The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (the translator has chosen to remain anonymous) is exactly the kind of book I delight in finding in contention for the International Booker: of the long-listed titles, it was only one which had entirely escaped my notice, and it also struck me as the one I would have been least likely to read even if I had known of its existence. That would have been a mistake, as it is not only richly imaginative but also emotionally powerful.

The novel tells the story of an Iranian family in the years after the deposition of the Shah in 1979. It is narrated by the ghost of thirteen-year-old Bahar who dies during the Islamic Revolution when her father’s basement is set alight. It is not the first novel to be narrated by a ghost, but here it is more than a narrative trick as the supernatural is intrinsic to the novel and the family are aware and accepting of her presence.

“There are a lot of good things about dying,” she tells us, and, later, in a nod to Tolstoy:“We dead were all consistently happy, while each of the living were variously unhappy.”

Ghosts are a commonplace in the novel, carrying a powerful message that the dead cannot simply be forgotten. This is most dramatic when the ghosts of those murdered by the regime haunt Khomeini in his palace:

“The ghosts of five thousand political and religious prisoners rose up from the cities’ deserts and from around Tehran and Kahavaran, they looked at their stinking, maggot-infested body parts strewn about and carried in all directions in the mouths of crows and dogs and then they set off with a common loathing. They wanted to see their murderer’s face up close.”

The story is not told chronologically and it begins with Bahar’s mother achieving the enlightenment of the title at the same time Bahar’s brother, Sohrab, is killed:

“At that very moment, blindfolded and hands tied behind his back, Sohrab was hanged.”

Her brother’s story is the most explicit example of the cruelty of the regime. Once arrested, he is forgotten in his cell when the guard who puts him there leaves to get married. Days later he is barely alive. Meanwhile his family search desperately for news:

“As Dad went from city to city looking for his son and our brother, they moved Sohrab like a hot potato from city to city, beating him so severely he peed blood and one of his kidneys failed.”

After the revolution the family leave Tehran for an isolated village, Razan, and there they are safe for a while, but eventually the regime makes its presence known there too:

“All our dreams of a safe, tranquil environment dissolved the minute Hossein and his gang arrived.”

In a sign of how things have changed, Hossein had once visited the village as part of the Literacy Corps but now returns as a Revolutionary Guard to recruit soldiers for Iran’s war with Iraq. As the family discover, there is no escape.

Their fates, however, are entwined with the novel’s magical realism, a term that can perhaps be used fairly to describe the supernatural occurrences accepted within both the narrative and the society. Each aspect of the characters’ stories is enhanced by some element of this. Bahar’s mother, for example, will simply leave the village one day, walking and not stopping; this rejection of her suffering emphasised by the fact she is followed, in pied piper fashion, by the mothers who have lost their sons to the regime, the ‘orphan mothers’ as they call themselves. Bahar’s sister, Beeta, will fall in love, a love that is characterised as follows:

“Every time they made love the heat generated as they twisted together was so intense the grass around them caught fire and burned.”

Even so, she is rejected and leaves for Tehran where she is soon arrested and banned from studying. Only when she accepts that her true element is water and slowly becomes half fish, in the most extreme form of escape, does she find happiness, though it is at the cost of forgetting.

My one worry as the novel progressed was that it might become overwhelmed by the supernatural elements, and also the narrative detours which branch off to tell the stories of minor characters. While this would not have lessened the pleasure of reading, it would have dissipated the novel’s power. In fact the stories become a vital party of the novel’s resistance when Bahar’s father is arrested, and also demonstrate the cruelty of the new regime in Beeta’s final fate. All of this could be done realistically I’m sure but, as Bahar says:

“When life is so deficient and mundane, why shouldn’t imagination supplement reality it liven it up.”

In the end, it is the stories themselves which remain defiant.

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5 Responses to “The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree”

  1. International Booker Prize 2020 Long List | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, translated by Anonymous from Farsi (Europa Editions) […]

  2. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    Funny how some on the list become that “one I would have been least likely to read even if I had known of its existence” for some and “one I would most likely have read” for others. For me this fell into the latter and so it was one of titles I had already read before the list came out, because it fits well into exactly the type of literature I seek out.

    I did begin to get a little lost at the end as the imaginative narrative became more and more surreal, until suddenly the reader’s own enlightenment took place, as the father was forced to narrate his family situation.

    I do love that the author’s own exile has inspired her to tell stories drawing on a cultural tradition she no longer inhabits, one she finds refuge in, recreating in the imagination.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Isn’t it wonderful when a book surprises you like this? Quite the discovery by all accounts…

    I’m going to do my usual trick of bringing up a film reference, just as an aside. Have you seen the Iranian film, Under the Shadow? (It’s on Netflix, if you have access to that.) If not, I think you might like it. Without wishing to give too much away, there are certain elements that may well resonate with you, particularly given your fondness for this book!

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