Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 1, 2017

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Shokoofeh Azar, translated by Adrien Kijek

This novel is an exciting development in Australian publishing.  The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a novel written by Shokoofeh Azar, an Iranian author now living here in Australia, and translated from the Persian into English for publication by Wild Dingo Press.  The only other novel that I know of that has a similar genesis is Oh Lucky Country by Rosa Cappiello which was written in Italian and then translated for publication by UQP.  And that was way back in 1984.

The timing of the release of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree this August is just perfect for #WITmonth too.  #WITmonth is an international reading project which shines a spotlight on women authors who write in languages other than English.  It was started because the percentage of women writers published in translation is absurdly low (about 30%) and I am mildly pleased to report my own stats for this have improved markedly since I started monitoring them.

  • 22% of all works in translation (54 books) reviewed on this blog are by female authors, skewed towards male authors because of my love of classics, but
  • 25% of all 20th-21st century works in translation (50 books) are by female authors, up from a pathetic 10%.

What I particularly like about this improvement is that I haven’t set out to read to any agenda.   I have read more women authors in translation simply because I’ve read enticing reviews of their books.  So now I’m hoping to entice a good few readers with this review of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree!

It’s a stunning novel.  It’s written in a lyrical magical realism style, which seems bizarre at first – until the author’s purpose becomes clear.  This style is both a tribute to classical Persian storytelling and an appropriate response to the madness of the world she is describing. The novel tells the story of a family living through the turbulent period of Iranian history when the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war brought them overwhelming grief.  While there is no solace to be had in the real world, the mystical world conjures it instead.  When the eldest son Sobrah is arbitrarily arrested and executed along with thousands of others, the child narrator who was immolated when the Revolutionary Guards came to burn her father’s library, is there as a witness.  She is there to tell the strange story of her mother Roza’s disappearance, the attacks on her sister Beeta, and the destruction of everything her father Hushang holds dear.  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…

The regime orders book burnings,  the destruction of ancient Persian cultural artefacts, and arbitrary arrests and executions without trial. Roza will not set foot outside the house because she refuses to cover herself in accordance with the new rules, rigidly enforced by the Morality Police.  Music is banned; any manifestations of pro-Western attitudes brings brutal punishment.  The family leaves Tehran for the small village of Razan, hoping that its isolation will allow them some freedom.   But sorrow follows them there too, along with all kinds of strange fantastical beings: fireflies that live in Roza’s hair; Jinns who avenge themselves on Beeta’s lover; and dragonflies which portend the future.  The more I read, the more strange it seemed, and yet it made sense when the all powerful Ayatollah Khomeini goes mad in a mansion of mirrors and dies alone, haunted by the spirits of the dead.  This is the magical world delivering the justice that this evil man evaded in the real world.

As Beeta – about to metamorphose into a mermaid, says to her sister, the narrator:

‘It’s life’s failure and its deficiencies that make someone a daydreamer.  I don’t understand why prophets and philosophers didn’t see the significance of that.  I think imagination is at the heart of reality, or at least, is the immediate definition and interpretation of reality.’  I was staring at her, thinking about her words.  I was coming to the conclusion that she was changing, shedding her skin once again when she said, ‘Aren’t dreams part of life’s reality?  Or desires?  Who doesn’t believe that the Huma bird, who made whoever it was flying over, happy, really existed at one time?  Or the Simorgh, to which the lives of [the great heroes of Persia] Sam, Zal and Rostam were bound.  All these books have been written about it and all of these paintings painted. What’s common to all of them?’ She paused, gave a deep sigh, and then said finally, ‘I mean, when life is so deficient and mundane, why shouldn’t imagination supplement reality to liven it up?’ (p.185)

Roza’s wish to leave everything behind makes sense too:

She had left because she wanted to lose herself.  She didn’t want to sit in her newly rebuilt house and look at the freshly-painted walls, and the new furniture and carpet, and imagine how Sohrab was killed or how I suffered as I burned.  She didn’t want to think about the future and what other calamities might befall Beeta and Hushang.  She wanted to run away from herself, from her fate.  She didn’t want to be wherever she was.  (p.109)

There are numerous literary allusions, to Persian poets and storytellers and also to famous authors of the western world.  An allusion to a whole year, eight months and two weeks and the ten-page one-sentence story of the middle-aged ghost are allusions to the Arabic Iranian* classic collection of folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights, contrasting the Islamic Golden Age (from which these stories derive) with its contemporary perversion under an autocratic regime.  There is a poignant note from the author at the front of the book:

I would like to thank my father for teaching me to fly in the sky of literature freely.  I owe a debt of gratitude to my mother, without whose support I would not be living in the free country of Australia, able to write without censorship.

