‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’ by Shokoofeh Azar

2017, 268 p. Translated by ‘Adrien Kijek’

I knew that this book had been shortlisted for both the Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing, and also for the Booker International. It has been translated into English by a translator whose pseudonym appears only in the bibliographic details at the front of the book. Having only recently become sensitized to the nuances of translation by learning another language myself, at first I felt a frisson of annoyance that the translator was so invisible. However, I learn from a review of the Europa edition of the book, where the translator is designated ‘anonymous’, this was at their request and for reasons of safety. The fear and repression felt by the translator pervades the book too, where the political and personal grind remorselessly against each other. The magical realism with which the book is imbued is a relief, both in terms of self-protection for the characters and for us as readers.

Roza, the mother of three children Sohrab, Beeta and Bahar climbed the tallest tree in the grove, a greengage plum tree, and it was there that she received enlightenment at exactly 2.35 p.m. on August 18, 1988, the very moment that her son Sohrab was hanged under the instructions of the Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. The family had fled Tehran in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, but the unrest followed them to the small village of Razan as well. Not that her daughter Bahar physically followed them to the remote village: she had been killed during 1979 and as our narrator, is now a ghost, still present to her family, but dead.

The book combines historical detail – the mandate of wearing headcoverings, the appearance of men bristling with guns in the back of utilities, the disappearances and hangings – alongside a world of dragonflies, riotous growth of plants, jinns and mermaids. It’s a rather discombobulating book to read, with frequent time shifts and a permeable edge between the traditional and historical, and between the spirit and political worlds. The men with guns may have come, with their fundamentalist theology, but the traditional Persian beliefs in the spirit world underlie outward compliance and inward resistance. So too does the traditional way of story-telling, with a long story-within-a story that wreathes without a full-stop for ten pages.

This is also a family story, as each member responds in their own different way to the challenge of living through traumatic times. Roza, after her three-day stay in the greengage tree, leaves her diminished family; Beeta turns into a mermaid; her father Hushang immerses himself in his books before returning to his family home in Tehran, where the family has sequestered itself. His brother Khosro turns to mysticism, as a way of inuring himself from changes that he does not support. And Bahar moves among them restlessly, with love and impotent compassion, waiting for them to join her.

This is not an easy book to read, especially if you dislike magic realism. For myself, I see it playing a dual role in this book: as a way of laying claim to a way of viewing the world, but also as a form of resistance. Given that this book was trumped in the Booker International by the bleak and shrivelling The Discomfort of Evening, there is much more to hold on to in this book, which would have been a more worthy winner, in my view.

My rating: 8.5/10

Read because: Shortlisting on Stella and Booker International prizes

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

3 responses to “‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’ by Shokoofeh Azar

  1. Wee said, Janine.
    Of course, I’m partisan, but I must admit that my heart sank when I read about the winning book.

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