International Booker Prize: The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree

The International Booker Prize is awarded to books translated from their mother tongue into English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland.

It's unique in that the prize money is shared between the author and translator. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is one of five books shortlisted this year (winners will be announced on 26 August). In this instance the translator wishes to remain anonymous.

For fantasy content alone, I give this dream of a book five stars. Author Shukūfah Azar weaves a tale in the Persian tradition.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree

Invoking revered writers from Eastern and Western cultures, Azar matches them with her own tale of a family forced to flee from the Iranian Revolution to a remote village with an ancient culture, ghosts and a forest full of jinns.

At the exact moment her only son, Sohrab, is executed, Roza gains enlightenment, while sitting in a plum tree. 

Sohrab is the second of her children be killed in the Iranian Revolution. This affects her so deeply that not long after, she walks off into the forest, followed by other Mothers of the Disappeared.

"The fragrance of the northern-smoked tea reached Mom's nostrils as she was traversing the Milky Way, watching the stars and planets spinning and orbiting with astonishing order, every rotation of which split open a space in which scientists hopelessly searched for evidence of God. From up there, perched on stardust, gazing down at an Earth that was no bigger than a tiny speck, she came to the same conclusion that she had reached that day at precisely 2:35 p.m. :

it's not worth it, life isn't what she had thought." (p.8)

The narrator, daughter Bahar, was killed in a fire at the age of thirteen, when Iranian revolutionaries set fire to her father's Tar (an instrument) workshop; a punishment for the pleasure of music.

She has remained in this realm - to bear witness to the family's flight from Tehran to a life free from intellectual persecution in a remote village.

"All we wanted was to disappear in silence from the tarnished page of the city's ever more violent, ever less friendly, increasingly more criminal history."  (p.61)

During the Islamic Revolution in 1988 more than five thousand people in Iran were killed in the biggest massacre in over two hundred years.

Shukūfah Azar's many colourful characters relate tales of personal horror but they come out sounding like fairy tales - yet they are the sort of stuff that would give Poe nightmares.

At one point Azar tells the remarkable tale of the haunting of Khomeini by the five thousand:

"Doors creaked. Shoes and sandals were thrown into the garden. Pebbles hit the windowpanes. Light bulbs turned on and off and curtains opened and closed. A hand took Khomeini's cloak from the rack and threw it out the window and into the yard. Another hand unravelled his turban...In the middle of the night they could hear footsteps on the porch, voices whispering...

When they finally came face-to-face with Khomeini in his bedroom in the middle of that snowy January night, their message was clear: 'Either you die right now or you build a palace of mirrors. … The day the palace is completed, you will die.' "(p.127)

It is one thing to play at horror and something else entirely to experience it. Azar has a talent for finding beautiful words with which to lighten the blow.

Escaping persecution, controls on media and personal freedom in Tehran, Bahar's family flee from the city with their father's collection of books and heirlooms to the remote village of Razan; a place with an ancient Hyrcanian forest full of Jinn, a Zoroastrian Soothsayer and people who have never heard of cars.

At that time, Razan still belongs to the people, who

"...as if giving votive food to a neighbour, gave us those 5 hectares, saying, 'it's Gods land, you build it up.'" (p.62)

It is a relief from the 'new' Tehran, where 

"...women have to put a lid on their hair again just like they do with their laughter. Houses and dreams (were) getting so small that even the butterflies were leaving the city." (p.62)

Once in Razan, readers are, like the villagers, enchanted by tales of manias and bad omens, magic and nature, djinns and ghosts. The lines between earthly and spiritual existence, history and the present become blurred. Perhaps this is the lesson Azar is teaching:

"We are not the first people to destroy ourselves; with a city where all devices of happiness are present." (p.44)

What some call magic realism is to Azar the Persian way of telling stories: of an ancient race whose history is full of joy, suffering and upheaval.

For all the gilded edges of this tale, we are never far from the brutal acts of the new regime: Sohrab is taken while in exile, and the family's incredible collection of books is confiscated and burned. The list of titles here is impressive and worth reading for the recommendations alone!

Although I got a bit lost in time and space with this book, the threads of the story are brilliantly realized and engaging, even after the family have all wandered off on their separate journeys of transformation (in more ways than one).

"The third world is a place where we share the same pain but not the same path." (p.33)

Not only a fantastic read, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is peppered with references to ancient Zoroastrian history, medicine, and plant knowledge. The text includes quotes from Persian poets Rumi, Khayyam and more, and Azar includes informative notes at the end of each chapter.

Will the family be reunited? Is all they held dear lost? Where has Sohrab's ghost gone off to? And the trunk of Zoroastrian papers?

Lets just say things didn't turn out as I'd hoped, but stories often don't and that's what 'hold(s) my attention' as Margaret Atwood says in her Masterclass.

I will say that the story comes satisfyingly full circle; beginning and ending with the Greengage Tree.

Shukūfah herself was a refugee from Iran and now lives in Australia. The Englightenment of the Greengage Tree is her first novel to be translated from Farsi to English and was also shortlisted for the (Australian) Stella Prize.

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