The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
(Europa Editions, 2020)
The first pages pull off an impressive act, juggling the stuff of dreams with the all too real. In a few horrifying lines, Shokoofeh Azar describes a young man “hanged without trial,” one of the thousands executed in the fall of ’88, around Tehran. Their “only crime had been…reading banned pamphlets, or distributing flyers,” and their murderers enjoyed a career boost, becoming Revolutionary Guards, even mayors. Yet alongside such documentary material—Iran’s Islamic Republic at its worst—The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree explicates its surreal title image. On the day of the boy’s state-sanctioned murder, his mother leaves her rural home to climb to the top of the “tallest greengage tree” (the fruit of which is better known as a green plum). There she sits “mesmerized,” for “three days and three nights,” “perched on stardust, gazing down at an Earth no bigger than a tiny speck…carrying in its womb the past and future.”
The woman flies off to Tralfamadore, in other words, and with much the same prompting as Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. Indeed, a firebombing haunts the mother. Years before her son was killed, during the Islamic Revolution of ’79, the family’s Tehran home was ransacked. “In the…fight against the vice of pleasure,” the mob set fire to the father’s luthier shop—where the older daughter Bahar was trying to hide. “Instantly,” she was immolated.
But then, Bahar too inhabits a magical space. She serves as the novel’s ghostly narrator, making free with mortal chronology. Only over time does the story emerge as a decades-long tragedy, in which the opening execution is just another chapter. Under the Ayatollahs, Bahar’s family suffers till it shatters. Yet as its devastation comes to light, our undead narrator provides otherworldly relief. Herself a fantasy, she summons up many others of her kind:
…the jinn snapped her fingers…In the blink of an eye, what had previously been as dark as death and terrifying was illuminated with dozens of candles and torches. Parveneh saw dozens of jinns, small and large, with ugly black faces, matted hair, and hoof-like feet…
Such passages risk being congenial to flat repetition and hand-me-down phrasing (“in the blink of an eye”), and a few times I fretted about the translation. Yet by and large the fabulist business proves delightful. I especially enjoyed the metamorphosis of Bahar’s sister, who ends up a mermaid. Better still, such materials always reveal their roots in the loam built up over millennia of Persian storytelling “with all its grandeur and creativity.” The way this heritage has “collapsed” mirrors the family’s going to bits, and those dual pistons drive Greengage Tree. Thus while the opening recalls Vonnegut, the structure overall owes more to One Hundred Years of Solitude. The Colombian text is cited a couple times—most poignantly, when the Revolutionary Guards toss it into a bonfire—and the Iranian likewise yokes a doomed family to a destructive culture, while decorating the gloom with a phantasmagoria. Azar might not have moves as breathtaking as García Márquez, but she belongs on the same stage.
Sorting out the novel’s chronology also entails escaping to an older Iran, a largely illiterate village in the hills. Here Bahar’s remaining relations seek peace amid ancient forests central to Persian tradition—a natural setting for the sort of tales you might hear from Scheherazade. Once or twice those tales stretch the narrative almost to breaking, meandering a long way from the core drama. Still, the family’s “five-hectare grove” can’t protect them from the book-burners. Soon enough, what remains of the family library is destroyed, in a scene that raises the hackles despite rhetoric as overripe as some of the fairytale scenes. Before long, the son Sohrab languishes in prison, soon to be hanged. Small wonder Mom climbs up into the stars and Sis swims off into the Caspian Sea. Or, to put it another way, the assorted mystical developments might actually represent more mundane disorders. A psychiatrist might call them PTSD, if in a form you won’t find in the Merck Manual. Just such a diagnosis turns up, in fact, on the closing pages of Greengage Tree.
At that point, years after the son’s execution, the grieving father has fallen into the hands of the State. He’s made his lonesome way back to Tehran, and there he can’t resist picking up a few bootleg CDs of protest music. To hear such songs, to know at least some artists were “still alive and reacting,” left him overjoyed. But when the Basji patrols discover the contraband, they label the man a “Corrupter on Earth.” Jailed, beaten, he must write a confession. Dad however takes that last step out of bounds. “He wrote for days,” and the result sounds a lot like the novel we’ve been reading, with children either murdered or turning to mythical beasts. But then, under still more pressure, the old man delivers something a doctor would recognize, with grief-induced psychosis and withdrawal.
Which version counts as the truth? That dangerous term? Plainly, Azar would answer both, arguing that the Old Gods still hold value, “still alive and reacting,” even as she recognizes how “mysticism didn’t offer any simple solutions to murder, plunder, poverty, or human injustice.” An ambitious claim, this tempts her at times into overreach. Nevertheless, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree overwhelms any reservations. My quibbles about syntax or vocabulary, for instance, matter little when one considers that the translator had to remain anonymous. The current regime would never brook such critique, and likewise Azar’s acknowledgments end with thanks to “the free country of Australia,” to which she fled ten years ago. Ultimately, her work stands as another of the terrific fictions, a number of them by women, out of this tormented region and moment. It affirms again the adaptability, the veracity, the sheer power of the novel form.