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Oct/Nov 2017 Reviews & Interviews

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree.
Shokoofeh Azar.
Wild Dingo Press. 2017. 268 pp.
ISBN 978 0 987381 309.

Review by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! There have been several glowing reviews of this book. Sonia Nairn in Books + Publishing described it as "an embodiment of Iranian life in constant oscillation between four opposing poles: life and death, politics and religion," but more precisely, it is the story of an Iranian family whose lives are devastated by these constants.

Shokoofeh Azar was born in Iran just seven years before the Islamic revolution and the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. She left Iran with her family in 2011 and was accepted in Australia as a political refugee. Clearly, she knows first hand the long-term effects of the revolution and, as an established Iranian writer, she is well-equipped to write about the dramatic events that have affected her life.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, however, is no straightforward historical family drama. For one thing, the story is told by the lively, ever-present ghost of 13-year-old Bahar, who died in a fire set by "inflamed revolutionaries boiling with revolutionary hatred and fervour." And she begins by telling us how her mother obtained enlightenment at the top of a greengage plum tree at the very moment that her son, Sohrab, "blindfolded and hands tied behind his back" is hanged without trial.

This mixture of magical realism, fantasy, and horror continues throughout the book. In the tradition of Persian story-telling, ghosts, jinns, and demons are part of the everyday lives of the family and the people amongst whom they live, and digressions into tales of inexplicable events, possession, mermaids, and magic are frequent. But unlike those Persian tales which are parables of mysticism and enlightenment, and in spite of the hopeful title, the inevitable outcome of supernatural events in this book is disaster and death.

Jinns, of course, may always be negotiated with, but like the ones tricked into granting a young woman the gift of healing and the power to help women in labor have painless childbirth, they extract bloody revenge. Ghosts, on the other hand, can be seen by many people, and like those who help Bahar's mother, Roza, by scaring away marauding neighbors, they can be friendly and helpful. In this book, however, they also tell detailed and harrowing stories of the ways in which they died.

There are references to Iranian history in the family's memories of the overthrow of the Shah and of the richness and culture of life before this took place. This is a family that prized the books the revolutionaries burned. And there is a fantastic allegorical account of the fall of Ayatollah Khomeini, who spends his days talking to himself in his labyrinthine palace of mirrors and dies of depression after being confronted by a questioning 10-year-old child. In the split second of death, "he understood that whereas in monologue he was a fierce ruler, in dialogue he was nothing but a bearded, illogical little boy, stubborn and pompous."

There are also brief passages of philosophy, as when the ghost-child narrator's father, Hushang, discusses with his brother, Khosro, the possible ways of reacting to revolutionary horrors: active resistance; acquiescence and avoidance of conflict (Hushang's way); and meditation and the seeking of inner peace (Khosro's way).

History and philosophy, however, fill no more than brief passing passages. And there are equally brief moments of lyricism and love, such as Roza's relationship with the traveller she encounters when she walks away from her home and family; and the passionate love affair of her daughter, Beeta, with the psychologically damaged Issa.

Sadly, these moments of history, philosophy, lyricism, and love are never sufficient to balance the litany of horrors that fill the rest of the book. There are no happy endings. There is nothing in the end but death and absorption into the bark of the magical greengage tree as the whole ghostly family ascends it and looks down "at Earth with all its forests, its oceans, mountains and clouds; with all its countries, borders, people, loves, hates, murders and pillage." And, in the final words of the book, "That's it."

 

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