The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar

In yesterday’s post I mentioned I had just finished reading this book, a wonderful, if challenging work of translated fiction by the Iranian author Shokoofeh Azar, who lives in exile in Australia. This novel was shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2018 (a literary award that celebrates Australian women’s writing and an organisation promoting cultural change).

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. When fire takes their daughter and much that have till then valued, the family flees Tehran in search of a place as far away as possible from conflict and interference, making their home on a hill above the sleepy village of Razan.

One day Beeta tells Bahar: ‘When life is so deficient and mundane, why shouldn’t imagination supplement reality to liven it up?’

The story shifts between the quiet lulls where it appears they have realised such a utopia and flights of the imagination, where we are temporarily protected from exposure to the harshness and brutality of reality, just as this family attempts to do to preserve their way of life and life itself.

Azar says she wrote the story, 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, flying high above, sometimes so high we no longer recognise where we are, before being pulled back to ground.

I managed to stay with the narrative until Beeta’s metamorphosis around page 178, where I felt my mind spinning, trying to stay with it, wondering what was happening. I almost felt defeated, and then arrived that wonderful moment of clarification, when without giving anything away, the father is forced by the dictatorship to write a statement, and as readers we are given insight into the reality we have been protected from and how the imagination has carried us through it. And though we might question what was real and what wasn’t, it no longer matters, because we have been made to understand why.  As if the universe is making a point here, this realisation ironically 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 the author’s imagination or something that was inherent in the culture she came from. And this is one of the reasons I love reading translated fiction, because of the gift of this kind of insight into another culture’s storytelling and way of thinking, how they cope 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 many passages, too numerous to include, but leave you with this one:

Persian Greengage Plum Tree

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 asking 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?

Further Reading:

Deep Into the Heart: An Interview With Shokoofeh Azar by Robert Wood, LARB

The Stella Interview: where she discusses the experiences that informed the novel, the writers that inspire her work and how writing is a means of resistance

Thank you to Daniela at Europa Editions for sending me a review copy.

24 thoughts on “The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar

  1. I struggle with magical realism, being a prosaic sort of type. You’ve persuaded me that I’m missing out, but I sense this may not be the easiest place to start opening my mind.

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    • I’m usually ok with it when it’s used as a bridge or in Latin American women writer’s work an ancestor turns up and for me that’s a form of reality. This was challenging as you have to go through a period of not understanding what or why, and I do wish the descriptions of a story would be a little braver about sharing the magical elements rather than presenting it in only its realistic form. I realise that may put some reader’s off, due to the bias against magic realism, but when it’s true to a cultural form of storytelling and used by characters, by people as a way of coping with tragic events, that can make it compelling and the reader more forgiving and culturally enriched. It’s a beautifully written novel, one that would be of even more value if discussed by a book group for example, raising the collective understanding when dealing with the Persian imagination.

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  2. I’ve started to wonder if ‘magic realism’ is a really unhelpful umbrella term, especially when used outside the Latin American context. There are some iterations of it that I don’t get on with, but when it becomes speculative fiction or (as it sounds like here) when it draws on folk or fairytale traditions, I am much more on board. My concern is that a lot of readers (I used to do this!) declare they don’t like ‘magic realism’ without realising how different books tagged ‘magic realism’ can be.

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    • That’s such an insightful comment Laura, I agree that the label ‘magical realism’ isn’t particularly helpful, I think it’s a lazy label, because there are cultural traditions or tendencies that are unique in their style and that might appeal whereas something more fantastical might not. I certainly don’t seek out ‘magic realism’ literature but some of my favourite novels have an element of it, that can be believable, especially some of the women writers I have read from the Caribbean where female ancestors are invoked.

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    • Thank you Stephen, I don’t know that we can lump all ‘magic realism’ together easily, though it’s possible sometimes to see tendencies within different cultures, perhaps relating to their storytelling traditions.

