‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi ****

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi’s memoir of her life in Iran, was one of my choices for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  It is yet another book which I have been wanting to read for years, and whilst in some ways it was really nothing like I was expecting it to be, I still very much enjoyed reading it.  I have seen a few readers of late saying that they are tired of reading books about books; I personally adore them, and hope to never share those sentiments.  I can also safely say that I have never read a literary memoir quite like this one, which has been translated into 32 languages since its publication.

9780241246238The crux of the memoir – and something which I admit I thought would be focused upon a lot more than it was – is as follows: ‘In Iran in the late ’90s, Azar Nafisi and seven young women – her former students – gathered at her house every Thursday to discuss forbidden works of Western literature.’  The blurb promises that the personal stories of these women ‘intertwine with what they are reading’, and through their experience, Nafisi ‘offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran’.  Thus the stage is set.

Nafisi, once a literature teacher at the University of Tehran, left for America in 1997, after being expelled from her position for refusing to wear a veil.  Her account is written with a voice which feels candid and sincere, and which is sometimes acerbically funny, but which is filled with an underlying fear that permeates every daily activity.  Nafisi begins her memoir thus: ‘I often teasingly reminded my students of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and asked, Which one of you will finally betray me?  For I am a pessimist by nature and I was sure at least one would turn against me.’

Nafisi endeavoured to make her book club as inclusive as was possible.  Whilst one male attended from time to time, it was much safer to have a gathering solely of women, as one never knew who was watching, or keeping tabs on who was entering Nafisi’s city centre apartment.  The book club is more than simply a place of discussion; through it, Nafisi is able to offer her students a relative freedom.  ‘In selecting my students,’ she writes, ‘I did not take into consideration their ideological or religious backgrounds.  Later, I would count it as the class’s great achievement that such a mixed group, with different and at times conflicting backgrounds, personal as well as religious and social, remained so loyal to its goals and ideals.’

Throughout, Nafisi urges the reader to try and understand her difficult position, and her life as a woman in Tehran: ‘Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn’t dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading Lolita in Tehran.  And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us.’

The memoir has been split into four parts – ‘Lolita’, ‘Gatsby’, ‘James’, and ‘Austen’.  The section on The Great Gatsby looks solely at that novel, and no other works by F. Scott Fitzgerald; in the chapter about Lolita, however, many works of Nabokov’s are analysed and discussed.  In this way, it feels a little uneven.  Some of the chapters focus more upon the political situation in Iran, and those things which have been banned, whereas others are made up almost entirely of reflections upon the clandestine book club, and their discussions.  Of this book club, Nafisi writes: ‘Looking back, I am amazed at how much we learned without even noticing it.  We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction.’

The Iranian regime, and later the war, are discussed alongside the book club; both, Nafisi notes, were ‘unpredictable’, and life in Iran ‘would go through cycles of some tolerance, followed by a crackdown.’  As with almost every dictatorial regime, there were many restrictions enforced against women; they were reprimanded if they ran up the stairs, for instance, or if makeup was found in their handbags.  The regime was also incredibly restrictive with regard to the curriculum, and expelled many students for a variety of reasons.  Nafisi reflects that Emily Bronte was not taught ‘because she appeared to condone adultery’, and that the word ‘wine’ had to be removed from the stories of Ernest Hemingway before it could be taught.

I found Reading Lolita in Tehran to be an immersive and insightful reading experience, with such a lot of promise, which it largely reached.  A lot of my friends’ reactions have been incredibly mixed, but there is a lot within the pages of this memoir to reflect upon and admire.  The effects of living under Sharia law are discussed at length, as are the tiny revolutions which Nafisi and her students would make to regain a little of their control over themselves, at least.

The overarching message here is that reading can save you, in more ways than one.  Nafisi puts this best, writing: ‘There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom.’

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‘The Blind Owl’ by Sadegh Hedayat ***

I, perhaps shamefully, had never heard of Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl before spotting it in the Modern Classics section of the library.  Whilst originally banned in the author’s native Iran, it soon became a bestseller, and he is now heralded as one of the fathers of modern Iranian literature.  First published in 1937, and in English twenty years later, a 75th anniversary edition was published in 2011.  Hedayat’s masterpiece has been compared to the likes of Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Edgar Allan Poe, which may give you a feel for the kind of story which is going to unfold.

The Blind Owl, in less than 130 pages, feels masterful in the way in which it takes the reader into the ‘nightmarish exploration of the psyche of a madman’ after the loss of a mysterious lover.  It sounded stra9789186131449nge but intriguing, and I have read very little literature which discusses and examines madness from a male perspective.

This madness, or rather the process of spiralling into it, is captured wonderfully by the haunting and immediate voice of Hedayat’s narrator: ‘In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people and have realized that my best course is to remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself for as long as I can.  If I have now made up my mind to write it is only in order to reveal myself to my shadow, that shadow which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the attitude of one denouncing with insatiable appetite each word I write.  It is for his sake that I wish to make the attempt.  Who knows?  We may perhaps come to know each other better.  Ever since I broke the last ties which held me to the rest of mankind, my one desire has been to attain a better knowledge of myself.’

The sense of the ‘Other’ which Hedayat is aware of from the very beginning of The Blind Owl is emphasised through repetitions of certain phrases and paragraphs, which form a kind of backbone within the novella.  There is little plot here really, but it is the way in which Hedayat handles his protagonist, and the changes which he goes through so suddenly, which is the real strength.  The reader is swept along, entirely adrift in the narrator’s mind; it feels as though we have no control, and are entering a world of manic thoughts along with him.  The urgency and confusion of the prose adds to this effect, and it soon begins to feel rather claustrophobic.

Dark and rather gruesome, The Blind Owl gives a real insight into an extremely troubled mind.  Whilst it does not demonstrate, or even really touch upon, its Iranian setting, which was a shame, the translation by Naveed Noori makes it feel fresh and contemporary.  Occasionally, The Blind Owl feels quite jarring to read, but perseverance makes it worth it.  The Blind Owl is a haunting novella, with a powerful voice, and rather a terrifying message buried beneath it.

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One From the Archive: ‘Equal of the Sun’ by Anita Amirrezvani **

First published in June 2012.

Equal of the Sun is set in sixteenth-century Iran. The novel is loosely based upon the life of Princess Pari Khan Khanum, who, according to an essay written by Shohreh Gholsorkhi in Iranian Studies, was a ‘masterful Safavid princess’. The narrator, Javaher, who believes himself to be one of Pari’s ‘closest’ servants, is intent upon telling the truth about her story so that it does not become ‘misrepresented or distorted to become a tool of those in power’. The prologue of the novel opens with his musings about the princess, whom he believes to be ‘fierce but splendid in her bearing’.

Javaher is a eunuch whose main wish in life is to alleviate his position within the strict class system by ‘serving the royal women’. He is tasked with gathering information by Princess Pari in order for her to stay informed of happenings, political and otherwise, in the state. She is ultimately seen as a protector for womankind, and throughout the novel many women come to her for help and advice which she is more than happy to give. 

After Pari’s father the Shah dies suddenly, her entire life is catapulted into turmoil. He has not left a will and this causes doubts about how best to proceed. Pari is forced to dismiss her grief and ‘get to work on the succession’, as she and those around her believe that ‘in times of uncertainty, procedure is all we have’. Despite Pari’s adherence to the proper channels which must be followed in such a situation, others vie for power and alleviate their own positions with little authority in which to do so. Throughout, fierce loyalties, particularly on the part of Javaher, are realised. The novel is incredibly graphic and violent at times.

The narrator is not an altogether likeable character but his position as servant allows him to seek out and overhear much of the action which drives the story onwards. In this way, Javaher’s narrative placement is a clever one.

The prose is absorbing from the outset and the novel itself is well written. Amirrezvani skilfully captures the surroundings in which Equal of the Sun takes place. Her descriptions, particularly in the first few chapters, are rich: ‘mirror work shimmered all to the ceiling, mimicking the radiance of the sun’. Many historical and cultural details have been woven into the story. Traditional words and phrases spoken in the country at the time have been included, as well as the correct observations following a death and the mourning rituals which had to be adhered to. The author has even made a point of writing about the types of make up used by women at the time. Amirrezvani has captured the threat of uprisings, political uproar and widespread change with skill.

The portrayals of Amirrezvani’s characters are rather in depth, but not in a manner which makes the reader feel overloaded with detail. Some of the details do become a little tedious, however, and this is particularly true when one considers the many passages which deal with choosing and wearing similar items of clothing. The novel contains rather a long list of the book’s vast array of characters. As the many characters and their relationships with one another are sometimes confusing to remember, the list of the book’s vast array of individuals is a very useful touch. Whilst the dialogue throughout works well, it is sadly sometimes difficult to distinguish one speaker from the next. Often, the majority of the dialogue patterns, traditional phrases and turns of phrase used from one person to the next are quite similar.

Whilst Equal of the Sun begins in a wonderful way, the storyline does wane a little at times and Amirrezvani’s writing is not always consistent. Many of the passages towards the beginning of the novel are beautifully written and almost poetic in their prose style, but as the novel progresses many of the descriptions become overdone and the language used is not always as good as it could be.

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Flash Reviews (10th March 2014)

‘And the Mountains Echoed’ by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini ****
I absolutely adore Hosseini’s work, and have been very much looking forward to reading And the Mountains Echoed ever since I first heard of its publication.  I requested several review copies of it but nothing came to fruition, and I was finally rewarded on Christmas Day with the beautiful hardback edition which I could not wait to begin.

The novel begins in Afghanistan in 1952, and its premise has the power to both warm and break the hearts of its readers:

“To Abdullah, [his sister] Pari… is everything.  More like a parent than a brother, Abdullah will do anything for her, even trading his only pair of shoes for a feather for her treasured collection.”

Hosseini is a marvel.  I adored the different narrative perspectives which he made use of throughout, and the way in which he followed many of his characters – in such a way, in fact, that the first impression of many of them was not the one which would linger in the mind after the final page had been closed.  He has such skill with addressing prejudices and with changing perceptions, and the entirety of the novel’s plot was rendered so vividly in consequence.  So many layers have been placed upon one another to create the whole, and such a rich book has been created.  As one may expect from reading the blurb of And the Mountains Echoed, it is tinged with sadness from the start, but the beauty within its pages is prevalent too.  It is a novel which is well worth reading, particularly if you have a day to spare, for it is a very difficult book to put down.

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‘The Septembers of Shiraz’ by Dalia Sofer

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer ****

I so enjoyed my literary foray into Afghanistan in the aforementioned And the Mountains Echoed that I was longing to go back immediately.  I sadly did not have any books set in the general area on my to-read shelves, so I plumped instead for reading a novel which I first read some years ago, and which I did not really enjoy.  Rather than Afghanistan, The Septembers of Shiraz is set in Iran, but it provides a marvellous continuation from Hosseini’s work.

Upon re-reading this great novel, I struggle to see why I failed to like it the first time around.  The only thing which I can think of is that I read it during my A-Level examinations, and was therefore unable to fully immerse myself within it.  I am so, so glad that I thought to pick it back up.  The Septembers of Shiraz is set in Tehran in 1982, in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution.  It takes as its focus the character of Isaac Amin, a Jewish man living in the city with his wife and daughter.  At the very start of the novel, he is arrested, under the incorrect assumption that he is a spy.

Sofer’s descriptions are lovely, and her use of colour particularly is glorious.  It enables her to strongly create the sense of place throughout.  Despite this book’s length, I found it a surprisingly quick read, and will certainly be picking up more of the author’s work in future.  The Septembers of Shiraz is a highly recommended historical novel about one of the most pivotal periods in Iranian history.

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‘The Midnight Palace’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon **
Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s author note in The Midnight Palace states that the novel is the second in a series, but nowhere does it say what it is a sequel to, or which series it makes up.  (NB: I am still clueless about this).  Judging from its blurb, the story looked relatively well contained, and so I decided to go ahead and read it anyway.  The book is billed as a ghost story – to be more precise, as ‘a haunting story for the young, and the young at heart’ – and I suppose it is one of sorts, but as it is aimed within the young adult market, any suspense or creepiness which Zafon is quite capable of building up feels lost in the slightly cushioned choice of genre.

The Midnight Palace begins in 1916 and takes Calcutta as its setting.  The Midnight Palace of the book’s title is an abandoned mansion, where seven boys from an orphanage meet.  The sense of place is well drawn throughout, and the first few pages – and, indeed, the blurb – definitely hold intrigue:

“1916, Calcutta. A man pauses for breath outside the ruins of Jheeter’s Gate station knowing he has only hours to live. Pursued by assassins, he must ensure the safety of two newborn twins, before disappearing into the night to meet his fate. 1932. Ben and his friends are due to leave the orphanage which has been their home for sixteen years. Tonight will be the final meeting of their secret club, in the old ruin they christened The Midnight Palace. Then Ben discovers he has a sister – and together they learn the tragic story of their past, as a shadowy figures lures them to a terrifying showdown in the ruins of Jheeter’s Gate station.”

Sadly, I found that the intrigue which was well built up at first was not consistent in the novel, and I soon found myself drifting away from the story and unable to get really ‘into’ it, as I have been able to do with the rest of Zafon’s tales. The pace was well realised, and I enjoyed the plot, but the distancing – made particularly apparent by the choice of a third person narrator – really held me back with my reading of the book.

The mysteries throughout are introduced at intervals, so I occasionally found that my interest in the book was piqued, but the entirety did not hook me as I expected it to.  I had no problems with the execution of the book or its storyline, as such, but I found its characters so flat and distinctly lacking in substance.  Even though The Midnight Palace was quite a quick read, I personally found it quite a slog to get through.  Those who already enjoy his books for younger readers, however, are sure to very much enjoy it.

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