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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

The Enlightenment of the
Greengage Tree


by
Shokoofeh Azar


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree



Title: The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
Author: Shokoofeh Azar
Genre: Novel
Written: (Eng. 2017)
Length: 245 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree - US
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree - UK
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree - Canada
  • Persian title: اشراق درخت گوجه سبز
  • First published in the English translation (2017)
  • The US/UK Europa Editions edition does not identify the translator: "for reasons of safety and at the translator's request" (though this would seem to be a somewhat futile gesture, as the translator is named in the original Wild Dingo Press edition and elsewhere)

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Our Assessment:

B : effective if ultimately too loose fantastical approach to presenting post-revolutionary Iran

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 8/11/2018 .


  From the Reviews:
  • "Azarís florid style emulates the rich storytelling tradition of bygone Persia (.....) But the promise of the voice is weighed down by clunky writing, rife with repeated and awkward phrasings. Azarís dense family saga is animated by characters who face terror heroically, but itís undercut by the unpolished prose." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree begins with a description of events in 1988, with the hanging of Sohrab, the brother of the narrator, after years of incarceration. It is the height of a summer of executions of political prisoners -- "more than five thousand people in Tehran, Karaj, and other cities", a grim and gruesome mass-killing spree Azar describes in her novel's opening pages. The entire novel is narrated by Bahar, who describes being far away from the scene at the time, with her parents and sister Beeta -- but the mother climbing, at the moment of the execution, first the tallest greengage plum tree in the rural area they live in and then up the tallest oak (and spending three days up there).
       An incidental mention suggests, quite specifically and unequivocally, that Bahar is thirteen at the time. As it turns out, it's a bit more complicated than that: Bahar has been thirteen ... for a while, a victim at that age already of the 1979 Iranian Revolution but then continuing to be an otherworldly but still very strong family-presence: "I became an enigmatic family rumor". In the household, it's treated as a natural state of affairs, but, as Bahar points out, it's just one more manifestation of a world that by that time (1988) has been long off track:

Mom said sternly: "You're still growing up. You can't behave like that anymore." With my back to them, I said insolently, "Have you forgotten ? I'm not going to grow up !"
       The family had fled Tehran at the time of the revolution, into the deepest countryside, the village of Razan in Mazandaran. It is a place so far removed from the rest of the country that as recently as 1964: "people didn't know what knives and forks were, or what such things as electricity or television could be". Even decades later, it remained remote and difficult to get to, and cut off both from events and news: it is only seven years after the fact that the locals learn of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (the family not having shared the news when they arrived). But the regime does encroach -- its sights set on especially the young men, as cannon fodder in the war with Iraq, as ideologues helping to support the state -- or, as in the case of Sohrab, potential enemies that need to be rooted out.
       As some of the events right at the beginning of the novel suggest -- the mother climbing into the trees; Bahar's very nature -- The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree isn't an entirely naturalistic novel; instead, Azar has embraced magical realism. The divide between the living and the dead is the most prominent manifestation that repeatedly comes into play, but there are other fantastical elements too, most notably sister Beeta's transformation and the creatures she gives birth to; there's also buried treasure and jinns.
       While Bahar is an observer and chronicler, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a novel full of seekers. Uncle Khosrow has long been one -- "he'd spent years in India, Tibet, and Siberia, learning from shamans, mystics and ascetics" -- but the others also venture out: the mother disappears for years in the forest, the father goes back to the family home in Tehran, and Beeta too strikes out on her own for a while. Bahar does not watch over these personal voyages, but only hears about them -- in summary, largely --, with Beeta having gone so far as to ask her sister to let her experience in peace:
I don't want you to come checking on me until the day I go back to Razan. Let me come to understand what it means for a living person to be alone in the true sense of the word; let me find my own way.
       Despite being a close family, it is worth noting how isolated and solitary the five family members -- parents and children -- are for much of the time -- most obviously Sohrab during those years in jail as well as the mother when she has wandered off, but even the father, when he goes to Tehran (where: "Nobody asked questions" when he suddenly reäppears at the family home) and then when he too is imprisoned, for over five years, while both Bahar and eventually Beeta's very form make for one of solitary existence.
       The times are terrible, and largely inescapable. Razan -- and Bahar -- exist in a sort of timelessness, largely if not completely separate from inexorable history; one of the things the family members appear to seek is to be, somehow, out of this reality-dimension (the only possible escape from history, in its awful present-day form, Azar seems pessimistically to be suggesting). At times, there are even larger-scale efforts, as when the villagers have enough and try to leave the past behind -- and find, at least for a time, a great freedom:
In discovering there was no history, the people had returned to the Age of Innocence, wild greengage blossoms glistened and were fragrant just like on an early morning in the Garden of Eden.
       But reality -- and the ugly reality of the present-day regime, in particular -- prove inescapable.
       The family is also a literary one: the library in the grand family house has over 5000 volumes, and the family also took many to Razan -- but eventually the authorities caught up to them, and burn the lot. Bahar -- who had wanted to be a writer -- repeatedly lists works lost and found, classics from all cultures and times; after the book-burning the father gathers the family to record in notebooks as much as they can recall from their reading in an attempt to try to hold onto and preserve bits of culture and civilization -- a futile, desperate gesture, as:
Even with each word committed to paper we understood that, contrary to what Dad believed, culture, knowledge, and art retreat in the face of violence, the sword and fire -- and for years after remain barren and mute.
       The novel explores this dichotomy -- the desperate clinging to hope (also in the form of literature) and the brutal reality of life under a regime that tries to crush anything contrary. (Among the on-going storylines is the wrangling between the corrupt Tehran mayor and the older generations of the family, over the family's grand house which the mayor has his eye on; here, too, nothing good is allowed to survive.) The vision here, for all its colorful and fantastical elements, is a bleak one; there are positive elements, but ultimately there is little beyond family to hold onto.
       The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a dark, fantastical tale of a country and people crushed by brutal, reactionary forces. Azar's invention often impresses, with beautifully conceived and realized episodes and transformations, but it also makes for a somewhat loose story, a novel in which too often characters simply wander off (or are torn away), with too little follow-through of what they experience during this time, and too little overall connection. In part, Bahar is a problematic narrator: not strong enough a presence or character on her own, and also not quite able to tell us enough about all the others, at least for certain stretches. It makes for an uneven, somewhat piecemeal narrative -- coming together as a whole, but not entirely neatly.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 December 2019

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Links:

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Shokoofeh Azar (شکوفه آذر) was born in Iran in 1972 and emigrated to Australia in 2011.

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