Friday, June 3, 2011

ReView of READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN by Azar Nafisi ; culture, religion, individual freedom, womanhood

This book was excellent!  I have wanted to read it for a while, again like so many others.  This was a book I have started reading more than a couple of times and it always kind of just flew over my head.  Again, there is a timing to every book and I couldn't have started this month with a better book. 

When I picked up this book to read it a week or so ago, I thought it was a fictional piece, but it turns outs, it is a memoir slash women's studies book.  Aside from my own perceptual confusion with it, there is a more fundamental link between fiction and reality in this book.  The women in the book talk about the 'link between the open spaces the novels provide and the closed ones we were confined to.'  In a time of both hope and despair, tradition and change, these women find themselves trying to 'get a hold of their lives' by creating their own 'little pockets of freedom' through some of the most notable works of fiction from Nabokov to Fitzgerald to James to Austen.

A former university professor of literature in Tehran, Azar Nafisi, decides to embark on a project to bring a few of her brightest and most diverse students together to discuss major works of western literature.  The context of the country called for this most interesting gathering, but also the character of the professor and of the girls inevitably manifested into such a transition from the university to the home.

During the time of the story, life in Tehran was a prison for most of the youth, a revolution for others, and an in-between tradition and change for others.  'Female students were being penalized for running up the stairs when they were late for classes, for laughing in the hallways, for talking to members of the opposite sex.'  There was no time for love and novels, they were undergoing a revolution.  It all stemmed from a political desire to be free from the 'Voice of America,' the western influence, the dead cultures, while trying to maintain a stable Islamic country full of its own rich traditions. Literary works were given no merit unless they were part of the ideology being spread by the Islamic Republic for the people.  Those who condemned literature could no longer distinguish fiction from reality.  'Our dear prosecutor has committed fallacy of getting too close to the amusement park.  He can no longer distinguish fiction from reality.' 'He leaves no space, no breathing room, between the two worlds.  He has demonstrated his own weakness: an inability to read a novel on its own terms.  All he knows is judgment, crude and simplistic exaltation of right and wrong.' The Islamic Republic of Iran was such a repressive state to the point that it left its youth generation with no past.  'Their memory was a half-articulated desire, something they had never had.  It was this lack, their sense of longing for the ordinary, taken-for-granted aspects of life, that gave their words a certain luminous quality akin to poetry.'  Individuals were made to feel irrelevant while at the same time providing them with a sense of false hope that ultimately leads them to escape into the world of these novels.

These are some of the strongest, courageous, resilient, and graceful young real women I have read about so far. Manna is 'one of those people who would experience ecstasy but not happiness.'  Sanaz has 'bought a Renault with the money she saved from her job only to have her older brother drive it.' Nassrin acts 'so confident that sometimes I forgot how vulnerable she really was under that tough-girl act.' Yassi is 'the real rebel,' 'Her rebellion did not stop there; she did not marry the right suitor at the right time and instead insisted on leaving her hometown of Shiraz to go to college in Tehran.... In one sense it was more limited than her home, where she was blessed with a loving and intellectual environment.  The loss of that love and warmth had caused her many sleepless nights in Tehran.  She missed her parents and family, and she felt guilty for the pain she had inflicted on them.' And Razieh 'was such a strange mixture of contradictory passions.  She was bitter and determined, stern and tough, and yet she loved novels and writing with a real passion.  She said she did not wish to write but to teach.  She was an inarticulate writer.' I thought she selected some of the finest girls to tell stories.  Aside from their religious and ethnic diversity they were all brought together for the mere fact that they were all 'what you would call loners, who did not belong to any particular group or sect.  I admired their ability to survive not despite but in some ways because of their solitary lives.'

A lot of great things unfold through the book.  I want to briefly mention some of them.  The book wouldn't be much without the effects books have on us.  I've already mentioned that these women felt a sense of 'freedom' through their books during such a repressive state of the country.  The journey of fiction was a discovery of their selves and their reality.  It offered them a way to tell their own story through a fictional story.  Most of these young women overcame most of their fears and helplessness by an open and distant conversation from the reality outside.  The works of fiction offered them the 'epiphany of truth' with a mixture of humbleness as the 'best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted.' They learned that these novels weren't just about the ideas and themes throughout them, but it was also about the the context in which they were written about.  In the time of a regime who was far from empathic and too ruthless with its doctrines and ideology, these women saw 'empathy at the heart of the novels' replacing the missing link from their world.  And of course, the women learned slowly to discuss and resolve the political versus the personal aspects of their lives.

