Not everyone takes to magical realism, with the “one hundred years” in Gabriel García Márquez’s groundbreaking work being taken as a description of the time needed to finish it. Since that, the “magical realism label” has been assigned to a bandwagon’s-worth of Latin American writers, from Isabel Allende to Laura Esquivel and, more recently, Junot Diaz. The influence has extended very far afield, it seems, for García Márquez’s book and characters are even alluded to in Shokoofeh Azar’s Farsi novel, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, now available in English.
That this might be something other than just another magic realism novel à la Marquez et al., is hinted at on the cover where it is noted that the translator remains anonymous “for reasons of safety”. One subsequently learns that the Iranian author lives in Australia, where she moved to Australian 2011 “as a political refugee”. I thought that this might put a different slant on what I had thought was a rather tired genre. It certainly did; Azar’s novel is sad, funny, poetic, moving and poignant all at once, a novel I would recommend without any reservations at all.
A loose and simple definition of magic realism might be fiction that operates in parallel worlds, namely the “real” world and another of fairy-tales, legend and imagination. In The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree does exactly that. “reality” is the world of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the effect it had on a family of ordinary people. This is a world where people really had wanted change, but they discovered that they had helped to bring in a repressive theocracy whose power was to be directed against anyone who even mildly disagreed with them. Azar sets her novel in the first ten years of the new order among summary executions, torture and book-burnings, not just include foreign books, but also ancient Persian texts which had previously been revered as classics and which depicted a pre-Islamic world which radically differed from the one pursued by the Islamic Republic. Many were legends or fairy-tales, books which freed the imagination and reminded people that Iran had once been a very different sort of country.
Azar’s narrator is Bahar, a dead 13-year old girl, the ghost of the youngest member of a family, killed by Iranian revolutionary guards after they forced their way into her parents’ house and torched their library. Once readers understand the nature of the narrative voice, they realise that the fictional world they are entering is hardly “real” in the usual sense of the word, Azar grounds the novel in the frighteningly stark reality of Iran in the 1980s. Just before the books are destroyed, security forces arrive looking for men to conscript into the army for the war against Iraq, a completely groundless conflict which consumed, in the end, nearly half a million lives on both sides. Soon afterwards, the family’s eldest son, Sohrab, is arrested; he is later hanged in prison (one of five thousand people in Tehran alone, Azar tells us) and the narrator’s elder sister, Beeta, is assaulted and murdered after she has taken the shape of a mermaid. As for their parents, “Beeta [also dead by the time she says it] says that Mom attained enlightenment at exactly 2:35pm on 18 August 1988, atop the grove’s tallest greengage plum tree,” while “at this very moment, blindfolded and hands tied behind his back, Sohrab was hanged.” From this very first sentence of the book we know we are in a different kind of world, yet we also know what the stark “reality” is as it progresses inexorably in the background. Later we find that they had believed “Sohrab was only arrested by mistake, and would soon be released.”
The narrator, who lovingly keeps watch over her family, is able, as a ghost, to tell the stories of every one of the family, who join her as they die. At the end of the novel, “in the middle of a cold winter night in one of God’s many years, Mom and Dad joined us, as we sat around a fire in the courtyard,” and the family is united at last in an insubstantial world unaffected by the depredations of Khomeini and his minions. And they ascend upwards together from the top of the greengage tree, absorbed into its bark. Before this happens, Bahar tells us a harrowing story involving not just the fate of her family, but of Iran itself as it descends into the maelstrom of intolerance, injustice and fanaticism that became the new reality. Indeed, Bahar and her family could be said to symbolically represent Iran, as they cherish its pre-Islamic past and explore, through books, the world outside as well. And, in one explosive chapter, Azar features Khomeini himself, near-death and hallucinating, his conscience tormenting him in terrible dreams and ending with the Ayatollah’s “rotten, decomposed corpse” being found three months after his death. “In the end,” she writes, “it was the putrid stench that guided them. The same stench that all dictators secrete in the end.” Dangerous writing indeed.
Azar makes use of Persian history and legend as well as allusions to Western writers ranging from Plato to Tolstoy to Baudelaire to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, all part of the family library and all destroyed. To keep the “alternate world” alive the family resorts to memorizing quotes from Western authors, and of course the Persian material is close to their hearts and part of their cultural heritage. Azar includes at one point a lengthy list of some of the books in the family library, each one of which resonates for a different reason. Referring to Daphne du Maurier and Marquez, Bahar says “I heard lone Rebecca’s cries [she is murdered] and Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s protests saying to Ursula, ‘Even in all my tyranny, never did I do this.’” Bahar also “speaks” to people from the past, particularly Zoroastrians, and manages to build a wall between herself and the present realities in Iran by means of literature, philosophy and art (the family house is full of antiques), all things which the Islamic Revolution feared, and which, in the end, it could not crush.
Azar’s novel is, in part, an examination of how the invocation and preservation of the past, even if imaginary and through books, can sometimes alleviate the harsh reality of the present, and can actually help people see that there could be a future. This constitutes the “magic” part of the novel. It also explains why the author now lives in Australia and her translator remains anonymous—this is a powerful, subversive and poignant novel written by someone who loves her stricken land from afar and who, in the end, holds out some hope as expressed in a past that has now become imaginary. Keeping the past alive in the mind and soul through its legends and writings is an important theme in Azar’s novel; as Richard Lovelace wrote from his prison during the English Civil War,
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet
Take that for an hermitage.
However, there are clues that Azar is sometimes not so sure that things will get better, and is perhaps expressing regret for the death of Iran, not just what it was, but what it could have been; for example, black snow falls on the village and flattens it, forcing the people to take refuge in Bahar’s family house, which is on a hill and seems to have escaped the worst damage. Ghosts from the Zoroastrian past help in the rescue by lighting fires to keep people warm; however the fires, one suspects, do symbolise the possibility of hope, kindled as they are by the past. Azar drives home the point that the present cannot “kill” the past or stop people from exercising their intellectual freedom.
“Think all you like,” the “enlightened despot” Frederick the Great is reported to have said, “but obey.” Khomeini’s revolution tried to eliminate thinking too, a terrible side effect of its ultimate betrayal of the Iranian people. As the family climbs the tree and the novel concludes,