Thursday, April 21, 2005

Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Am currently engrossed in 'Reading Lolita in Tehran' by Azar Nafisi. Picked it up because I liked the description on the cover of the book. A friend just informed me it is an Amazon bestseller and well, I am not surprised. It is a well-articulated book. The author has not groped for words and settled on lesser ones for that context. But this alone is not what makes it such a brilliant book. What does is the subject or rather subjects the book deals with and the way it accomplishes then in weaving together all these different concepts into one narrative, in a most effortless and natural manner.

Nafisi read literature at Oxford, won her fellowship there and then for many years taught English literature in various universities in Tehran. She left her beloved country and now lives in Washington D.C. where she teaches at John Hopkins.

'Reading Lolita in Tehran' is a "Memoir in books" as the cover page informs me. It is, yes, a memoir put across to the reader using Nabokov, F.Scott.Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen. And its greatness lies in the stark and often harrowing realities it deals with and its success in equating these realities with fiction in literature and that too fiction like Lolita, Pride and Predjudice, Gatsby and Daisy Miller!!! But then acording to the author, their lives during the days of The Iranian Revolution "were more fictional than fiction itself".

In her book she has beautifully and astonishingly used these authors, their various writings, the characters in their books to give the reader a deeper understanding into the lives of people in Iran, the plight of its intellectuals and scholars in a world where they were becoming increasingly 'irrelevant', the struggle of its women to maintain the semblance of freedom and dignity in times when they were being vigorously suppressed, the turbulence in the country and the breakdown of its vibrant social fabric which was then rebuilt to suit the dreams of its fundamentalist rulers.

Some of the incidents Nafisi describes effected a reaction which I would normally link with a physical blow. There is one where she encounters one of her students after many years and this girl tells Nafisi about her life during the time. She had been in prison for taking part in some student demonstrations and got out "lucky" since her father was capable of weilding some influence over her jailors. But one of her friends was executed, prior to which she was raped and abused; logic being, if a woman dies a virgin she would go to heaven and since the women are in prison because of some sin/crime they have committed they don't deserve heaven!! And these girls had been mere teenagers at the time of their imprisonment! This story echoes the lives of thousands of such youth in Iran those days. Oh God!! What unimaginable horrors and what unspeakable crimes must have been inflicted upon these innocent, gentle people.

There are dozens of such paragraphs in the book which will move you to tears, touch you profoundly and disturb you too. And alongwith, Nafisi has strangely managed to give the reader a profound insight into the writings of each of the authors. I know how unusual and almost impossible it seems, this task of marrying two such disparate actions as recounting real-life horrors and literary appreciation. But therein, as I said, lies the book's brilliance.