Book cover art: The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar. Image supplied.
If this book were a painting, the canvas would be too large to fit into a gallery.
The numerous events covered in this novel are recounted through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old girl who was burned to death in February 1979 – just two days before the culmination of the Iranian Revolution.
She ‘died the day inflamed revolutionaries boiling with revolutionary hatred and fervour … cried out “God is great, God is great!”’ They then poured kerosine on her home and set it alight.
But this young girl lives on as a ghost and member of a close-knit, once happy family. Through her eyes, the story winds its way forwards and backwards in time, and in and out of mythology.
The narrative makes many interesting excursions into the world of ghosts, jinns, soothsayers, long-dead Zoroastrian ancestors, and many other strange creatures, such as a davalpa – a being with the upper body of a man and the lower body of a snake.
We follow the lives and deaths of the young girl’s father, Hushang, a humanitarian and great lover of books; of her mother, Roza, who seeks contemplation high in a large oak tree; of her sister, Beeta, who eventually transforms into another being, and of her brother, Sohrab, who is tortured and killed. Finally the family is reunited in the boughs of the greengage tree.
While the journey is long and strange, at its end the reader has been blessed – there is no other word – with deep insights into and profound feelings for the now long lost but once happy lives of Iranian villagers and the forces that mercilessly destroyed them in the name of a religion its followers did not even understand. When the fighting against Iraq begins, one old villager asks, ‘Where is Iraq, anyway? And who is America?’
Not only innocent villagers but intellectuals also suffered. When the book One Hundred Years of Solitude is found in Beeta’s bag, the guards ‘spent an hour or two passing it back and forth and radioing around before they were eventually convinced that politically, it was not a dangerous book.’
Local government corruption is illustrated by a disastrous incident that engulfs Hushang’s wealthy father and grandfather.
The Iranian civilisation is one of the oldest, most influential and long-lived in the world. And with it come many stories – of both good and bad – otherworldly creatures and their interactions with ordinary people. These stories permeate The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, and for all their weirdness they actually lend credibility, as well as pathos, to the real world of the novel.
There are happy moments too – there is dancing and singing and good food, and above all, an underlying optimism in the face of adversity.
As Roza reflects, for instance, ’the moments of making love with Issa were reminders that life could still be lovely and beautiful despite all the shitty things it dishes out.’
Similarly, when Roza closes her eyes and feels ‘something familiar’, it turns out to be the ‘warm pleasant fragrance of trust.’
With all the beauty and the horror, the supernatural and the realistic, the love and the hatred, if ever there was a book that needs to be read more than once, this is it.
5 stars out of 5
THE ENLIGHTENMENT OF THE GREENGAGE TREE
By Shokoofeh Azar
Published by Wild Dingo Press 2017