Humanising the Revolution
Azar, S. (2017). The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Wild Dingo Press.*
You can read this review as a PDF if that’s how you roll.
In the years after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, mum Roza climbs a greengage tree and realises unexpected enlightenment. In the same moment, the Revolutionary Guard execute her son, Sohrab. So it is established early that, in Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, mystical surrealism sits alongside, or even arises from, the terrors of a despotic religious regime. The reader can expect a magic-realist dirge about injustice, grief, repressed spirituality, the futility of revenge, and the importance of survivors’ struggle to move forward into life, after death – an engaging contribution to the humanisation of the victims of large-scale fundamentalist violence.
The experiences that follow this dramatic opening, of an erudite Zoroastrian family living through the aftermath of the revolution, are a heart-breaking alternative to the mainstream media’s coverage of global war traumas, which so often focuses on sensationalising ideology. Greengage comes to us through Wild Dingo Press, an independent publisher whose mission to give voice to the marginalised and oppressed is well met with this book. The novel remains censored in Iran, while a Farsi edition will be released in Australia. The English edition was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize and the University of Queensland Fiction Book Award. Azar was raised in the Iran depicted in the book, and was working as a human-rights journalist there before she was forced by censorship to flee and find refuge in Australia.
Likewise, the family in the book move from Tehran to set up home in Razan, a small village distant from modernisation that was once populated by practising Zoroastrians. But the Cultural Revolution soon follows and haunts them. What follows in Azar’s story is the process of the whole family leaving, one by one, through variously traumatic, surreal or psychological metamorphoses: Sohrab is executed; daughter Bahar is burned alive by revolutionary fire; Mum walks off into the forest; dad Hushang falls into a near-catatonic depression; and daughter Beeta leaves for the Caspian Sea via a short stint in Tehran as a dissident.
But that’s not the whole story – far from it.
There are book burnings and brutal interrogations in equal measure with shamanic consultations and vision quests to appease demons. The villagers rebel against the Revolutionary Guard’s farcical and incompetent recruitment efforts. There are notes on history, subtly placed and infrequent – enough for context without turning the book into a political treatise. There is a constant tension between history and truth, reality and illusion – drawing heartily from Persian folklore, Azar uses magic realism as the ultimate conduit for the depiction of otherwise unbearable realities.
Early in the book it was difficult to see how the story was illuminating the philosophical and existential themes promised in the blurb. But most of the parables and thematic revelations are so engaging it begins to feel like you’re imbibing wisdom almost by accident.
As the horrors of the post-revolution war become known to the Razan villagers, a black snow falls for hundreds of days until the village is engulfed. A hundred thousand ghosts of the war’s victims take to the streets and seek revenge on Ayatollah Khomeini – a powerful chapter, humanising even the war criminal who must face the darkness of his loneliness with only his disappointed inner-child for company in a palace of mirrors.
There are tangential love stories, ghost conferences to welcome the newly dead, and
a boy who spends all day listening in a fugue to the blossoming of flowers. There are characters cursed by jinns, one who levitates after practising Osho meditations, and characters whose lovemaking burns dark rings in the grass around the village.
Some of these narrative and thematic parables feel like diversions, their relevance murky – a character’s unpunctuated twelve-page outpouring disrupts the narrative flow, as do sporadic and inconsistent footnotes. And sometimes the fantastical depictions feel like caricature, almost a parody of grief. The absurdity feels like a mask over emotions that perhaps are too massive to depict in a realist mode. But mostly the magic-realist approach is a beautiful way to leaven horrific experiences and unpalatable emotions that would otherwise remain unknowable or unacceptable to most of us. By painting an impressionistic rendition, Azar helps readers empathise with the near-impossibility of coping with such experiences without deferring to delusional imaginings.
By the end of the novel it becomes clear that this indeed is the point – how grief can drive us mad, and madness is a coping mechanism. In the 90s, when executions of dissidents and women were still happening, it seems the characters have been in a magic-realist fugue of dissociative hallucination, and their challenge is to evolve through the pain of a past that haunts them. By choosing to focus on the present, and on the living, the remaining family members escape into the future in the most-heartening way.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is one of those rare books that yields high value and meaning without being too much like hard work. It’s true that everyone in the family leaves the home in Razan, but how they leave, and the themes evinced in their departure, must be read to be believed. Azar’s courage and artfulness have left us with an enormous narrative poem, which speaks to the heart of a grief we cannot share unless we were there. It is a grand expression of how great literature cultivates empathy for the victims and, without shocking readers into fear and loathing, even the perpetrators of such atrocities.
The novel is about more than just how Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Islam it created ruined one family’s lives. It addresses how survivors experience ongoing fundamentalist crises around the world. Considering the inflammatory ways these crises are reported on in mainstream media, it is especially important that we have Azar’s book as a humanistic treatise on the domestic implications.
This a brave and audacious debut novel by an exciting new Australian author, whose gift of Persian folklore is a living treasure.
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The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, a brilliant magic-realist novel about the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and “a family caught in the maelstrom of post-revolutionary chaos and brutality that sweeps across an ancient land and its people”. I have a review I wrote somewhere on another computer, which I will publish here soon.