, a massacre occurs. A panicked guard shoots a bird; chaos ensues: “dead birds rained down like black hail ... the prison yard was littered with swallow feathers and the blood-stained corpses of birds and visitors killed by mistake.” Later, the guards laugh about the incident.
As Roza astutely observes, violence is less about any particular individual’s inherent capacity for good or evil, and more about the environment one inhabits: “Once your eyes get accustomed to seeing violence in city streets and squares, they’ll get accustomed again. Gradually you’ll turn into your enemy; the very person who spread the violence.” Sohrab is executed along with countless others and, because the natural world is intimately tied up with the human, the political violence infects nature and a pestilent black snow falls on the village. The family and the village are saved by the ghosts of a Zoroastrian priest and elders, who provide succour and light in the darkness, their ancient prayers creating a fire that keeps burning until the snows end.
The book vividly depicts the exuberance of the Irani imaginative realm. Like many Persian fables, the central tale — of Bahar’s family and their attempts to cope with political and personal tragedy — is interwoven with many others: tales of villagers dancing in living dreams, bewitched lovers, jinn curses and local mythologies crowd alongside the grim realities of the war and the revolution. Animals, flowers, plants that “kissed the trees’ hands and feet” and “fireflies that shone like stars and made love in the layers of her hair” are in profusion.
An International Booker Prize-shortlisted novel about a family’s travails following Iran’s Islamic Revolution paints a fantastical world that vividly captures the exuberance of the Irani imaginative realm
The stories are told with humour, lyricism and affection, letting the reader luxuriate in the enchanting flow of the telling. It is in these sections that one can especially sense the beauty and poetry of the original Farsi shining through, a testament to the translation. In one lighted-hearted tale, the narrator’s charmed uncle manages to out-drink Death; in another, her aunt and fat cousins transform into a horde of hungry jinns. Ghosts of political and religious prisoners rise up and weep until the streets of Tehran flood. Poetic justice is meted out when the Supreme Leader, haunted by the deaths he has caused, meets his end in a dark labyrinth of his own making.
In a striking episode, a zealous mullah arrives in the village, confiscates the family’s entire collection of books and burns them in the village square. With broken hearts, the family watches “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.”
In desperation, Hushang tells his family to write down everything they remember from the books, in an attempt to keep some portion of the knowledge alive. But, as Bahar says, “with each word committed to paper we understood that, contrary to what Dad believed, culture, knowledge and art retreat in the face of violence, the sword and fire — and for years after, remain barren and mute.”
It is this broken world in which the characters are forced to live. Though they sometimes invoke fate, the events that unfold are the results of human decision, whether arrived at deliberately or by “mistake.” The novel meditates on repercussions and moral balance, recognising that actions have consequences far beyond the immediate and the foreseeable. A minor detail in one person’s story is the entire world of another person. Shining a light on the often invisible threads that make up the delicate web of reciprocity and obligation in which we exist, the book raises questions about our responsibilities to those around us: What do the living owe the dead? How do we live with our personal and historical memories? And, most urgently, how do we continue living in the turmoil of catastrophe?
Near the end of the book, after Roza and Beeta have left to embark on their own journeys, Hushang returns to Tehran, is arrested and forced by his jailer to write two versions of his history. The first is the one we read in this book: of Bahar’s presence after death, Roza’s grieving journey into the forest, Beeta’s transformation into a mermaid, enchanted gardens, jinns, ghosts and spells. The jailer cannot comprehend these fanciful tales, so Hushang writes another version more palatable to the “stale mind” of his captor: that Beeta had lost her sanity and was in a psychiatric ward, that Roza had Alzheimer’s and was missing, that Bahar and Sohrab’s bodies were never recovered, that Hushang himself had been a political dissident and had been teaching illegal ideas to young people. This bleak version of unremitting horror his jailers understand. It is the suffocated, barren reality they have created.
After thrice being imprisoned for writing about human rights, Azar fled Iran and now lives in Australia as a refugee; the translator has had to remain anonymous for reasons of safety. Against this oppression, Azar’s first novel is a paean to the power of books and the imagination and the expansive world they engender. In presenting a story teeming with the fantastical, the author argues for a different language for comprehending — and constituting — reality, one that embraces a multifarious world with its many voices and ways of being.
The sense of loss that pervades the novel will resonate with Pakistani readers. Reminiscing about the Qajar mansion in which the family used to live, where objects and knowledge from all corners of the world — Chinese silks, painted porcelain, rare Irani carpets, Italian furniture and books in every language — were wondrously melded, the narrator explains, “All of those things made up decades of memories and past identity. They had survived for centuries. We are not the first people to have destroyed ourselves.” Written in exile, mingling history, poetry, fables and folklore, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a beautiful elegy to a vanished world.
The reviewer is a freelance writer and editor focusing on the arts, culture and higher education
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
By Shokoofeh Azar
Translated by Anonymous
Europa Editions, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 30th, 2020