Imagine that Ruhollah Khomeini, the former Supreme Leader of Iran who led the Islamic Revolution, finds his palace swarmed by hundreds of thousands of ghosts who were executed by revolutionaries. An elected Council of Ghosts visits Khomeini and offers an ultimatum: “Either you die right now or you build a palace of mirrors, the instructions for which we will give you in fragments, day by day. The day the palace is completed you will die.”
Deep in the cavity of a mountain, construction begins. And there, lost in a sea of dark reflections, Khomeini eventually dies, alone and powerless.
This disturbing anecdote, furnished with dazzling imagery, is a perfect introduction to “The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree” by Shokoofeh Azar. Originally written in Farsi and translated into English by a translator who prefers to remain anonymous, this novel is set in the decade following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and centers on a family that flees ideological persecution in Tehran for a remote village.
Though steeped in grim political realities, the novel reads like a tall tale. Populated by mystical beings (forest jinns, mermaids) and apocryphal events (black snow, a flood of ghost tears), it is narrated by the ghost of the family’s daughter, who, at 13, perished in a fire caused by revolutionaries.
The rest of the family is equally doomed and charmed. The mother achieves enlightenment from atop a greengage tree and later abandons her family to wander the country in silence. The sister, Beeta, once dreamed of becoming a ballerina and ends up a mermaid. Her brother Sohrab, an aspiring journalist, is held as a political prisoner without trial.
Azar strikes a remarkable balance between the fantastical and historical fact. What unites these two fronts is an exactness, by way of enumeration and time, which lends credibility to both aspects of the narrative. Events are chronicled with exaggerated precision (“at exactly 9:24 and 3 seconds on an ordinary morning in 1988 … all the clocks from the Martyr Foundation went to sleep”) and roundedness (“for three days and three nights”). Elsewhere, steps are enumerated, as if navigating a treasure map.
What is inexact, however, is the toll of violence. “Some say it was September 27, 1988, and some say it was later. Either way … five thousand men and women, young and old, whose only crime had been their political or religious belief, were killed.” We can only estimate the number of lives lost in the Islamic Revolution and its violent aftermath.
This is true, even today. The November protests in Iran, sparked by a spike in gas prices, mark the most volatile time in Iranian politics since the Islamic Revolution. The government responded to protests with an internet blackout and lethal force, leaving between 180 and 450 people dead, the New York Times reported.
It is often necessary, in the face of brutal oppression, to speak in code. Coded language comes in many forms — from satire to Signal, an encrypted messaging app. Then there are books, which, for the narrator and her family, “had always been the first and last refuge.”
Connor Goodwin is a writer and critic from Lincoln, Neb. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times, BOMB, Inside Hook and elsewhere.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
By: Shokoofeh Azar, translated from the Farsi.
Publisher: Europa Editions, 256 pages, $18.