Our Editor-In-Chief David Burton is making his way through the Stella Prize shortlist with the winner being announced later this week! You can check out his thoughts on 'The Life to Come' here. Another contender for the Stella Prize, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar is a wondrous novel of magic realism, focussing on the plight of a family caught in the midst of the Iranian revolution. It’s a challenging, blossoming, sprawling book, made all the more charming for its leaps into the supernatural. Ghosts are an assumed reality here, as are encounters with soothsayers, jinns and davalpa (half man, half snake).
At the centre of the novel is a young family, constantly under threat as members of the intellectual class. The tale is narrated by thirteen-year-old Bahar. “I should confess,” Azar told the Sydney Morning Herald, “I am her.” Indeed, Bahar’s first person account reads with the urgency of the spoken word, as if she’s leaning across the table to you, letting the tale spill out in gulps.
The effect can be dizzying. Time is slippery. Characters may be alive, dead, dreams or somewhere in between. As a reader, you must hang on. I found the effect gripping. Once I was in the vortex of a chapter it was hard to clamber out. I felt submerged. On a practical, technical level, the paragraphs and sentences are repeatedly long, creating a quickened heart beat behind the entire piece. The novel was originally written in Farsi and translated into English, and I can only assume this rhythm was true for the original as well. It works. Just as the characters in the novel are constantly on edge, passive to the tumultuous tide of violent history, so is the reader.
While the novel barely pauses to take breath, it resists the urge to indulge in moments of beauty or intense emotion. When they bubble up regardless, they glint out of the prose like secretive diamonds, begging to be unearthed, hi-lighted, and read again. Take this moment, taken just after the family’s eldest son, Sohrab, has been imprisoned:
“Sometimes in the middle of the night, Mum would wake up, too, and they would cut wood or apply finish together. One night when the political news anchor for Voice of America broke the silence between them, they didn’t even look at each other, because in their mind’s eye each was looking at Sohrab. They just sawed wood: rr-rr, rr-rr, rr-rr. The anchor was saying, now that Ayatollah Khomeini had agreed to end the eight-year war and the Security Council Resolution 598 had been signed, there were signs that he would avenge this defeat; so dark things lay in store for Iran, but no political analyst could predict yet what this might be. Dad thought Mum was crying while Mum thought it was Dad.”
In its style, the novel owes a lot to South American magic realism writers such as Gabriel Garcia Màrquez. Azar is open about this, even referencing the work in the novel itself:
“Their car was turned inside out and, finally, when the Guards found One Hundred Years of Solitude by Márquez in Beeta’s bag, they spent an hour passing it back and forth and radioing around before they were eventually convinced that politically, it was not a dangerous book.”
The sly wink is compelling. Azar disguises her political declarations in myth, but never holds back. From chapter to chapter, we careen between different family members to even the life of the Ayatollah himself:
“He despaired in these, the last few seconds of his life, that he had no time to explain what he had only just now come to understand. His exhausted heart finally came to a halt, just as his one eye lingered on his own reflection while the other looked at the boy. In that split second, he understood that whereas in monologue he was a fierce ruler, in dialogue he was nothing but a bearded, illogical little boy, stubborn and pompous.”
This fast-paced lane changing was the novel’s most challenging aspect for me, but it allowed Azar to tour the reader through diverse narrative avenues. Taken as short stories or asides, some of the chapters that verge from the central family were some of the book’s most fascinating moments.
On the matter of politics, it’s unlikely this novel will ever by published in Iran. Azar herself came to Australia in 2009 and was held at Christmas Island. To go from that to becoming a short-listed Stella Prize author is astonishing. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a challenging, beautiful novel, worthy of its many accolades.