Title: The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
Author: Shokoofeh Azar
Translated from the Persian
Publisher: Europa Editions
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Fiction
Four days of frenzied reading. It should’ve taken me not more than two days, but I had to read and stop, stop and read, and read it in huge gulps – almost like breathing after being breathless for a long time.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a book seeped in reality and dreams. It is about oppression and how when it takes hold, you rely on what you believe and have faith in to make living bearable. The story is told by the ghost of a thirteen-year-old girl, Bahar, whose family was forced out of Tehran, Iran, during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They also somewhere consciously are involved in the decision to move to maintain some sense of intellectual freedom which the current government does not allow.
They do this so their lives are spared, because they are all rebels in one way or the other. They do this because they do not believe religion is supreme, but humanity sure is. And their lives, loves, losses, and how you make sense of the world when all is lost is the story that Azar tells through the lens of one family, more families in the village, and interconnected lives.
The book had me by the throat from the first chapter. The characters – the father, the mother, Beeta the sister, Sohrab the brother, and the narrator (why and how she became a ghost is for you to read) all became a part of my life – still are actually. More than anything else I think I related to the book because I can see what is happening in India, in what once used to be a democratic and secular state – it is now held hostage by people in power and they will go to any lengths to hurt minorities and ensure there is one kind of “religion” that is supreme (the irony). Just as Iran in the 80s and perhaps even today, culture and arts, and the way of living respectfully is tearing at the seams and that became so clear as I turned the pages.
Azar writes in a way to also escape reality. The stories and stories and stories within stories in the book made me want more. Of how a young woman turns into a merperson, to how black love consumes someone, to what happens when dragonflies of different colours enter your life, to the stories of djinns that inhabit your day to day living – everything about this book made me sit up and take notice.
There is a lot that goes on in the book. The entire thread of magic realism is a befitting tribute to Márquez (who is also mentioned several times in the book). I guess it only shows what we want to believe in when life is too unbearable, and you’re at the crossroads of living and dying, and neither come easy. There are a lot of portions that depict solitude – and then there are many that rely heavily on the oral tradition of storytelling, which works fantastically for this book.
I felt like I was being oppressed while reading this book. That all my senses were numbed, and I was pushed into a corner. I felt that the regime was burning my books (which the family loves by the way, so all the more reason to love them). I felt hopeful. I wanted to dance when something nice was happening to them. I wanted to sing when I saw a glimmer of hope in their lives. I cried when things took a tragic turn. I wept as the book ended. This book is about hope, about surviving through the darkest times, and sometimes also understanding that someday you give up and live a little. I thought about what to say about it, and then ended up relying on my heart. Read this book. I can only say this for now.