I'll begin with how Nabokov was relevant to their lives.  What Nabokov accomplished with 'Invitation to a Beheading' was the texture of life in a totalitarian society, where the world is full of illusionary promises, and the line between savior and executioner is extremely blurry .  What prevents his heroes and heroines from utter despair and provides a refuge from a life that is consistently brutal to the soul and spirit is the shadow of another world only attainable through fiction.

'It is not actual physical pain and torture of a totalitarian regime but the nightmarish quality of living in an atmosphere of perpetual dread. Cincinatus C. is frail, he is passive, he is a hero without knowing or acknowledging it; he fights with his instincts, and his acts of writing are his means of escape.  He is a hero because he refuses to become like all the rest.'

'written from the point of view of the victim, one who ultimately sees the absurd sham of his persecutors and who must retreat into himself in order to survive.'

Nabokov's 'Lolita' is by far the most impressive relationship to the life in Tehran, and the most touching.  I have not read 'Lolita' yet, so I can't say much on the part of this novel.  Reading about it in this book, though, left me wanting to pick it up soon.  I just want to list a few of the most representative quotes of where 'Lolita' stands in the lives of these women in Tehran.

'What linked us so closely was this perverse intimacy of victim and jailer.'

Like my students, Lolita's past comes to her not so much as a loss but as a lack, and like my students, she becomes a figment in someone else's dream.'

'Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story.  As such, she becomes a double victim: not only her life but also her life story is taken from her.  We told ourselves we were in that class to prevent ourselves from falling victim to this second crime.' 

One last note on Nabokov.  I haven't read anything by this great Russian writer, but he will definitely be on my list sometime soon.  The author mentions something really powerful about Nabokov, that I thought I would never read about an incredible notable work of fiction, but I find such a great truth in this, and so I have no doubt Nabokov is one of the greats.  When I think of fairy tales I think of the stories we tell our children to make them stronger, more ready to embark on the journey we call 'life.'  Fiction, is fairy tales for the adults. Just as children we find strength, courage, and curiosity in a great work of fiction giving us the freedom reality denies us sometimes, and prepares us to continue along the path of 'life' more hopeful and less fearful.

'Every fairy tale offers the potential to surpass present limits, so in a sense the fairy tale offers your freedoms that reality denies.  In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance.  This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world.  Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration of an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors, and infidelities of life.... this is why we love Madame Bovary and cry for Emma, why we greedily read Lolita as our heart breaks for its small, vulgar, poetic and defiant orphaned heroine.'

The chapter on Gatsby was definitely a full load.  It brings up the question of morality and honesty.  Gatsby's life deals with his romantic delusions for Daisy, the colossal illusion of his life.  'Gatsby is ultimately betrayed by the 'honesty of his imagination.'  He dies, for in reality no such person can survive.' So I kept thinking, what would like in Tehran have to do with this novel?  Tehran's is about a revolution, and Gatsby is about this love-sickened story of a romantic dreamer.  Well the author couldn't have put it better, I saw it perfectly clear after I read this passage.

'What we in Iran had in common with Fitzgerald was this dream that became our obsession and took over our reality, this terrible, beautiful dream, impossible in its actualization, for which any amount of violence might be justified or forgiven.  This was what we had in common, although we were not aware of it then.' 'how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby's.  He wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future.  Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream?'
Lastly, I want to briefly talk about James and Austen.  James, apparently, is one of those authors who gives his characters an unhappy ending and yet an 'aura of victory.'  Whereas Austen is the opposite, she focuses so much on the character's happiness and finalizes her novels with a happy ending.  What James' characters posses is a 'high degree of their own sense of integrity that for them, victory has nothing to do with happiness.  It has more to do with a settling within oneself, a movement inward that makes them whole.'  Austen's happiness is exactly the opposite, outwardly.  Having read about this, I think I must read Jame's novels in order to overpower some of my empty residues left by Austen. 

Another dimension of Jame's characters is that they possess different types of courage, but 'the most courageous characters are those with imagination, those who, through their imaginative faculty, can empathize with others.  When you lack this kind of courage, you remain ignorant of others feelings and needs.' 

Overall, this is an excellent book.  The hardships of life frequently challenge our souls and spirit.  While some may cope with those struggles outwardly, as the characters from Jane Austen, there are many, like myself, who cope and use literature, inwardly and through expression and conversation, to travel through life just as these women did in this book in Tehran. I found it fascinating how timeless these great classics are that even someone so far removed from their culture would associate and relate to the context and ideas behind them, to the extent that it created a platform for them to have a voice, to tell their story.  

Books Give us A Freedom to Have a Voice! 
Human universals are the most beautiful aspects of humanity!

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