The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Shokoofeh Azar

clairewords's review against another edition

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I was very quickly pulled into this book and for the most part seamlessly travelled between the realistic part of the story and parts where the author shifted into the character's imagination.

Azar uses the lyrical magic realism style of classical Persian storytelling to tell the story of a family of five in the period immediately after the 1979 Islamic revolution and the story is narrated by the spirit of the 13 year old daughter. She wrote the story, inspired by and in an attempt to answer this question:
Can we survive without passion and hope in a religious dictatorial system?

By letting go of the need to have all of the story narrated in the realistic voice, we hang loosely onto the storyline and then detach, like a kite being given more length of string high above, before being pulled back to ground.

Until it got to Beeta's metamorphosis around page 178 and I felt my own mind spinning, trying to stay with it, wondering what was happening. I almost felt defeated, and then arrived that wonderful moment of clarification, when the father is forced to write and as readers we are given a little more insight into the reality we have been protected from and how the imagination carries us through it, and though we might question what was real and what wasn't, it no longer matters, because we understand. And I just LOVE that this appears on page 222.
Dad wrote everything again. This time he cut out all the parts he had realized were incomprehensible to their stale minds, and embellished here and there to make it thoroughly believable.

This made me very curious to understand more about the Persian style of storytelling, whether this was just the author's imagination or something that was inherent in the culture she came from. And this is one of the reasons I just love reading translated fiction, because of the gift of this kind of insight into another culture's storytelling and way of thinking and coping with the often harsh reality of life.

Asked in an interview with the LARB (LA Review of Books) about her use of magical realism, Azar said:
Magical realism comes from an old or ancient deep-seated insight. It is more than a literary style that you can learn at university or from the books. I did not learn it only by reading magic realism modern fictions, but I also learned from mythic texts, Persian classic texts, and my own people’s culture. People of old or ancient cultures sometimes seek the metaphysical solution for realistic problems. And it has nothing to do with superstition or religion. If you learn to look at these beliefs in the right way and deeply, you can find the roots of myths, and important and beautiful meanings in these beliefs.

I highlighted so many passages, too numerous to include, but leave you with this one:
I looked at the eyes of the ghosts sitting around the fire and at Beeta, and suddenly I realized that we dead are the sorrowful part of life, while the living are the joyful side of death. And yet, Beeta was not joyful and it was the sad side of life that she didn't even know she should be joyful in life because there was nothing else she could do. I wanted to tell her this, but was afraid of bringing her damaged spirit down even further. Fortunately, she herself eventually spoke and said, "It seems that from among you, I am the more fortunate because nobody killed me. But I don't feel happy at all." She looked at we who had died. The dead who had been the first to meet her in the world of the living outside Razan. An old man in the group responded, "This is because you don't yet realize how beautiful, young, and healthy you are." Beeta smiled and her cheeks reddened by the light of the fire in silent emotion; and all of us who were dead saw how good the smile looked on her. But as she recalled dark memories, her smile faded and she said, "But the man who loved me simply turned his back on me and married a young girl." The middle-aged man said, "All the better! It means you were lovable enough but he wasn't smart enough to realize it."

This is one of those books that demands perseverance, for which we are warmly rewarded when we do so. I am pleased to read that she is at work on a second novel in a similar style which creates and will attempt to answer the question:

Can true love exist in a religious dictatorship in which the body and love are censored? When you are not allowed to love your body and mind, can you truly be in love with another’s body and mind?

rachaelzisk's review

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adventurous challenging emotional mysterious sad slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character


marielmacreads's review

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reflective slow-paced


manmanreads's review against another edition

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paused @ chap 9.

laanderson_'s review

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dark emotional reflective fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated


sixminutesforme's review against another edition

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This was put on my radar by Europa Editions who let me know they were bringing this Stella shortlisted title to the US market (many thanks to them for sending me a copy)!