I am profoundly grateful to the Australian people for accepting me into this safe and democratic country where I have the freedom to write this book, a liberty denied me in my homeland of Iran.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a beautiful book: thoughtful, wise, funny and clever.  The translation by Adrien Kijek is excellent, conveying the beauty of Iran along with its tragedy.  I especially like the blessings that Hushang confers on his daughters, the living and the dead:

Then he kissed Beeta on the cheek and said, ‘Go to university.  Study a subject that you like, and be someone that good people want to meet.  Maybe you’ll return one day.  I’ll be waiting for you here until then’. (p.143)

In the end he came to me and said, ‘It’s time to leave. You leave too.  Go to Sohrab.  Get as far away from here as possible.  Go.  Go higher.’  Once he’d said this, he picked up his suitcase, locked the house doors, got in his silver Buick Skylight, and disappeared in the twists and turns of the grove leading to the city.  But before leaving, he stuck his head out of the car window and said one last thing, ‘And if you don’t go, remember, I don’t want you coming to see me.  Beeta was right.  We have to forge our own path and learn to live with the living.’

It’s exciting to think that amongst the new arrivals who make Australia their home, there are storytellers like Shokoofeh Azar, who came here as a political refugee in 2011.  I hope we see more home-grown novels in translation like this!

* See the comment from the author, Shokoofeh Azat, below.

Author: Shokoofeh Azar
Title:  The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
Translated from the Persian by Adrien Kijek
Publisher: Wild Dingo Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780987381309
Review copy courtesy of Wild Dingo Press

Available postage-free from Fishpond:The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree 
Or direct from Wild Dingo Press (where you can also read the first chapter


Responses

  1. Your review is hard to resist so another one on the reading list.

    • I hope you enjoy it:)

  2. I find when I read books that have been translated it is often a war story ir the results of it. I know the authors are talking about important issues but more than often (is that a phrase?) I get so terribly upset or depressed. Do you find this to be true. Perhaps I need to pay more attention. Japanese Lit seems to be the exception. Maybe I am just not that well read in translated fiction. Good review.

    • It’s hard for us to be well-read in translated fiction because it doesn’t get as much exposure in the English-speaking world, and yes, I think you’re right there is a tendency for certain types of translated books to be the ones that come our way. We get dissident literature from China, not love stories, we get anti-communist stories from the old Soviet Union countries, and we get war stories from Europe.
      However, although I could think of a dozen or more that don’t make any mention of war, I do think we in Australia need to realise just how much the wars of the C20th impacted on Europe, and how deep the scars still are. So many Europeans have now made Australia their home, that I think we owe it to them as fellow-Australians to learn about their history and culture, even when it’s been lost or severely damaged. I have seen for myself how much it means when I’ve said something in conversation that shows that I know a little bit about their home country.
      And while there are melancholy aspects to this book, it isn’t gloomy. A memoir about the author’s life might have been, but this novel isn’t.

      • I agree with you. It is hard to imagine what others have been through and their stories do need to be heard.

  3. Dear reviewer/Lisa Hill THANK YOU to give me one more chance to see how western culture readers can really understand and enjoy of my eastern culture, myth, folklore and literature style. As for a many decades we enjoyed and learnt from your culture and literature.

    I also would like to let you know _ despite being known in the Western literature, One Thousand and One Nights, as Arabic literature_ this book is Iranian and has about 2000 years history. There are many records and evidence in our literature that prove this point. But you are not the only one who think like this. I hope in my panels I be able to explain more about the history of this magnificent book.

    THANK YOU SO MUCH and all the best

    Shokoofeh Azar

    • Hello Shokoofeh and thank you so much for your comment:) I will amend my comment about 1001 Nights right away!

      • Thank you Lisa. You made my day :) Hope my novel did same to you :)

  4. Dear Lisa, you are absolutely the right person to write this review. You get to the heart and skin of it and I’m so pleased you loved it too. I’m almost finished reading this exceptional novel, as Shokoofeh is a dear friend and I met her when we were both writing our novels. I feel goosebumps reading about Sohrab and book burnings … which remind me of my own novel. I feel energised reading Shokoofeh; she feels like a powerful force of nature and I hope to read more from her in the coming years.Thank you for this amazing review.

    • Hello Rashida, how nice to hear from you!
      I agree entirely about this book, it is exceptional:)
      I am looking forward to meeting you on the 17th at the event at the Eltham Bookshop!

      • Lisa! wow! that is very cool indeed. Really looking forward to the event even more now. See you soon.x

    • Thank you Rashida… Glad you liked this novel too :)

  5. What a great comment stream! Iran could so easily have been an ordinary, first world country, and it is a great shame that it is not, and I don’t think the US’s constant enmity helps at all.

    • No, it probably doesn’t, but at the end of the day, all those Middle Eastern countries are responsible for their oppressive religious regimes. They can’t go on blaming colonialism and America forever. Former colonial possessions in southeast Asia aren’t perfect but they are mostly stable and their people have an improving standard of living, and they’ve done it without the oil wealth that those oppressive Middle Eastern regimes are hoarding.

  6. […] recent reading of Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree – which draws on Iranian myths – has made me mindful that in our multicultural […]

  7. […] drei sehr interessante Titel werden auf ANZLitLoversLitBlog vorgestellt, nämlich The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree und Educated Youth von Ye Xin, der sich mit einem Aspekt der Chinesischen Kulturrevolution […]


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