Shimmering twist to magical realism
Persia was the centre of some mighty dynasties over the millennia, including the far-flung Achaemenid Empire that Cyrus the Great established in the 6th century BC. It wasn’t until Muslim Arabs defeated a later Persian dynasty, the Sassanians, in AD 651, that Persians were forced to adopt Islam and abandon their fiery state religion, Zoroastrianism.
As in all conquests that force cultural change, it wasn’t entirely successful. The Persians bitterly resented their new overlords and pockets of Zoroastrianism remain today, though followers are now estimated at fewer than 190,000 worldwide. Yet it was the Persians, long a highly literate people, who codified Arabic grammar and made the language the cornerstone of classical Islamic culture.
We in the West still read the great Persian poets, such as Rumi and Hafez and Ferdowsi, all of them Muslims, and their otherworldly descriptions of beauty, love and spirituality. We still marvel at detailed Persian miniatures, which peaked in the 16th century, most of them painted to illustrate books.
But throughout, the beliefs of Zoroastrianism survived, though frowned on by Islam, much as pagan folk stories and festivals survived despite the Christian church in Europe. The word “magic” in English derives from the Persian sorcerers, the magi, who have a famous cameo in the Bible.
The striking Iranian blend of Islam and Zoroastrianism, the monotheistic and the pantheistic, the political and the personal, the poetic and the practical, permeate Shokoofeh Azar’s first novel to be translated into English, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree.
It is the story of an educated family that flees Tehran for a distant village after the Islamic revolution of 1979. When the Revolutionary Guards ransack their grand house, stealing books, paintings and Persian rugs, and the son is “disappeared” by security forces, the father decides to move as far from this disintegrating world as he can. One daughter carries with her the pink ballets shoes that are all that remains of her training to be a ballerina. The other daughter is the narrator of the book.
Once in the village of Razan, they are given land by their new neighbours. “[N] o one in the village had ever exchanged land for money. God’s land still belonged to the people, and the people, as if offering votive food to a neighbour, gave us those five hectares, saying, ‘It’s God’s land. You build it up.’ ”
There in the countryside, far from the Revolutionary Guard, the paramilitary Basij and the morality police, whose enforcement of the hijab the mother despises, other forces come into play. These are supernatural forces: the ghosts, jinns, demons and seers who populate the countryside. This is magic realism flipped. The magical world is shot through with realism, rather than vice versa.
And from within that alternative world the narrator explains the effect of the revolution on dissidents: not the communists and liberals of whom we hear so much, but the monarchists, who gild the regime of the shahs ( who were remorseless in their use of imprisonment, torture and the death penalty), and those who still hanker for Zoroastrianism.
The mother insists on calling 1979 the “Arab invasion”, harking back to the original arrival of Islamic zealots in Iran. “She still wants to make the point that they came and burned, plundered and killed,” writes the narrator. “Just like 1400 years ago.”
The plot is intricate. It’s not until the fifth chapter that we have a hint of the existential catastrophe the narrator is enduring. The mystery of the boy’s death also takes a while to unravel. As for the circumstances in which the other sister begins to turn into a fish ...
The writing is ravishing: shimmeringly poetic. Even as the story progresses and the mood darkens, the narrator’s meticulous descriptions of the flowers, birds, animals and landscapes around her hold beauty as close as a talisman.
Azar came to Australia as a political refugee in 2011. Born in 1972, she studied literature at university and became a journalist. She edited essays, wrote for children and was the first Iranian woman to hitchhike the length of the Silk Road. She now lives in Perth.
She wrote The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree in Farsi. The translator is not named, for security reasons. He or she has fashioned beautiful English text, keeping the poetry while sparingly adding just enough Anglophone slang — “nicked” for “stolen” — to raise a smile and make readers comfortable without ruining the musicality. Frequent references to the Western literary cannon, from Aristotle through Jane Austen to Charles Bukowski, help ground the reader.
It also helps to have some knowledge of recent Iranian history because the references can be elliptical. So mesmerising is the storytelling, however, and so thorough the suspension of disbelief, that it hardly matters. is a writer and critic.