      That particularly interests me, to gain insight into an ancient storytelling tradition that has been brought up to the contemporary age. I love that Azar embraces that, keeping her storytelling cultural tradition alive from afar.

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  3. As I said in my review “The presence of ghosts everywhere seems almost realistic when the entire country is plunged into mourning by the Islamic regime. It is the regime which seems unrealistic because it was responsible for the execution of thousands and thousands of its own people: dissidents and conscripts in the senseless eight-year war…”
    I loved this book, and it’s very special to us in Australia because it’s a rare example of a book written in the author’s mother tongue, Persian, here in Australia and then translated into English for publication here. Although we have many, many migrants and refugees here, and there are translations of books from elsewhere translated by Australia translators and published here by Australian publishers, it doesn’t happen often enough that our migrants and refugees are able to write in their own languages, tell their stories, and be translated for publication.
    When I interviewed her at the Williamstown LitFest, Shokoofeh said that she was immensely grateful to be living in Australia where she could write what she wanted to instead of being under the strict censorship of Iran.

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  4. This sounds a wonderful book, Claire, and one I would certainly have passed over without your insightful review. I have always enjoyed magical realism – before I knew there was such a term. Reading this piece and the comments I understand why draws me to it. I shall look out for this book.

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    • Thank you Sandra, that’s exactly how I feel about magical realism and from the discussion so far, I do wonder about it as a label, here I think it partmy describes soemthing that is a part of an ancient strytelling tradition, and one that is foreign to me, which makes it all the more interesting, for it’s offer of a way to understanding another persepctive, or in this case, the way a family deals with trauma, and the way an author remembers her past, without the necessity of oversharing the ‘realism of trauma’ that I find I often turn away from in novels.

      And delighted to see that this novel just made the long list of the International Booker Prize. I’m surprised given I haven’t been reading much, that I have read two of them, this one and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, another master feat of the imagination.

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      • Absolutely. I see now that it’s the mythic and cultural elements which draw me in. As a label it is really very misleading and quite possibly leads readers to approach the genre with inappropriate expectations. I have your post on the International Booker longlist ready to read. That you’ve read two of those listed given your relative dearth of reading can only be tastament to your innate good taste!

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  5. Pingback: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa tr. Stephen Snyder – Word by Word

  6. This is one I abandoned having tried to read it when it was listed for the Stella prize, but your review makes me want to pick it up again for another try. I see it was long listed for the International Booker today.

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    • I had moments of confusion with the narrative, though more towards the end, but so glad I persevered, as clarity came just as I was beginning to wonder what was happening. Having finished it and being able to see it as a whole, I think we are so fortunate to have this kind of work available and what a gift to a woman living in exile, through her loss, to be inspired to write such an exquisite novel, more than just storytelling, this is preserving her culture and literary heritage.

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  7. Looking at this one in light of the International Booker longlist. Thanks for giving me an idea of what to expect, without giving too much away! I’m not sure if I’ll like it or not. I could use an Audible credit but I wonder if it’d be hard to follow on audio…

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    • I’ve never listened to a novel on audio, but I think it would be interesting to listen, and knowing that the narrative enters into the magical occasionally to avoid confronting certain harsh realities, should help. I think it helps to know that in advance.
      What else appeals to you on the list?

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        • I thought The Memory Police was excellent, very happy to see Yoko Ogawa on the list and was wondering if I should read Faces on the Tip of My Tongue in French or English, until I read that it’s not a complete translation which is interesting, they only took some of the stories from the original Un renard à mains nues.

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  8. Pingback: International Booker Long List 2020 – Word by Word

  9. This is right up my alley and just what I need! Sound rewarding, challenging and fresh. When it comes to contemporary Persian literature I’ve only read Kader Abdolah so far and I am very much looking forward to reading women.

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  11. This does sound beautiful and powerful but I don’t often get along with some aspects of magical realism. Reading the comments above, I might need to rethink my attitude. Obviously not all magical realism is the same.

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  12. Pingback: International Booker Prize Shortlist 2020 – Word by Word

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