After our recent high-tech International Booker Prize longlist adventure, we’re heading a little more off the beaten track on the next stage of our journey, to the extent that there isn’t even a road leading to our destination. We’ll be encountering soothsayers, mermaids, tigers and magical fire as we spend a rather eventful period in a small village far from the capital. Alas, even this distance won’t be enough to protect us from the turmoil of history – no matter how far you run, great change has a habit of tracking you down eventually…
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar
– Europa Editions, translated by Anonymous
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
In a small house, near a small village, close to a large, unexplored jungle, an Iranian family has built a home far away from the misery and atrocities brought about by Iran’s Islamic revolution. Having lost hope, and their dreams of the future, the new start in an almost magical realm sees each of the family members discovering a new way of living. This is especially true for Roza, the mother of the family, whose enlightenment at the top of an impossibly tall tree starts the novel off, as well as providing its title.
And yet this air of magic and calm is frequently shattered by violence and bloodshed, both in the family’s Tehran past and their rural present. One by one, the family members are tracked down and attacked, with their rural retreat proving to be nothing more than a temporary reprieve from the madness they fled. The only way to escape these attacks is to step back from the real world and take refuge in another realm. Perhaps disappearance is the only form of resistance possible in a time of repression.
All this might seem to make for a rather bleak work of literature, yet anyone who has read The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree will know that this is far from the full story. The novel was shortlisted for The Stella Prize in Australia in the original 2017 edition from Wild Dingo Press, and Azar’s novel is an impressive mix of light and dark, intermingling humour and tragedy. Against a background of murder, imprisonment and brutality, the writer finds a way of telling a sad story while using magical elements to keep the reader from ever feeling overwhelmed by the sadness.
The unusual approach begins with the book’s narrator, Bahar, who we soon learn actually passed away before the move from Tehran. However, the thirteen-year-old girl’s death doesn’t stop her from helping out around the house and causing mischief, and she tells us the story of what happens to the family after they leave the capital. We hear of her brother Sohrab, who spends much of his later life in prison, and her sister Beeta, whose development takes a strange turn after the end of a fiery, passionate love. Then there are her parents, Roza and Hushang, who take very different paths after Sohrab’s arest. One by one, each of the family members go their own way, only to meet again at the very end of the story.
As the novel develops, a dual focus emerges, with the story concentrating not just on the family, but also on the village of Razan. It’s a small settlement separated from the capital just as much by time as by distance, and every time we drop by, we’re treated to folktales and tangential family sagas. The village is rather light on the conveniences of modern living, but the residents have their own way of getting by, with a soothsayer helping them when problems arise (usually caused by the mischievous jinns living in the nearby forest).
It would be hard to avoid labelling the The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree as magical realism, despite the frequent nods to the author’s Iranian/Persian roots. Azar certainly isn’t hiding her influences, with not one, but two, mentions of One Hundred Years of Solitude over the course of the novel, and Razan can be seen as her Macondo, with its own plethora of miracles. With jinns, tigers and ghosts wandering around freely, we’re never quite sure what is and what isn’t real, and that’s just what the writer intends.
Another major asset of the book is its humour, which while often dark, can also be farcical at times. This comes across from the very first chapters, with fantastic tales of treetop vigils and visiting relatives who disappear into thin air, and one of my favourite stories of imaginative supernatural encounters concerns the taxi-driver uncle singled out by Death for a personal farewell:
But Death, who truly had come to take Shahriyar’s soul, said to himself that he would let this man enjoy his last moments. That’s why he asked Shahriyar to give him another shot of the liquor. Hearing this, Shahriyar laughed, got out of the car and pulled a four-liter jug of bootleg liquor from its hiding place by the spare wheel in the boot. Without saying a word, they clinked their glasses and proceeded to drink to one another’s health, repeatedly, until they were blind drunk. Afterwards they ran towards the mountains in the dark, stripped naked, danced, sang, and spun their underwear around on their fingers.
pp.22/3 (Europa Editions, 2020)
Well, it certainly beats playing chess for your life…
And yet, cleverly, the humour is balanced with the tragedy of the story and the many darker elements. Quite apart from the hurt wrought upon Bahar and her family, there’s a focus on what is happening to the country as a whole. Azar occasionally lifts the magical curtain she has woven to show glimpses of the destruction brought by the revolution, and all the changes people such as Roza lament:
She whispered sadly to herself, “Now women have to put a lid on 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)
Far later, Hushang returns to the city, hoping that the worst of the reprisals is over. Unfortunately, he soon discovers that life in Tehran, under the supremacy of the morality police, is even more dangerous than it was before.
Stories of dark times, natural human responses to harsh regimes, are (unfortunately) all too common, but Azar’s contribution to this body of literature is something a little different. The mythical stories and the mix of traditional elements are her attempt to make light, and sense, of a very dark time. As Beeta muses:
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.172)
That’s a view most of us would happily subscribe to at the moment…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
While I enjoyed The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree and was more than happy to see it longlisted, I don’t think it will quite make my top six. It wears its GGM influences a little too much on its sleeve, and occasionally the tangential anecdotes and stories detract from the effect of the novel as a whole. Also, despite the core narrative of the family and the village, it seems to straddle a divide between novel and linked short stories, and I would have preferred it to be a bit tighter. Still, it’s all very entertaining, and I certainly don’t begrudge Azar (or Europa!) a place on the shortlist.
Why did it make the shortlist?
It’s a great story, lots of fun and certainly one of the most diverting books on the longlist. Also, looking at a couple of the other inclusions, it may well be a necessary counterpart to some of the darker books shortlisted. If you absolutely must read about death and destruction, throwing in magical fire and a mermaid might just make it a little more palatable.
We’d best be on our way before the jungle surrounds us completely, but if anyone was hoping for a happier tale for our next stop (whch we’ll be getting to after another short break), I’m afraid I’m going to have to disillusion you. We’re off to Mexico, and this one, by all accounts, is not a tale for the faint-hearted. In a country where women aren’t always accorded the rights they should be, a violent event will shine a light on societal crime. Yes, there will be blood – and we will see it.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned…