Instead of counting objects and days and hours, if people would simply rub their palms together just once, and comprehend that mysterious skin to skin contact fully, their understanding of the world would be better. Or if just once they were to watch and understand the blooming of a flower or birth of a lamb, using their senses of sight and hearing and smell completely, perhaps humans would come to the conclusion that in all the days and nights of their lives, only that minute in which they are immersed is worth calculating.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a book that deserves more than just a short blog review, as there’s so much to break down. I could probably write for hours, go off on tangents, come up with theories, etc. I won’t do that, but suffice it to say this is a book that relies very heavily on reader interpretation. What I got from this book might not match what another reader would glean, and therein lies some of the genius. Now, this is by no means a particularly new method of story-telling. It’s a heavy dose of magical realism that relies principally on Persian folklore to tell the story of a fractured family whose ability to survive is tested by the cruelty of a despotic regime.
The narrator of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is the first fallen victim of the family, the 13-year-old daughter named Bahar who was killed during the Islamic Revolution of 1979 when the family home in Tehran was attacked by fighters. Following Bahar’s death, the family flees to Razan to begin anew, only to be followed shortly thereafter by the death and destruction from which they fled. Bahar exists as an omniscient figure, a ghost who is able to still interact with her family. She is immune to the physical pain and destruction inflicted upon the remaining members but still feels fully the mental and emotional anguish of witnessing their subsequent breakdown. She is as powerless as we, the reader, to halt the desperate march of time that threatens to destroy their legacy. The “enlightenment” referenced in the title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, as the enlightenment as experienced by Bahar’s mother, Roza, as she climbs to the top of the greengage tree is really nothing short of a mental breakdown brought upon by despair so deep it transports her to a new realm of unfeeling distraction. It’s a “positively Vonnegut-esque” (to quote Bridget Jones) post traumatic stress escape to Tralfamadore in a desperate attempt to forget that the world is imploding around her.
The novel is beautifully and lyrically told, blending Iranian folklore and elements of magical realism. It’s quite rich with symbolism and metaphor, bursting with it, in fact. Placing fantastical elements of mythical creatures, ghosts, and mysticism against a backdrop of persecution and the stifling of creative thought provides an interesting form of escapism in the face of the unthinkable. While they were once a family who valued knowledge and literature above all else, as they are robbed of the ability to enjoy such things we see them descend into a fantasy world that still connects them to those things they hold dear. Literature is an incredibly important theme in this novel. As a matter of fact, I became a little bit weary of the long lists of literary works that were peppered throughout the text, though I do understand their importance. It’s illustrative of what is lost in a Country like Iran during such times when the people lose their freedom to learn without restriction or fear of prosecution if caught. Many of us take for granted that we can simply go to a library or a bookstore and choose from thousands of titles regardless of their content. We celebrate banned books, and we revel in the content that raises the hackles of the would-be censors. I can talk about this book and post my thoughts for the world to see, but the translator of this novel had to remain anonymous for his or her own safety. The author had to immigrate to another country, Australia in this case, before she could even publish such words under her own name. That’s the real world many of us will never experience. That’s the power behind a book such as this, a reality that permeates even the area outside of the pages. It’s a true human story of catharsis in the face of evil.
Narratively speaking this book is told in a very disjointed fashion. It jumps around in time and can sometimes be difficult to follow. Little unrelated stories are brought in to fully illustrate the presented themes which have a tendency to pull the reader out of the main storyline only to thrust them back again a few pages later. This isn’t a linear plot. It’s a “big picture” plot where you have to place all the pieces together into a final, complete work. Unless you’re ready to do some serious thinking, you might want to skip this one. It’s short but far from simplistic.
Considering some issues I had with the narrative style, I would give this one a 4/5. It deserves a lot of credit for its flashes of brilliance and the overall tone which celebrates the power of literature in a world that doesn’t value knowledge.
Published August 17, 2017 by Wild Dingo Press. ISBN 098738130X. 268 pages.