Inspired by Iran’s rebels of yore
WHEN Azar Nafisi was growing up in Tehran during the 1960s, she lived strongly in the realm of literature and took the world of books as a model for her first ideas about the challenges and tasks lying ahead.
Mostly, it was the Shahnameh , the Persian Book of Kings, the epic poem by Ferdowsi, that filled her thoughts. It became ‘‘ as familiar as her family’’ to her: she imagined that all Iran resembled the landscape of romance and drama set down in those 1000-year-old tales.
Nafisi’s parents were also tangled up in their own ideas about the poem and its characters: her proud, fragile mother envied its heroines their prominence, while her handsome, brilliant father, who went on to become the mayor of Tehran, in his later years published a set of stories drawn from its pages.
Books, tales, their interpretation and the lessons they hold — here, now, for us in our daily lives — have long been of crucial importance for Nafisi: her first marriage, launched on a proposal she found reminiscent of the awful Mr Collins in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice , was doomed to fail. Novels were her field of expertise as an academic literary critic: they provided the framework for Reading Lolita in Tehran , her poignant, popular memoir of life in the early years of the Iranian Islamic revolution and the informal resistance of the mind she nurtured through a reading group.
Six years on, she supplies a delicate companion volume, much more personal in its range, composed as a reminiscence of her bookish family and a memento of the vanished chapters of their tense, troubled lives. ‘‘ As a family,’’ she confesses, ‘‘ we were fond of telling stories. My father left a published memoir and a far more interesting unpublished one. Mother did not write but told us stories from her past.’’
Much, though, went unsaid. Nafisi has been bound up since her childhood with shadows and silences, and secrets and their effects form the subtext of this new attempt at revelation by tale. The link between different kinds of silences is drawn tight: the book stands as the author’s response to inner censorship, the constant drive to be complicit and quiet.
‘‘ Long before I came to appreciate how a ruthless political regime imposes its own image on its citizens, stealing their identities and selfdefinitions, I had experienced such impositions in my personal life, my life within my family.’’
This is not, then, a re-reading of Lolita , a mere sequel to that first self-portrayal’s examination of political upheavals through the prism of novelistic narrative. No, Things I’ve Been Silent About is accurately titled: it has the painful difficulty of unsparing familial memoirs.
Nafisi’s belief in the healing power of literary thinking is not theoretical: it stems from the tale she tells and her capacity to frame and understand it by reflecting sympathetically and imaginatively, using the cues and prompts of a careful reader’s mind.
She has her cast of vivid characters. Her mother, tormented, unhappy, distinguished, rose to become a member of the Iranian parliament, but felt herself always abandoned and too little loved. Mother and daughter spent long days together; they would make shopping trips into the modish new quarters of the capital, where