“The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree” – Shokoofeh Azar

The choice in order to purchase this book & to suggest it to my local book club was a personal one. Ever since having traveled to Iran & having heard about people’s experiences living there after the Revolution, I was curious to read more about it. What I’ve been repeatedly confronted with, were the views of hopelessness, the desire to simply leave the country to finally live one’s own life fully, even if that meant leaving the entire family & all friends behind, never being able to come back again. It’s really difficult to come across truthful accounts about life in Iran due to the state censorship, so it’s usually only possible for authors to do so after they’ve escaped the country. I have previously picked up Reading Lolita in Tehran as a book on this topic but haven’t been able to warm up to the style it was written in. Another one, “Couchsurfing in Iran“, written by an outsider traveling through the country, corresponded much more with my taste (having given a rating of 5/5 ★). With the “Greengage Tree”, I was curious to get a new insight on the story of the people in Iran.

“Time is in transition and everything we loved is being destroyed. Look around you. These books, these manuscripts, this calligraphy; illumination, architecture, landscaping; these miniatures – they don’t exist anymore. Instead of these carpets with meaningful thousand-year-old motifs they sell factory-made rugs featuring Mickey Mouse; and instead of one telephone occasionally ringing from a corner of every house, every five-year-old has a mobile phone. All the old gardens, historical houses, ancient artifacts, handicrafts, national treasures, and everything else that was a product of thousands of years of Iranian civilization, and culture and thought, has been destroyed or is today in the process of being destroyed and looted.” (p. 207)

The outcome of the reading experience was that I finished this book with really mixed feelings. Even though it’s just about 250 pages long, I still didn’t manage to get through it as quickly as I was hoping to & rather fought through it for 5 days. I simply couldn’t get into the style of writing due to personal preferences. I’ve never read a book in the style of magical realism before & I’ll probably try to stay away from it in the future. It just got too much for me at some point – the ghost of a dead 13 year old girl telling the story, her sister turning into a mermaid & giving birth to fish, her uncle turning invisible from time to time, tons of jinns & other ghosts popping up every now & then or tribes of people that move to living in the parallel world of dreams. At times, I felt like back at Latin lessons at high school, when I wanted to scream out in annoyance & just fling the book against the wall.

“What she least expected on the threshold of this new stage of life was born in the hush of the dead of night in her bedroom, and fitted in a small glass bowl. It was a little goldfish. […] Soon we had to add fish tanks because every morning she gave birth to another goldfish. ” (p. 173-174)

“With the deletion of history and the onslaught of pleasurable dreams, the villagers gradually forgot about food and work and became frail plants that fed on oxygen. The frailer their bodies became, the more their minds grew – so much so that the images within collided and merged. After a time, they met one another in their dreams, ate together in their dreams, fell in love, and made love in their dreams.” (p. 191)

“Standing there, his body now half transparent so great was his spiritual ascent, puffing on his hand-rolled bidi cigarette […]” (p. 202)

What I really enjoyed about this book were the moments completely outside the magical narrative, which tied the whole story together. This was what I was hoping to get out of the tale – insights into the lives of people after the Islamic Revolution, which were unfortunately quite sparse.

“Now women have to put a lid their hair again just like they do with their laughter. Houses and dreams are getting so small that even the butterflies are leaving the city. The walls will get taller again and people will buy thick curtains for their windows. Balconies will no longer be a place for flowerpots, chairs and books, but a storage space for people accustomed to sharing their garbage with others.” (p. 61)

“He thought Tehran was also like an addict. A city addicted to smoke, to humiliation, to poverty and torpor whose slightest effort to sober up gave rise to panic. Tehran was an addict that wanted to get clean but lacked the will, and after several days of sobriety would begin using again with even greater intensity. It was an addiction to oppression, an addiction to poverty, and an addiction to inhibition and nostalgia.” (p. 211)

It added up to the good parts being brilliantly written (in the beginning & the end of the book) & the ones that I didn’t enjoy dragging on endlessly(making up the bigger middle part). When I say endlessly, I literally mean it. There is a part where throughout 9 pages not a single punctuation mark was used. It reminded me of what “Ducks, Newburyport” is supposed to be like & I got the confirmation that I would never want to read anything like that.

When thinking of the language it’s both beautiful, even lyrical at times, at others – feeling really faulty. I don’t know whether it was a problem of the translation but I have come across at least 5 instances which seemed like typos or incorrect expressions (p. 61, 84, 101, 112, 135). I do agree with it being nominated for the International Man Booker Prize of 2020 since it’s a really innovative piece of writing. As I have understood, the style of the narrative corresponds to a classical folklore Persian way of storytelling & even though I haven’t rated the book too highly, I was still glad to have come across it. It’s just that to experience the most remarkable parts, you’ll have to fight your way through some that are not as amazing. For the three quotes below, these were some of my most favourite ones throughout the entire story.

“The fragrance of the northern-smoked tea reached Mom’s nostrils as she was traversing the Milky Way, watching the stars and planets spinning and orbiting with astonishing order, every rotation of which split open a space in which scientists hopelessly searched for a sign of God. […] Life is precisely that which she and others were prodigiously killing – the moment itself. A moment carrying in its womb the past and future; just like lines on the palm of one’s hand, in the leaf of a tree, or in her husband, Hushang’s eyes.” (p. 14)

“Another time, lost in a white cloud in the middle of the blue sky, she said the best thing about Razan’s sky is that the clouds’ virginity hadn’t yet been raped by airplanes.” (p. 176)

“Early in the morning before daybreak I would sit next to the buds and watch the birth of a drop of dew. The reflection of the sunrise would appear within it, then the dew would evaporate, and I would hear the bud’s soft sigh, uttered in a small space, in a lapse between the commotion of people and nature.” (p. 185)

If you’re patient enough to stick around until the very end, you will be rewarded with a satisfying wrap up. I myself have been tempted to put the book down at various points, so for once, my principle of finishing every single book I start, served its purpose. Towards the end, the author hints at why specifically magical realism has been chosen to tell the story:

“Khosrow wanted to get up and take his brother’s hunched shoulders in his arms, and apologize for the fact that mysticism didn’t offer any simple solutions to murder, plunder, poverty or human injustice.” (p.206)

In order to digest & be able to reflect on such traumatic experiences, it was this surreal parallel world, in which hope was placed to make the horrific events seem more bearable. While the events do become more digestible for the reader, you’re still enveloped in a slow & depressing atmosphere, which tends to drag you down emotionally. You’ll be immersed in a world where children are burned alive, into tales where families are torn apart, where brutal physical violence dominates, executions are held publicly or people are being skinned alive, all within the fog of a fairy tale-like narrative. By the end, it’s really satisfying to get an insight into what actually happened with the characters.

“He wrote that […] Beeta had lost her sanity and now believed she had been transformed into a mermaid and was in a psychiatric ward; and that his wife, Roza, had Alzheimer’s disease and had gone missing.” (p. 222)

I believe that upon deeper reflection, when you put in the effort to try & create your own understanding of what the hidden meaning behind all those mystical creatures might be, is when you unlock the beauty of the story. For example, that life for women after the Islamic Revolution was much harder, so that’s why the two female characters ended up escaping in their own ways: the mother by completely disappearing & the sister by “turning into a mermaid”, as in, simply losing her mind. There are tons of other comparisons & parallels to be drawn, so I’ll leave those up to your imagination 🙂 I’d suggest you “The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree” if you’re interested in diving into a story that’s completely out of your regular reading zone 😉

“The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree” – Shokoofeh Azar

★★★☆☆ 3/5

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