Shim­mer­ing twist to mag­i­cal re­al­ism

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

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.

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