“. . .he would avenge this defeat; so dark things lay in store for Iran, but no political analyst could predict yet what this might be.” [on Khomeini’s reaction to Security Council Resolution 598 on the ending the Iran-Iraq war]
This novel is steeped in centuries of magical Persian storytelling and a tradition of dream like narration, of fairy tales, myths and legends that utterly charm and transport the reader to another world in which the human spirit soars. It celebrates out humanity and the triumph of our connection to each other. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree also explores the ability to survive terrible adversity because this is also a very dark story rooted in a reality that belies the elegant telling. The subject matter makes reading this novel an uneasy but engrossing experience, a rare internal view of a closed off society, (to the West). Because this novel offers that insight into, and, at times, illumination of, a dirty truth about Iran this is an important novel. It takes the reader deep inside the iniquity and failure of the Islamic Revolution in that country. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a reflection on the brutality and cruelty of Ayatollah Khomeini and his regime as experienced by one ordinary Iranian family unwittingly caught up in the bloody retribution against independence of thought and dissent. Whether that opposition is real or perceived is of little consequence to this autocratic state power in its exercise of terror. When Khomeini went back to Iran he carried the hopes of many Iranians for a better country, the people deserved better than they had, he went with the explicit blessing of the French and the tacit approval of the Carter government it didn’t take long for any optimism to dissipate. The starting point for this novel is a few years into the regime.
Because The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree speaks truth to power I think a word on the translation from the original Persian deserves to be prominent in this review. The translator is always a crucial part of the creative process and at the very least deserving of a name check. This translation evokes the spirit of the novel and conveys the author’s meaning clearly and lyrically but for reasons of personal safety the translator and the publisher have chosen not to make that name public. That this is necessary is shameful but in any case I salute you, whoever you are, and congratulate you on this singing translation.
Beeta says that her mother gained enlightenment at 2.35pm on August 18th, 1988, atop a greengage plum tree on a hill overlooking the entire village:
“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 desert south of Tehran. . .”Sohrab is buried with no marker so that grieving relatives can not tap a pebble on the headstone and murmur: “there is no god but God.” [The Iranian custom of waking the dead to hear their prayers]
To the consternation of the grieving family, father, Beeta and the narrator, mother spends three days and nights in the forest refusing to come down from the tallest tree. She ponders if life has meaning, if anything is worth it any longer? When she returned to the family:
‘At the age of forty-five, Mom suddenly became old. Her hair turned grey and Beeta, who was the first one in the house to see her in three days, yelled, “An old woman has just arrived!”’
The executioners move on, there are many more ‘criminals’ deal with, so many corpses piled up in the prison yard, they have not had time to bury them all yet.
“Juvenile political prisoners had the good fortune to be pardoned by the Imam if they fired the final shot that would put the condemned out of their misery. . .” [the juveniles being boys of thirteen and fourteen who read a political pamphlet, or strayed into a demonstration]
Everyone succumbs to the stench of loathsome death, it got to the executioners too, some went mad, they were taken away, never seen again, some in their turn executed. Those who could bear it were promoted. The first mass executions happened on the 29th July, 1988, the people’s Mujahedin and communists were shot or hanged. 5,000 in all murdered in the weeks to mid September, in Tehran, Karaj and other cities. Only three provincial soldiers disobeyed the orders to kill, you can imagine what happened to them. This is from the opening few pages, worse/more of the same is to come. We learn that thirteen year old Bahar, the narrator, tells her story from beyond the grave, a victim of a fire, a gang of ‘righteously’ fired up zealots.
“There 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.”
The family has moved to Razan, away from the academic life that her father Hushang led in Tehran, the authorities catch up with them anyway. We witness the family trying to cope, experiencing grief, the mother descending into madness, the fate of her beautiful sister, Beeta. This is the powerful fantasy come indictment of a dictatorship, it might almost be considered magical realism, and as such has real teeth.
The story has something of the Persian epic about it, occasionally poetic, often microscopically detailed and despite all I’ve said this novel has a certain charm and vibrancy. I admit this will not be for everyone but ultimately the book is optimistic about humanity and our innate ability to survive if not triumph, after all Azar is a survivor herself. There are several really useful footnotes in the novel that really help with context and cultural references. A powerful and memorable read.
Paul Burke 4/4*
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar
9781787702110 Europa Editions pbk 9/1/20