Azar moved to Australia in 2011 as a political refugee, and there are some really interesting autobiographical elements to this narrative (see this interview for more from the author directly:

This is a family narrative, told in a story-within-a-story structure. We follow a young female narrator (don't read the blurb if you don't want spoilers about what makes her so unique) and she takes you through the connections with death that she and her family encounter in the decade following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It is a narrative rich in folklore and storytelling, and one thing I really enjoyed was how much the narrative style shifted as we moved between storytellers. One that particularly stood out was a ghost that narrated a multi-page stream of consciousness sentence, at the conclusion of which a listener asked "I'm sorry, is this how people tell stories" to which he replied "Yes, this is one way people do it." (p165)

I also think it is a testament to the beauty conveyed in the content and writing style of Azar that reflections of death could be so poignant and perfectly articulated: "There are a lot of good things about dying. You are suddenly light and free and no longer afraid of death, sickness, judgement or religion; you don't have to grow up fated to replicate the lives of others...But for me the most important advantage of death is knowing something when I want to know it." (p57)

If you enjoy this you may also want to read [b:Disoriental|40170500|Disoriental|Négar Djavadi||52355637]

More thoughts here:

tajiboy's review against another edition

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Me gusta mucho este estilo a lo Cien Años de Soledad, y Mil y Una Noches combinado.

knjiskirovac's review against another edition

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It is a modern masterpiece, pulling it's inspiration from the rich Persian history, Zoroastrian religion, folk tales, modern day Iran and G.G.Marques magic realism. We follow story of the family of intellectuals, deeply involved into mystical world of ghosts, demons and jinns from folk tales, who's life is turn upside down by 1979 revolution and utter destruction of the life they used to live, love and enjoy. It is a story of a country downfall, where intellectuals had to flee the country, hide or be imprisoned, while the ones who nevere understood the power of books and knowledge rise to the power. Shokoofeh Azar is probably one of the best modern day Iranian writers and together with Azar Nafisi a beacon of modern day female Iranian prose, with the writing so strong and emotional that you can literally feel the pain and nostalgia protruding through the each line in the book.

nini23's review against another edition

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Set in the chaotic period post Iranian revolution, Shokoofeh Azar makes ample use of magical realism to express the suffering and silencing of the Iranian people. Ominous black snow falls, ghosts of political prisoners wander around crying. Khomeini is stuck in a palace of mirrors that he built. Jinns cavort & curse. A woman turns into a fish. The regime is so oppressive and brutal, the publishing of this book would have put the author's life in danger.

The book burning scene was painful. Oppressive governments always seem to follow the same script: round up the intellectuals & dissidents, elevate and roil up the peasantry, burn books, imprison, torture, kill, crack down on free press, blame the burgoise lifestyle, denounce the West. I like how Azar has included a true diverse variety of 'books that matter' (to be saved or recited from memory for posterity). All too often, in a fictional list of important or representative literature, only books written by the western world are featured showcasing the limitations of the author's reading scope. Azar is a bibliophile and wordsmith.

I love too how the book features an unabashed Iranian woman having joyous sex that she enjoys and masturbating. A rarity! There's also other defiant feminist threads like the mother's absolute refusal to wear a head covering.

Footnotes were useful for background information although I did look up some to further my knowledge; like the Arab invasion, revolution, poet Sohrab Sepheri, Nausea. A quibble here about the passage regarding the sister who turns into a fish but wonders if she's really a fish dreaming she's a human: this is blatantly lifted from Chuang Tzu's Butterfly Dream parable ('Am I a man dreaming I was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I am a man') and should be given proper attribution/citation.

It may sound like The Enlightment of the Greengage Tree is praised for its political message and the defiance it represents. However, even if one were completely apolitical, this work is still superlative in its writing and literary merit.

A rare solid 5 ⭐

quinnster's review against another edition

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Having very little knowledge of Iran, especially the revolution, I can't say how much of this is based on real atrocities and how much is exaggerated. I've read a few reviews written by people much more intelligent than I and it seems to go either way.

But I can say, for me, the book kept my interest. I loved the folk tales woven into the story and the glimpse into a culture I know little about. I'm not sure if things were awkward in translation or if that was the fault of the author, but I felt like it was clunky in some areas, confusing in others. Still, I was unable to put the book down!