In­spired by Iran’s rebels of yore

Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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